New Album ‘Checkmate’ and Expectations – Billboard
Written by GRB on 15/07/2022
There are two sides to being a globally acclaimed, uber-popular, zeitgeist-defining K-pop supergroup. On one hand, there are music videos that rake in views by the millions, world tours that attract fans in droves, awards that cement said zeitgeist-defining legacy into plaques of gold and silver – all of which are second nature to ITZY at this point. The other side is a little more complex.
Since their explosive debut with “Dalla Dalla” in 2019, the five members of ITZY – Yeji, Ryujin, Lia, Yuna, and Chaeryeong – have championed the cause of unabashedly owning your identity and self-expression. With electrifying electro-pop as the base, their releases sizzle and crackle with the fresh, vibrant vigor of youth. Energy bubbles through catchy beats and dissipates into their signature sharp choreography. Vivid colors pop, creating a surreal fever-dream which moves from one panel to another with vertigo-inducing speed.
Holding it all together is a consistent message of self-love and confidence, at this point so deeply ingrained into ITZY’s artistic tapestry that it’s become their ethos. Rifle through their carnivalesque releases and you’ll come out celebrating your differences, loving your flaws, and not giving a damn about what others think or say about you. For the duration of an ITZY song, you absolutely and irrevocably love and accept yourself.
Sometimes, even ITZY need to revisit their own songs to feel that love and acceptance — especially when, most days, they exist in the bubble of expectations. “We’re out in society fairly young.” Yuna said in ITZY’s 2020 video, “Letters to MIDZY,” in which the group addressed the impact online hate had on them. “Sometimes, there’s a lot of pressure, and I get really stressed – but it’s hard to express it no matter how hard it gets, especially because I am not the only one.”
Discussing the group’s fifth mini-album Checkmate (out this Friday, July 15) over Zoom with Billboard, Yeji states: “ITZY are always confident.” She means to explain the cornerstone of the act’s philosophy, but given the context of the conversation and group’s latest offering, one wonders whether her words eventually turn into casual assumptions about the group. The word “always” implies that the group’s armor is impenetrable, that they’re ‘always’ on top of their game. The idea of ITZY, by virtue of their profession and ethos, precedes the group itself. In this grand, neon-laden vision, ITZY stand tall as paragons of self-love, leading us towards a world without perceived flaws.
Ironically, that very implication also makes them equally vulnerable. Ideas leave little space for humanity. It’s easy to think of them as monoliths – perfect and perfectly confident – and with a label like that, expectations soon follow.
On ‘Sneakers’, the lead single from Checkmate, the group falls back on their characteristic energetic sound to break free of the shackles of these expectations, inner and outer. Perfection is a box sealing in their potential, and ‘Sneakers’ sees ITZY take a glittering hammer and smash it to smithereens. (‘Glittering’ being the keyword here, since the concept art shows the members as prim, proper princesses decked out in bejeweled gowns and seated on elaborate thrones.)
Despite their apparent status and power, the rules of their position are unspoken but evident, keeping them caged inside a dazzling prison until they throw caution to the wind and decide to break free. Let the chips fall where they may – they’ll be out here ditching the high heels and running full-speed towards their dreams with their sneakers on.
“The reason why ‘Sneakers’ is the title is because they’re one of the things that represent that freedom and joyful feeling,” Lia tells Billboard of the lead single. “[We are] talking about what we usually talk about – being ourselves and being confident – but this time we focus more on being free. I think when you are truly free, that’s when you could really find your true self. That’s where you feel the most comfortable, right?”
“Sneakers” grabs on to that liberation promptly, with marching beats warming us up for the big launch. Against a groovy rat-tat of drums, the group readies themselves – “put my sneakers on, Tie ‘em up, ready, get, set, go” – and proudly takes control: “Don’t need no guidance. I’m making my way, I’m on my way up.”
Matching ITZY’s zany energy step for perfectly coordinated step, it’s a motivating anthem and a self-help pep-talk rolled into one. As concerns about coming off as a “weirdo” or “trouble” are left behind in the dust, it’s as much a reassurance for ITZY as it is for their fans.
“I think that the idea of being yourself is very wide – there are so many things we relate to,” Lia says of the track, which dismisses not just external expectations but also how “we set limits to ourselves, without even noticing.”
The momentum on ‘Sneakers’ only multiplies as we go deeper into the album. Thanks to the low-pitched proclamations on ‘Rac3r’, the group’s bravado seems amplified. On ‘What I Want’ – the representative song of Checkmate due to its “ITZY-like” nature, according to Yeji – the group rap frenetically over hip-hop instrumentation that never falters.
Yuna and Chaeryeong are partial to ‘Domino’, however. Comparatively slower in tempo and allowing the group to expand their vocal work, the track became an instant favorite for Chaeryeong.
Yuna adds: “[‘Domino’] describes the relationship not only among [the members of] ITZY, but also [between] ITZY and MIDZY (their fans) very well through the lyrics. I think this song also shows all the process we came through to release this album.”
“Being comfortable in your shoes,” as the group puts it, is an alluring idea, but they’re not above admitting that it’s easier said than done. They’re no strangers to pressure – “for me, the pressure helps me do more, dance more, or [present] better stages,” counters Ryujin – but as these adjectives become synonymous with who they are, there is little room for days when you’re not feeling up to it.
“A few years ago, I used to be more unstable,” Lia recalls. “[It wasn’t] only confidence. I was unstable because I was very unsure of myself. I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was right or correct. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing at that time. I was doing what I [could] do – like at my best – but I didn’t know exactly where I was heading.”
The imagery of Checkmate reflects this instability. The exquisite dresses and lavish decor might imply abundance, but underneath the glam is the thirst for something more, far removed from societal expectations, perhaps even flawed – or human. Fortunately for ITZY, they’ve never lost touch with that side, thanks to each other.
“During ‘Dalla Dalla’, our debut, for example, even if everyone liked us and liked our songs, I would still feel unstable at the time, no matter what – I didn’t relate to the theme and the love,” Lia offers, before adding what changed: “Now, I think it’s more about me feeling that I have a team. I have my fans. I know where I belong.”
It’s easy to spot the sisterhood that comprises the core of ITZY’s humanity. It’s as evident on calls as it is on screen – while Lia leads through most of the interview, she deflects to Yeji seamlessly. Ryujin’s calm energy is a contrast to Yuna’s excitable charm, and when the shy Chaeryeong speaks, the others silently encourage her and help her out.
From their genesis, this interpersonal bond has been the strongest pillar in their foundation, often wondrous to watch as it unfolds on stage. The lightning speed of thought transference among them is par with their smooth choreography – a fluvial transition of personal relationships into professional ones.
“The other members help me a lot,” Chaeryeong says. “They give me a lot of positive energy, support me, and give me advice.”
“Everyday, I feel grateful for my [fellow] members,” Yuna says. For her, it’s a comfort to know that even among the busy days, she’ll always have support: “Leaning on each other, I feel like I’m not alone. I am really grateful that I have someone.”
It’s especially important in the context of their hyper-online existence, where opinions shift and multiply at the speed of light. Sometimes, as Ryujin mentioned in “Letters to MIDZY,” even the compliments seem backhanded.
“We practice for performances a lot… like a lot.” She said, “And when the audience watches it, people compliment us saying: ‘Your performance looks difficult for a girl group. It looks straining for a girl group. It’s too cool to be a girl group.’ These don’t exactly sound like compliments to me.”
It’s part and parcel of being an idol, and they try not to let it get to them. But they’re only human.
“We all know that we have to have that mindset, but we know that it’s really hard when it comes to reality.” Lia says over Zoom. “You try to ignore it. You know it’s wrong. We know that. What haters say or what other people say – we know that they’re not a hundred percent true, but we still get hurt. It’s really not controllable.”
In these moments, they lean on each other, combining the promised freedom and self-assurance of their songs with friendship that’s stood the test of time. “The other members help. We tell that member: ‘No, don’t listen to that. You’re not like that. We are the ones who know you the best. It’s not them,’” Lia says. “I think that’s really nice because [the haters] are not the ones that know me. I have my close ones here, and they’re telling me that I’m a better person.”
The closest descriptor she gets to is “family,” and even that pales in comparison: “Although families are [usually] the closest person, they could listen to you, but they can’t [a] hundred percent relate to you because they haven’t been in your shoes.”
To them, it’s about shared life experience, of which they have plenty – the good and the bad. The group is surprisingly precocious in acknowledging that being more than family does not give them license to disregard boundaries, feelings, or opinions. Middle grounds have to be worked for, and the mic has to be passed on.
Lia explains: “We have this thing… it’s like a cute word for that kind of [bonding] moment. We didn’t want to make it too deep and too emotional, because we don’t want to hurt anyone. It’s very easy to hurt someone’s feelings when we’re dealing with that kind of stuff, so we wanted to make that middle ground. We decided to call it–”
“–Doran-doran (도란 도란).” Their voices chime, and laughs bubble.
“I’ve noticed that all of our members are very caring and also very careful at the same time,” Lia muses. “We might have different personalities, but no one is going to ignore other people. For example, if Chaeryeong has something to say, she’s not the type of person who just goes out and just says it. We know that, so we try to make that atmosphere where everyone can talk about what they feel.”
“We’ve been together for a long time – four years now.” Ryujin says. “We work together. We eat together, we sleep together. We do everything together.”
While there is a sense of duty attached to it, it is an intuitive bond that’s settled deep into their bones, one of constant comfort and camaraderie. “We must know each other well to do the job well,” she continues. “I think that’s why we have a special bond, and that I think gave us great teamwork. Great teamwork goes to great stages.”