“Why do you keep studying me?” Mina asks in the opening line of TWICE‘s “Scientist”. In the song, which is the first track of their album Formula of Love: O+T=<3, TWICE sing that love should be simple and not made into a science. But honestly, how to blame anyone for wanting to understand what makes TWICE so magical? The Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese group is a fascinating case of an act achieving longevity in a competitive, fast-paced industry like K-pop. Just as intriguing is how they’ve stayed true to their brand while maturing their sound.
TWICE’s music has always been heavily performance-oriented. They were queens of mimicable choreographies that would go viral (like 2016’s “T.T.“) in a time when TikTok dances weren’t even a thing yet. One word to describe their music was “cute”. K-pop “cute concepts” (aegyo) were at the peak of their popularity when TWICE debuted. But ever since they put out their first single, “Like OOH-AHH(OOH-AHH하게)”, in 2015, no other K-pop group owned the cute concept like them.
Music-wise, TWICE have consistently released songs with interesting instrumentals, sometimes even quite experimental and unconventional. These arrangements would sometimes get overshadowed by the group’s charms that are more in-your-face: the easy melodies interpolated with chanting, and their sweet vocals, and repetitive lyrics full of alliteration. You’ll find these same tools in songs by many other K-pop groups but TWICE combined them in a way that sounds unique to them. These are the charms that laid the ground for TWICE to create a special musical identity. That identity still translates to their current music, even if, genre-wise, it sounds quite different than it used to be.
Formula of Love: O+T=<3 (2021) is the record where TWICE prove they can create music that stands on its own. Choreographies, visuals — all of these are a plus; the music is perfectly satisfying on its own. The album is a step forward into TWICE’s maturing process as artists. It also speeds up their transition from innocent, bubblegum songs to music that showcases them as determined women rather than shy girls.
This trajectory started in 2020, with “More & More” and had its apex in “I Can’t Stop Me” (also from 2020). The members embraced a more confident and sensual side in lyrics and attitude. At the same time, they kept their musical signature made of sweet, high-pitched vocals. The lyrics (to which members Jihyo, Dahyun, Chaeyoung, and Nayeon contributed) and melodies in Formula of Love: O+T=<3 sound much more inward. TWICE own their wants and needs.
If, in 2018, they asked, “What Is Love?“, in “Scientist”, they hold no insecurities about exploring love. If, in “Likey” (2017), they sang “I wanna be the prettiest / But still I hide my feelings inside”, in “Real You”, they accept their whole selves and ask for the same from their lover: “Can you just be sincere? / (…) I don’t know the real you / And I won’t hide the real me.” These lyrical parallels may be coincidences, but they connect with this new, more assertive phase of TWICE.
This change of angle is interesting to keep up with to fans and anyone else paying close attention to TWICE’s journey. But if all you want is to listen to good pop music, Formula of Love: O+T=<3 is for you too. The album transits into synthpop and disco-pop, with some casual touches of reggae-pop (“ICON”, “1, 2, 3”), R&B (“Rewind”), trap (“Hello”), and pop-rock (“Cactus”). It also features unit songs: “Push & Pull” is sung by Jihyo, Sana, and Dahyun; “Hello” is sung by Nayeon, Momo, and Chaeyoung; “1, 2, 3” is sung by Jeongyeon, Mina, and Tzuyu.
Instead of the ups and downs of TWICE’s older instrumentals (which used to be full of sections that experiment with different genres), the songs in Formula of Love: O+T=<3 have more groove and less variation. But curiously, the track that breaks this rule is the most interesting in the album: “Last Waltz”. The song starts with touches of salsa until the beat changes and gives place to an interpolation of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers”. Then, it breaks into hip-hop, featuring violins to channel the feeling of classical music that the song title suggests. It’s brilliant.
The rest of Formula of Love: O+T=<3 is just as good. The lack of experimentation doesn’t make it boring at all: actually, there is a standard of feel-good songs that they hold up to during the entire album. “Scientist” has fun lyrics and a danceable chorus, although it’s not explosive.
However, the more sophisticated side of TWICE’s music begins in the second track, “Moonlight”. The drum pattern, bassline, marimba, and percussions resemble soul-pop classics of the 1980s, like DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night”, or Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long”. The track was produced by the Stereotypes, who are experienced in making nostalgic pop like this. They are the production team who helped Bruno Mars craft his musical identity with songs like “That’s What I Like”, “24K Magic”, and “Finesse”. The team also have a solid career in Korea (produced Taemin’s “Press Your Number”, Red Velvet’s “Bad Boy”, and more). The percussion in “Moonlight” calls for dancing. Yet, TWICE’s vocals are quite controlled elegantly. They let the bounce of the song shine by itself. But they also make it prettier with their falsettos.
TWICE lets loose more in the next track, “ICON”. “Espresso” is one of the most fun tracks: the dramatic, catchy melodies of the chorus match the sassiness of its lyrics (the “coffee” in question can be interpreted with a sexual connotation). In the ballad “Cactus”, TWICE shows they’re no immature vocalists to anyone who ever thought they were. On the other hand, “Real You”, “F.I.L.A.”, and “Push & Pull” show them comfortably making disco-pop. It’s a sound that suits them and accommodates some of their melodic trademarks (such as the cute rap in the post-chorus of “Push & Pull”).
Formula of Love: O+T=<3 proves wrong anyone who ever thought of TWICE as one-dimensional or that their “cute” brand would limit them. The record makes several points about TWICE’s artistic maturity while delivering a feast to pop fans. It’s not an easy feat to sustain good, entertaining pop music during 15 tracks (plus one remix track) without fading into boredom. TWICE prove they’re more than capable.