Chung Ha Affirms Her Authentic Self on Querencia

Image courtesy of MNH Entertainment

On stage, K-pop soloist Chung Ha radiates confidence and charisma, but off stage, she’s not afraid to be emotionally vulnerable — both with her fans and with herself. That duality is at the core of her album Querencia, named for a Spanish concept meaning “the source of one’s strength.” Ambitious and genre-defying, Chung Ha’s first full-length project gives her the freedom to explore and experiment in a way that few artists in her industry have.

A concept she learned about in therapy, “querencia” has a very personal meaning to the 25-year-old singer. In the intro track, she describes it as “where my desires are protected” and “[my] authentic self.” Amidst the past year’s turbulent ups and downs, Chung Ha found refuge in the album production process, telling Nylon that “working on this album itself gave me the strength to move forward and gave me a sense of stability. So I named it Querencia.” At just over an hour long, the project proves that her desires were not only protected, but allowed to flourish, with a diverse collection of tracks that range from wistful indie rock to the energetic dance beats of reggaetón.

A top-notch dancer with an impressive voice and electrifying stage presence, Chung Ha made her debut as a solo singer in 2017 after rising to fame as a member of project girl group I.O.I. After releasing a series of successful EPs, she began promotions for Querencia in April of 2020 with the pre-release single “Stay Tonight.” A catchy disco pop number with house elements and a crisp bass line, the track successfully heightened excitement and anticipation among fans. However, the album’s production was plagued by setbacks, including the singer’s own positive test for COVID-19 in December that postponed the release for a final month.

The sixteen full-length songs on Querencia show both Chung Ha’s ambition and versatility. The lead single, “Bicycle,” is a feisty combination of singing and rapping with a self-assuredness reminiscent of Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.” Continuing in the pop realm are the upbeat “Masquerade” and “Luce Sicut Stellae,” which both feature Latin-influenced percussion. “Flying on Faith,” an all-English language number about a lover struggling to move on from his ex-girlfriend, balances snappy electric guitar with a crunchy EDM chorus.

Thanks to her recent signings with the labels 88rising and ICM Partners, Chung Ha is uniquely positioned to push K-pop further into the global market. Nowhere is this clearer than on “Demente,” which features Puerto Rican rising star Guaynaa. One of the first major collaborations between the Korean and Latin music industries, this song stands out both for its bright reggaetón feel and Chung Ha’s impressive Spanish accent, which she honed through weeks of coaching.

As emphasized by “Demente,” collaborations are essential to this album’s diverse exploration of genres. Dutch DJ and record producer R3HAB helped create “Dream of You,” a bold, sensual number with a dance to match, while singer-songwriter SUMIN was behind the classy production and shimmering synths of “Bother Me.” The laid-back “Lemon” features indie artist Colde as both singer and lyricist, and the vibrant “Play” features a punchy rap verse by Changmo.

While the first half of the album is packed with energy, allowing Chung Ha to flex both her singing and dancing skills, the second half showcases her gentler, more introspective side. “X,” co-created with indie band The Black Skirts, is a nostalgic rock ballad with dreamy vocals, although the instrumentals unfortunately overwhelm her voice at times. The heartfelt and thoughtful “Byulharang,” named for her fans, features a calming acoustic guitar and reassures listeners that “It’s okay not to be fine.”

Though each track has its individual strengths, the album stumbles slightly when putting them together. Instrumental interludes are inserted periodically to group the songs into four “sides” — Noble, Savage, Unknown, and Pleasures — but these are largely ineffective. While it’s a good idea in theory to divide up such a large album, these brief interludes aren’t convincing transitions in style or mood, leaving the listener simply waiting for the next song. Perhaps grouping the slower tracks in with the faster ones could have led to a more dynamic presentation.

As a whole, Querencia proves that it was worth the long wait, playing up Chung Ha’s strengths while also letting her branch out and giving a deep picture of who she is as an artist. And she’s not slowing down, telling Billboard that new music is already in the works. “[I’m] just trying a lot more experimental things that I haven’t done, and seeing what happens.”

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