When Baek Ji Young first announced her 2013 comeback plans, I was relieved to hear that it would be with a ballad. Her cheap electro-pop tracks can be a lot of fun, but Ji Young is always better when she’s wailing about unrequited love and heartbreak, and that’s really all thanks to her voice. The sheer strength of it combined with her virtually unmatched emotional range has earned her the title of Korea’s Queen of Ballads, and allowed her to last in the biz for over thirteen years — almost a lifetime by K-pop standards.
For her new single, “I Hate It”, Ji Young has linked up with world-renowned Korean composer and pianist, Yiruma, who composed the song with K-pop producer and occasional artist, 2Face. It opens like a typical OST ballad, sparse and piano driven, but gradually gathers steam with a solid tempo and much richer, orchestral instrumentation. The tempo increase makes “I Hate It” feel a tad more contemporary than many other Korean power ballads, which is something that Ji Young has really succeeded at lately. Her 2012 chart-topper, “Voice”, (easily one of the best songs of last year) featured a rap from LeeSsang’s Gary, which alone made it much hipper than it would’ve been as a straight-up solo.
Yurima’s production is undeniably gorgeous, but it never once comes close to outshining the instrument that is Ji Young’s voice. Full of character and always wrought with sorrow, her vocal can change from delicate to powerful in a second. Her approach here is that of any classic pop diva, starting off on a soft note and then building up to a fantastic finish. It makes for a pretty potent tearjerker when combined with the lyrics, about a woman whose heartache has turned to hatred, her only response to the breakup blues being to lash out at everyone and everything — including herself. It’s so well-written that it’s one of the few K-pop songs that actually makes me care that I can’t understand the lyrics as they’re sung.
Baek Ji Young staged a JLo-sized comeback last year after parlaying her role as a mentor on Korea’s The Voice into mammoth chart success, and her reign looks set to continue in 2013. “I Hate It” has already dethroned Girls’ Generation’s “I Got a Boy” at the top of most digital charts, and with ballads being all the rage right now in K-pop and Ji Young’s always impressive live performances, it’s probably not leaving any time soon.