By: Hannah Waitt
moonROK Founder and Editor-in-chief
On October 21st, 2014 Epik High released their 8th studio album, “Shoebox” to the delight of hip-hop fans everywhere. Known for their lyrical intellect, dexterity with words, and innovative beats, Epik High has been long considered as one of Korea’s best rap/hip-hop groups and is one of my personal favorites. Their last album, “99,” was the group’s first release since signing with YG Entertainment, and to be frank, I was rather disappointed with it. While I liked the album, most of the songs sounded less like Epik High’s own songs and more like Epik High covering songs that were meant for 2NE1. Heck, “Don’t Hate Me” sounded like version 2.0 of 2NE1’s “Ugly,” and while Tablo recently stated that YG had no influence on the sound of their previous album, “99” sounded pretty darned YG-ified to me.
This being said, “Shoebox” is a return to Epik High’s roots, and it’s fantastic. The group sounds more like themselves than they have in years, fusing their signature old school Jurassic 5-like sound with modern hip-hop elements, allowing Epik High to stay relevant in today’s hip-hop scene while also getting back to the origin of their sound. The production of the album is, as expected, phenomenal, but where Epik High’s real charm lies is in their lyrics. Epik High is famous for their clever use of words and the poetic nature of their lyrics, and because it is hard to understand the true meaning of their songs without understanding the Korean language, this track-by-track review dissects the lyrics of each song to get at the real meaning and message of “Shoebox,” which is arguably the best and most aesthetically profound album of the year.
With its dramatic, lavish orchestral introduction, “Encore” feels more like the end of something than the beginning. Even when the beat drops and The Miracles’ “I Didn’t Realize the Show Was Over” sample kicks in, something about the song still feels like more of a curtain call than it does an introduction. The reasoning behind this sort of juxtaposition is found in the lyrics when Tablo raps “The World said ‘the show’s over’ with cold smiles and sneers, everyone pretending they can’t hear me, and I came through,” and Mithra Jin following up with “All you f**kers who stepped on us thinking we were corpses, f**k you, we back.” The instrumentation of the song sounds like exit music in order to reflect the view of the public that Epik High were done with their music careers, but as soon as the group starts rapping it becomes very evident that they are back in a big way. The track is definitely a cool and unexpected opener for the album.
2. Happen Ending (feat. Joe Won Sun)
“Happen Ending” is a classic breakup song. The song’s title and chorus is a play on the Korean word “haepeun” which is pronounced more or less the same as the English word “happen,” but actually means to be useless, wasteful, or dissolute. The cleverness of the phrase “Happen Ending” lies in that the expectant phrase is “Happy Ending,” but instead Epik High uses a play on words to indicate that the relationship is ending with a sense of worthlessness and wastefulness. In his verse Mithra Jin raps, “Alcohol, people, everything, I get drunk easily and leave messy endings, I get mad easily and ruin the fun,” equating his low tolerance and resultant drunken fervor to how easily he falls in love and his resultant surge of emotion. The Epik High members go on to talk about how they love too hard and end up being the only one hurt after the breakup, resulting in a feeling that their love and passion were wasted on a worthless cause. Joe Won Sun’s quiet and steady voice combined with her monotonous melody line lend an even more acute sense of apathy and indifference to the song, really hitting the song’s message home.
3. Rich (feat. Taeyang)
While this song has a very luxurious feel to it with its sweeping piano lines, do not be fooled into thinking that Epik High is literally saying they wish they were rich, as the chorus indicates. What Epik High is instead saying is that we allow our happiness to hinge far too heavily on money. In his verse Tablo raps, “Everyone places a price tag on their dreams, but no matter how much you spend, the shopping cart of your heart keeps growing,” expressing his belief that people shouldn’t measure their accomplishments by the amount of money that they have or how much they are able to spend, and that no matter how much they spend, their hearts will only grow greedier for more material things. Taeyang’s line, “for as much as you make, for as much as you spend, is you happy?” even further emphasizes the point that we miss out on life’s real happiness when we focus too much on money.
This song equates the imminent end of a relationship to a “spoiler” or teaser that you would watch or listen to before seeing the full movie. Like a spoiler, the relationship leaves Epik High wanting to see more despite the fact that it’s the end of the relationship. The instrumentation features a full orchestra that adds a dramatic element and lush texture into the song, while the beat remains a steady, almost funeral dirge-like march. In fact, the echoing beat that hits on the 2s and 4s of each measure feels like a clock ticking towards the end of something, in this case, the relationship. The entire song is a metaphor for the intuitive feeling that one gets when a relationship is about to end, the line “your mysterious sighs keep increasing, your fleeting heart is leaving with each sigh,” perfectly expressing that ominous feeling that something bad is about to happen.
Next to “Born Hater,” this is probably the album’s most dope track – you can’t help but bob your head as soon as the hardcore hip-hop beat begins. The track’s name comes from the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, which is the tallest building in the world. Epik High uses the building as a simile to describe how they’re on a higher level than anyone else in the rap game. Each rapper on the track continues the motif of being high by comparing their flows to drugs, with Tablo saying, “I’m sick, ill, dope, like the combination of a vic pill, coke, molly, Novocain, son, this is an Epik ‘High.’” Yankie and Gaeko’s raps also allude to a lot of drug use, using narcotics and being high as a metaphor for their own success as artists. Overall, the song is very fun to listen to and contains a great deal of lyrical creativity that is amusing to pick apart.
6. We Fight Ourselves (feat. Younha)
“We Fight Ourselves” is a solid B-side track on the album about the seemingly unending cycle of a couple’s fighting with each other. The lyrics explain how fighting with a lover is actually like fighting with yourself and how exhausting it can be to do so. The track has a very signature Epik High sound, with a simple minor piano line beneath a basic beat. Younha’s voice does a lot for the track; her soft vocals are juxtaposed with the harshness of the lyrics, creating an even more melancholy feel to the song.
7. Amor Fati (feat. Kim Jong Wan)
This is one of the darker tracks on “Shoebox.” “Amor fati” is a Latin phrase that means “love of one’s fate” and expresses an attitude in which one believes that everything that happens in life – including suffering, hardship, and misery – is good because they are a part of one’s existence, and thus necessary to existence itself, whether one likes it or not. In other words, one must be willing to accept reality without compromise and be content with it, and the lyrics of Epik High’s “Amor Fati” certainly reflect this belief. With phrases like, “Fate carries life and the mission,” and “God doesn’t love me,” the group expresses their belief in reality rather than the divine and their acceptance that with the good must come the bad. Epik High further rejects divine power by expressing belief in and acceptance of reality in the chorus, saying, “I believe in myself, I believe in the sweat on my hands, I believe in my heart, I believe in love, But they call me a non-believer.” Kim Jong Wan’s voice adds a certain sense of desperation and suffering to the song that Epik High reconciles with their lyrics, making the music itself an embodiment of the ideals of “amor fati.”
With a dirty synth and infectious beat, “Born Hater” is one of the catchiest tracks on the album. The song contains an impressive lineup of featuring artists, including Beenzino, Verbal Jint, Mino of WINNER, and B.I and Bobby of soon-to-debut group iKON. If anything, the song solidifies the veterans on the track as the greats of rap while also introducing the new faces of Korean rap. Bobby and Mino both display an exceptionally impressive prowess that is beyond their years when it comes to dexterity with their rhymes and ability to stay in pocket, setting them up as two of rap’s rising greats in Korea. The message of “Born Hater” is pretty standard for a rap tune in that the lyrical content can basically be summed up in three words: “F**k the haters.” Each rapper takes a turn at dissing and dismissing all of their haters. Overall, the track is an absolute jam that really tees up Bobby, B.I, and Mino for epic futures as rap artists, and I love that Epik High included them on the track and gave them this sort of opportunity to be seen outside of their idol groups and as a part of a group of distinguished artists.
9. Lesson 5 (Timeline)
“Lesson 5” is another solid B-side track but certainly not a standout. With a vibed-out anesthetic synth track, the song is both philosophic and hypnotic all at once. Lyrically, the song consists of Epik High questioning the blurry morality of humanity as they talk about all of the conflicting opinions and beliefs that we all hold, which is what lends to the philosophic feel of the song. The phrase “we got no answers” is constantly repeated in a swirl of overlapping confusion, creating a sense that the listener is falling into a hypnotic state of sedation, a sense that is heightened by the pulsing synth in the background. Overall the song is solid and very representative of Epik High’s sound, and is a smooth track that helps transition out of “Born Hater” and into the happy-go-lucky “Life is Good.”
10. Life Is Good (feat. Jay Park)
“Life Is Good” is a great follow-up to “Born Hater” and I almost wish that they had placed the track directly after “Born Hater” instead of sticking “Lesson 5” in between. The song is such a great sequel to “Born Hater” because it talks about how the best revenge is living well. One of my favorite lines from this song is when Tablo says, “My smiling family looks way better than the blood tears of my enemy,” because it so perfectly encompasses his own personal struggle with haters. For those who are unaware, Tablo was a victim of the most intense sort of anti-fans in K-pop history. An anti-Tablo fanclub called TaJinYo (who Tablo gives a special shout-out to on “Born Hater”) started a rumor that Tablo had faked his diploma from Stanford University. Before long, the online membership of TaJinYo grew to nearly 200,000 users. People were so angry with Tablo that they began persecuting his family, even calling his house and emailing him to make death threats to him and his entire family after his personal contact information was discovered and published on the TaJinYo site. Epik High’s then-agency Woollim Entertainment more or less completely abandoned the group, making no statement about the accusations and doing nothing to help legally.
Tablo eventually took an entire MBC camera crew to Stanford where he proved live on national television that he was indeed a student there and that he had received his diploma. Tablo had to live in constant fear for nearly a year while this all went down, and stayed underground for years after before finally signing with YG Entertainment in 2011 and releasing some of the darkest, most depressing (but also most artistically astounding) material that he has ever produced. All of this is exactly why I love this song so much. It’s amazing to see Tablo and all of Epik High come out on the other side of one of the biggest witch hunts K-pop has ever seen with the attitude that “even if reality is ugly, life is beautiful” as Mithra Jin puts it so well in this track.
11. Eyes, Nose, Lips (feat. Taeyang)
Tablo’s cover of Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips” was released as part of a YG cover project quite some time ago, and the cover is very reminiscent of Tablo’s style from his solo album “Fever’s End.” While the original song has a more melancholy feel to it, Tablo’s version has an aggressively angry message with lines like, “You wish me well, I wish you hell.” Tablo’s lyricism is poetic and on point as per usual and in fact, the song almost feels more like spoken word than it does like rap at times. “Eyes, Nose, Lips” is a solid filler track on the album, but not one of my favorites.
12. Shoebox (feat. MYK)
“Shoebox” is a phenomenal track to end the album with. The song is about Epik High finishing with work and returning home, where they place their worn-out shoes into the shoebox. In most Asian cultures, people do not wear their shoes inside the house and thus, when you get home and see someone’s shoes in the shoebox, you know that that someone is home and waiting for you. On the surface, the song might just sound like someone returning home to a lover, but Tablo throws in a clever line, saying “The sweat of 365 days is for you, how can I leave out a single day?” In Korean, the word for “one day” is “Haru,” the name of Tablo’s daughter, which gives the line the double meaning of “The sweat of 365 days is for you and Haru.” In fact, if you listen closely, you can hear Haru saying “appa” or “daddy” at the very end of the track, as if she is running to Tablo, welcoming him home as he walks in the door. The song ends with the repeated lines, “Uphill roads and downhill roads, I’ll take off my worn out shoes now, leaving my footsteps and footprints in this shoebox here.” This phrase brings the entire album to a close with Epik High saying, I’m leaving everything – my work, my worries, my fears, my struggles, my past – all at the door with my shoes, and I’m coming home to be with you.
The shoebox metaphor goes one level deeper when you consider that the entire album is titled “Shoebox.” Within this album is everything that Epik High has experienced outside of their homes; their fears and their triumphs, their haters and their fans, their breakups and their makeups, their lows and their highs. In the same way that all of one’s footsteps and footprints are placed into a shoebox along with their worn-out shoes, Epik High has placed their wealth of experiences and emotions into this album, and as a result, have created an epic piece of art that will be listened to and appreciated by generations to come.
Tags: B.I Beenzino Bobby DJ Tukutz Epik High Gaeko iKON Joe Won Sun Kim Jong Wan Mino Mithra Jin Shoebox Tablo Taeyang Verbal Jint WINNER Yankie Younha