The year 2018 saw new global records posted by Korean pop music, notably the boy group BTS becoming the first K-pop act to have albums reaching No. 1 in the Billboard Artist 100 Chart with “Love Yourself: Tear” in June and “Love Yourself: Answer” in September.
But the best K-pop album of 2018 was arguably “Outro” by Highlight, formerly known as Beast, one of the most dominant of second-generation K-pop acts that saw birth in the last decade such as Super Junior and Big Bang. Highlight is also one of the most acclaimed and dearly admired: BTS has disclosed Highlight has been its role model since it debuted in 2013.
Rebranding successfully as Highlight in 2017, the group has been acclaimed for its motivational songs (“Plz Don’t Be Sad,” “Can Be Better” and “Celebrate”), which seemed to allay the fears of its legions of fans worldwide about the uncertain fate of the group after it did not renew its contract with Cube agency in 2016 and forming its own, Around Us Entertainment.
Uncertainty continues to hound the group this year when the absolute age for Korea’s mandatory military enlistment was lowered by law from 30 to 28. (Korean males have to render at least 22 months of national service.) Fans were shocked when group leader Doojoon, who had turned 29 on July 2, was suddenly called to service on July 24, so that TvN had to rewrite the script of his popular foodie drama, “Let’s Eat 3,” and draw it quickly to a close.
Not surprisingly for a group whose members are admired for their closeness, the rest of Highlight later announced they would be enlisting together in 2019 and set their last concerts on November 24 and 25, 2018.
Highlight marked its ninth anniversary in October without the usual fanfare but surprised fans with the release of the audio track, “Take Care,” a touching ballad that seemed addressed to Doojoon. In the run-up to the concerts, they suddenly announced they would be releasing a mini-album, surprising again their fans.
Released on November 20, “Outro” is a farewell album that could help fans tide over the two years they would be missing Highlight. But departing from Highlight’s positive discography, the boys seem to return to their Beast roots, delivering song after song about heartache and separation.
Many fans have chosen to interpret positively the main carrier, “Loved,” but its brooding intensity is unmistakable. Although a dance track, it seems to have come in the tradition of Beast’s “dance ballads” such as “Midnight” (2012), “12:30” (2014) and “Ribbon” (2016).
Although the lyrics, including rapper Junhyung’s, eloquently speak of love’s loss, what distinguishes “Loved” is its nearly wordless chorus; in place of lyrics is a very striking electronic beat drop with piercing violin riffs. The rhythmic but searing strings and EDM recall those of Beast’s early 2014 Japanese track, “Sad Movie.”
Accompanying the single is a very striking music video which show Highlight members serving up the lyrics in various stages of loneliness then breaking into a stylishly choreographed dance routine during the chorus, distinguished by main dancer Kikwang in red hair and suit delivering his well-known sleek, flowing movements.
The second track, “Wind,” is a beautiful duet by main vocalist Yoseob and youngest member Dongwoon. The third track, “Leave It Alone,” is a bouncy duet by Junhyung and Kikwang and the fourth track, “Night Like Tonight,” is a vigorous solo by Doojoon which he recorded before enlistment, showing his very manly vocals. Fifth and last track is “Take Care,” displaying the four remaining members’ sensitive but powerhouse vocals for which Highlight is particularly known for. Very touching here are Kikwang’s and Dongwoon’s plaintive, lyrical vocals. Meanwhile Yoseob serves up effortlessly but dramatically a long piercing cry in the chorus bridge, underscoring again he’s without a doubt the best K-pop main vocalist.
Except for the second track, all of the songs are composed by the Good Life team of rapper-composer Junhyung and frequent collaborator Kim Taejoo. Except for the absent Doojoon, all members contributed to the lyrics, showing again why Highlight has the most consistently outstanding discography among K-pop acts, and why despite its coming enlistment and absence from the music scene for two years, it would remain a dominant creative force in K-pop.