Epik High - Hon: Map the Soul

review - 04.06.2009 08:00

A bold step into the independent international music scene that doesn't disappoint.

Epik High, arguably the most influential modern Korean rap group, has after five albums gone independent of their record label, CJ Entertainment, and is now self promoting, manufacturing, and distributing their latest album Hon: Map the Soul. Although the physical copy of the album was delayed for international fans, the album's iTunes release was immediate and best of all slightly early. Hon: Map the Soul is a departure from conventional thought not only because it is self promoted and distributed, but because it is paired with a book billed by Epik High as the material companion to the music, which details the creative process Epik High and related artists use to create their music. Unlike a photo album or lyric booklet, this is a book translated into both English and Korean.

Hon: Map the Soul is to be Epik High's first international album; with roughly half the tracks sung in Korean, and half in English, it's an attempt to appeal to anyone and everyone. Adding yet another layer of interaction with the album, and with the artists creating it, Epik High launched mapthesoul.com, a social network and independent music store. The ideal of the album (or should it be called a movement?) is bold, and it is hard not to respect what Epik High has done; but is the music as bold as the concept of the album itself?

Hon: Map the Soul is a step back in time from Epik High's more recent musical styles. Instead of Lovescream's soft orchestral undertones, Pieces, Part One's electronica beats, or even the underground rebellious sound of Remapping the Human Soul, Hon: Map the Soul dials it back to a refreshingly classic take on rap. High Society and Map of the Human Soul, Epik High's first two albums, are the closest in style to Hon: Map the Soul. Instead of utilizing modern rap styles, voice synthesizers and sound boards, Epik High's classically styled take on the genre forgoes the superfluous and delivers on a simple formula: lyrics backed by beats. It's as simple as it sounds, and for all intents and purposes it works to amazing effect.

The first track on the album, Believe, is a diatribe against the established music hierarchy. Both Tablo and Mithra drive this song along. Believe's striking chorus chants "if I can, you can!" It's a purposeful first track, and one that embodies one of the themes in Hon: Map the Soul, that the individual can still succeed even in a world where the company has supplanted the individual. As Tablo said before the release of the album, "We Davids, through communication alone, can break the system built by giants!" Cipher, a short track beatboxed by DG, follows Believe, and starts a new trend in the album, that trend being yelling "map the soul dot com!" during the course of the song. This is forgivable, it's almost like an anti-piracy measure, or a watermark, but it doesn't manage to detract from the songs. Regardless, the beatbox will bring a smile to your face; the members of Epik High haven't lost their sense of humor (especially evident in their Customer Service skit).

Classic Epik High lyrics and beats are a similarly recurring theme in the album, in Top Gun especially, a charged and intense sounding track. It's probably the most high energy piece on the album, and it leaves its mark. It's a cool nostalgia trip for any long time Epik High fan. Paranoia is a lower, more somber track, balancing out the energy in Top Gun that too has its niche; it is probably the closest track, stylistically speaking, to Remapping the Human Soul, which is a good thing. London, a pure orchestral piece, is a palette cleanser with roots in Lovescream, Epik High's previous mini album. It's a soothing break before the album's heaviest hitting track, Free Music, hits with full force.

Free Music is brilliant. Rapped by Tablo and MYK, it's a full on classic rap piece, a modern take on nineties rap that will hook the listener from the first set of lyrics. The first two lines are drawn from the Breakdown B-Side on Pieces, Part One, and serve as a draw into the song as a whole. Part of the reason the sound will hook the listener, especially if you're an English speaker, is that it is entirely rapped in English. In pop music spoken language can make a negligible difference, but through Free Music Tablo and MYK really prove the importance of understanding a rap song. It might just be the level of Epik High's prose, or the proficiency in which they rap in English, but it makes a huge difference. It is quite reminiscent of Follow the Flow, from Epik High's third album Swan Songs, an all English rap piece that Free Music manages to surpass effortlessly. Like Believe, Free Music is a diatribe against modern rap culture and materialism, which makes it all the more impressive when the lyrics manage to avoid pretension while still sounding intelligent and thoughtful. The last track, 8 by 8 pt. 2, is a welcome nod to the first part on Epik High's fifth album, Pieces, Part One; if you missed the first part the second is just as good.

It is important to address the both versions of the title track, Map the Soul, at one time. This is the song Epik High chose to be the face of their album, a tender sounding and provocative love song recorded both in English and Korean. Yet, the songs are different, especially in their opening moments. Tablo's loud, strong intro in the Korean version is supplanted by a meandering rap by MYK in the English version. This highlights the fact that both songs were uniquely scripted for their respective languages. Unlike a typical pop style lyrical transmutation of Japanese into Korean (which often fails to hit the mark) the transition from Korean to English here is delicate and painstakingly done, and best of all it really sounds different, unique to its respective language. Map the Soul is the title track for a reason.

This album is as bold as the ideas driving it. If you've never listened to Epik High, Hon: Map the Soul is an incredible place to start. It's fan service, but for new listeners it's a prism. The linear span of Epik High's musical history filters into this album and diffuses into a spectrum of unique styles. Nearly every stylistic characteristic of Epik High's last five albums, repackages and mini album included, is represented in some fashion in Hon: Map the Soul. It's a gateway drug, prompting the listener to take a step back in time and explore what Epik High has done in the past; it's incredibly difficult to pull off. Yet, Epik High... they've managed to do it. Whether you've been following them since their inception, or you are a new listener altogether striving for something authentic and heartfelt in the largely corporate Korean music industry, this album won't disappoint in the slightest.

You can purchase the album from only one place: mapthesoul.com.
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