It seems only fitting for an album released during the coronavirus pandemic to include a track called “End of the World.” And yet, the South Korean hip-hop trio Epik High actually started working on it before the pandemic, only for it to become much more relevant than expected. Good thing the group is no stranger to social commentary.
Tablo, fellow rapper Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz have quite the talent for making music that is simultaneously timeless and poignantly relevant — and they’ve been doing it for almost twenty years. In their latest full-length project, Epik High Is Here (Part 1), the group channeled the difficult and complicated emotions of the past year into an album that speaks directly from the heart.
The group initially raised eyebrows in 2003 with their debut album Map of the Human Soul due to its experimental production style and pointed lyrics that tackled taboo subjects in Korea. However, they quickly grew to be a significant influence on the Korean hip-hop scene, now boasting an impressively long career that shows no signs of stopping. Reaching their tenth album milestone, they’ve undoubtedly learned a lot over the past two decades — but as Tablo discusses in the Epik High Is Here Documentary, there are some things they wish they hadn’t.
Although their catalog includes tracks “Lesson One” through “Lesson Five,” that series ends here with the somber opener, “Lesson Zero.” A powerful track whose short length “said everything that needed to be said,” the stripped-down production lets Tablo’s English lyrics cut through. “No more lessons, please now I see the question to all answers / Will only bring me to my knees,” he raps. “And back to zero.”
Epik High aren’t here to teach this time, but by no means have they run out of things to say. On the contrary, Epik High Is Here proves that their perspective on life has only sharpened with age. And it’s not all doom and gloom, as exemplified by “Rosario,” a confident and exciting track adorned with some Spanish guitar flair. Joined by industry heavy-hitters CL and Zico, Tablo and Mithra trade verses about dealing with inner demons while also celebrating success in defiance of haters.
Notably, Tablo’s lyric “I paved the way / For everyone who is paving the way” is less of a boast and more a statement of fact. Members of BTS, the K-pop group who have taken the global music industry by storm, have repeatedly shared their admiration for Epik High and how their music influenced them as young musicians.
CL and Zico are not the only collaborators on Epik High Is Here — in traditional Epik High fashion, seven out of the ten tracks feature other talented artists, many of them partnering with the group for the first time. R&B singer Heize’s sweet, airy voice is perfect for the bittersweet “Based on a True Story,” a song with a message about heartbreak both collective and personal. Unusually, the instrumental does not include drums, using only lyrical piano and string melodies to create a waltzing, dream-like feel.
Of course, rappers are featured, too — Woo, Nucksal, and Changmo all contribute to “In Self-Defense,” whose gritty, hard-hitting beats underscore verse after verse delivered with barely time for a breath. Appearing at the midpoint, this track stands out for its depiction of a deep-seated anger at the injustices and unfairness of the world. Such feelings have undoubtedly been heightened during the pandemic, which Tablo and Mithra later address on the short-but-to-the-point “Social Distance 16”:
Quarantine, we in quarantine / The industry makes me sick and there’s no vaccine.”
Not only are Epik High unafraid to confront societal pressures, but they are candid with their internal struggles as well. On “Wish You Were,” Tablo opens up about his mental health and how the last few years of “pouring rain” made him content to be a stay-at-home dad to his young daughter Haru. And Tablo clearly treasures fatherhood, as he details during the nostalgically thoughtful “Leica (ft. Kim Sawol)”:
I’m proud of myself, proud of myself
Makin’ my tenth full-length on my daughter’s tenth
Got her arms around my neck, no chains
This gold, none of y’all can flex.”
By the last two tracks, listeners have run the emotional gamut from the soulful confessions of romantic regrets on “True Crime (feat. Miso)” to the aggressive confrontations of the group’s past struggles with public scrutiny on “Acceptance Speech (feat. B.I.).”
But Epik High saved the best for last with “End of the World,” a haunting cinematic soundscape that features the rich and emotive voice of R&B artist G.Soul. Its placement was deliberate, as Tablo explained in the Epik High Is Here Documentary:
“The concluding message of this album is, it really does feel like the end of the world sometimes and we are living in uncertainty and fear, but if it’s the end, let’s love each other like it. Let’s live like it. […] That’s what Epik High is really about.”