As the reigning queens of K-pop, there’s a lot riding on Blackpink’s sophomore album. The girl group would be forgiven for playing it safe, but they defy expectations on “Pink Venom” (out now) by touching on timely topics, adding a certain F-word to their vocabulary, and sprinkling in slow jams. Assisting Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé and Lisa with the pivot is an eclectic batch of collaborators, who are now lifting the veil on the creative process.
Bekuh Boom — aka singer-songwriter Rebecca Rose Johnson — has been with Blackpink since the beginning. Literally. “I met them when they were still trainees,” she remembers. “We had the same Korean teacher.”
In 2012, Boom was in Seoul pursuing her own artist deal and was connected with Blackpink via YG Entertainment. Before long, she had co-written their debut singles “Whistle” and “Boombayah.” As an original collaborator, it’s only fitting that Boom returns for “Pink Venom,” which represents both a sonic and thematic rebirth. On “Typa Girl,” the group sounds fiercer and more unapologetic than ever before, hyping themselves up over blistering hip-hop/pop production. “I bring money to the table, not your dinner,” they sing. “Both my body and my bank account got figure.”
“It’s a song to empower women,” Boom says of the track. “When I hear it, I feel like the shit — and I want other women to hear it and feel that way too.” She wrote the original demo at Teddy Park’s (the group’s go-to producer) Black Label studio last year and didn’t know if it would even be released. “I thought Lisa might use it for her next solo single,” the Orange County native says, “but I’m super happy that it’s going to be on the album.”
While Boom is part of the family at this point, she doesn’t take it for granted: “It’s a blessing to always get asked back.” She feels a personal connection with Blackpink and enjoys K-pop’s creative process. “In South Korea, there’s a lot more respect for the writers and producers to get their moment to shine,” Boom says of the difference between working there and in the U.S. “If somebody didn’t do something, their name isn’t going to be on it.”
Another Blackpink collaborator is Brian Lee, better known in the U.S. as a regular contributor to songs by Post Malone (he played — and slayed — bass for Post’s all-Nirvana, at-home concert during the pandemic). He’s also something of a fixture in their camp, and “Tally,” the song he co-wrote for “Pink Venom,” is different from anything the group has released in the past. “I say fuck it when I feel it, ‘cause no one’s keeping tally I do what I want with who I like,” the quartet begins over a woozy guitar arrangement. “I ain’t gonna conceal it, when you’re talking all that shit I’ll be getting mine.”
Until very recently, it would have been unthinkable for a K-pop act to record an ode to sexual freedom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, two of Lee’s co-contributors are women. Australian songwriter Nat Dunn played the demo for him in London and Lee immediately saw the potential. “I just told them that the melody has to pull on your heartstrings in the pre-chorus,” he remembers. “But it was Nat’s baby.”
“I was just obsessed with it,” Dunn affirms. The song was inspired by co-writer Soraya LaPread, who brought up the subject in a session with production duo Salt Wives. “Judgment is something that a lot of women come across,” Dunn adds. “These lyrics are so impactful coming from them.” David Phelan and Alex Oriet, the artists behind Salt Wives, agree. “We can’t imagine an act who better embodies its [defiant] message than Blackpink.”
However, the track wasn’t specifically written with the K-pop idols in mind. “We weren’t really shooting for Blackpink,” Lee says. “It was a surprise when we found out it’s on their album.” While other artists showed interest, Dunn knew that Blackpink was the right choice. “The song is the star in any room,” she asserts. “The choice is always about what is best for the song. And in this case, Blackpink was the best for this song.”
Lee eventually played “Tally” for Park, who effectively oversaw everything “Pink Venom,” and the producer hand-picked it for the group. “He’s the pioneer of K-pop,” Lee says. “Teddy transformed K-pop to just mean pop. He made it universal.”
Park was also instrumental in choosing another standout, “Hard To Love,” for the album. Arguably, Blackpink’s most vulnerable song to date, the disco-tinged anthem finds the quartet baring their flaws.
“When it feels too good, I just fuck it up,” Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé and Lisa belt on the chorus. “So don’t fall too hard, ‘cause I’m hard to love.” Quite the striking sentiment after taking into consideration the aspirational quality that informs the music and aesthetic of K-pop.
Songwriter-entrepreneur Freddy Wexler conjured “Hard To Love” during a jam session with friends. He sent the demo to Park and was surprised to hear back the very next day.
“I got a FaceTime call and it’s Teddy, Lisa and Rosé” Wexler recalls. While there’s a regimented approach to K-pop, he described “Hard To Love” as an overwhelmingly organic — and fast — process. “I pitched it in June this year,” Wexler says. Over the next month, he would FaceTime with Park and the group, who suggested tweaks. “I would change the key and Blackpink would just sing it back.”
Wexler was intimidated at first. “Music is almost a religious experience for K-pop fans, so there’s a pressure to deliver something that is worthy,” he says. “Hard To Love,” however, turned out better than he could’ve ever imagined. “Generally, it’s never as good as it was in your head,” he prefaces, “this was an exception.” While Blackpink has mastered catchy pop hooks and glossy promotion, they go deeper on “Hard To Love” — showcasing their vulnerability and raw emotion, unlike anything they’ve done before.
That newfound maturity is at the core of the K-Pop group’s growth as artists, and further asserts their knack for picking committed collaborators. “I never sit down to write a K-pop song,” Boom says. “I just sit down to write a great pop song.”
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Originally published at variety.com