IZ*ONE is a group that’s been a long time in the making. Hailing from the infamous Produce series of reality shows, in which a large number of trainees compete for viewer votes in order to debut, there’s a small history preceding them of successful groups and hit songs. It’s with the weight of their predecessors that this new girl group make their debut, and that could have been a very daunting task indeed.
Thankfully, IZ*ONE seem to take this all in their stride with their first album, COLOR IZ. In fact, you could say they have done remarkably well for a group with so much pressure to overcome. Not only do they have to contend with the lingering legacy of Produce101‘s original girl group, I.O.I, and the existing popularity powerhouse that is WANNAONE, but they also have a great number of critics to prove wrong. The third season of Produce was rather hit and miss for a lot of people. As a collaboration with Japan’s AKB48, Produce48 was intended to create an international girl group. Whether this actually became the case, with only three AKS members making it into the final lineup, ends up not being much of factor to this debut. The fact of the matter is, this album and it’s lead single arguably come off as the most solid debut of any of the Produce groups. It’s polished, matched well to the girls’ styles and age range, and is conceptually very strong. Whilst I.O.I’s ‘Dream Girls’ left many disappointed and WANNAONE’s ‘Energetic’ flew out of the gates, ‘La Vie En Rose’ strikes a middle ground that this group desperately needed.
Though it’s track 3 on the album, ‘La Vie En Rose’ has to be our starting point for this reason. The choice of this title track says a lot about the identity that Off the Record, the company managing the group, want to craft for IZ*ONE. The sound is overall sophisticated and surprisingly powerful. There’s a confidence in the song and, though slightly less so, in the performance the girls give. This is thanks to, in part, the variety in the sections of the song. The verse is somewhat restrained, with minimal wrap sections and a few catchy little rhythms. The pre-chorus is where the power is really amped up. Eunbi’s vocals in its first repetition stand out here; powerful, containing a little more depth than some of the vocals before, but nothing that makes her performance feel out of place. It’s a deceptive pre-chorus, however, building to something that the chorus never quite reaches. That’s not to say it’s a bad chorus. Upon a few re-listens, it works well as a contrasting section, letting the La Vie En Rose hook take centre stage. It gets in your head, which is undoubtedly a good thing for a lead single. The way in which it drops back brings to mind the style of some 9Muses songs. Whilst some will always be searching for that full-on chorus that the pre-chorus seems to promise, it’s very easy to get used to the more laid back chorus we get. With the younger members and Nako, Hitomi and Sakura’s naturally higher pitched style of singing, it would have been easy for Off the Record to go with a cute concept. The fact that they didn’t, and that all the members pull of this alternative effectively, shows a lot of promise for where they could head with future releases.
The album itself opens with a song that follows this expected direction a little more. ‘Beautiful Color’ takes on a lot of influence for the tropical house genre that has been a trend in k-pop for the past year or so. It’s much brighter but never strays into “childish” territory. Some of the rap sections sound somewhat more forced in this song, and the rest of the quite straightforward form doesn’t really try much new. But what they have with this one is done well. As is a trend with this album, Nako’s voice, in particular, could stand out like a sore thumb if the producers didn’t handle it well. And yes, it does stand out, but not to the detriment of the overall group or sound. Beautiful Color is a fun, upbeat song, perfect for summer, and a good opener.
Next comes ‘O’ My’, and this one might be familiar to those who watched the original teaser for the album. This track has some hip-hop and funk influences, a great synth and bass line making an appearance in the pre-chorus. Some electric guitar even filters in during the last chorus. There’s a lot more attitude to be found here, along with some cute vocals that are once again not overused to the point of overwhelming the rest of the song. With the beat, some strong choreography is easy to imagine. Hopefully, this song will get a performance or two, as it could be great to watch live.
‘Secret Time’ is the initial ballad song. It seems like nearly all album and mini album releases have their standard fair ballads, and this is where this one fits in. The chords are pretty standard, and whilst there are some nice piano sections, there’s nothing else that stands out strong for this song. The members carry the vocals well, but there are no moments where a particular voice really impresses of steals the show. There’s a good high note or two, and the section in which all the girls’ voices come in is a nice touch, but there’s a feeling there that more could have been done with it. It’s a shame because as far as ballads go, ‘Secret Time’ isn’t a bad song. It’s just very predictable.
The pace picks up once more with ‘We Together’, which definitely leans more on the funk-pop side of genres. The verses in this song stand out more than the chorus, which hands a rather flat melody. The synth carries the rest through, though there is a nice little moment before the final chorus in which a line is repeated, each time building up, anticipating the drop into the chorus and holding it off. And it’s not even the chorus that hits once it ends, but a synth interlude. As one of the songs originally in the Produce48 song evaluation, it will be interesting fans of the series to hear the difference in performance that the IZ*ONE members give compared to the trainees that didn’t make the lineup.
It takes five tracks to finally reach a song in Japanese rather than Korean. ‘You’re In Love Aren’t You?’ certainly takes its cues from J-Pop and it’s a nice style change midway through the album. It’s a shame that Sakura, Nak and Hitomi don’t get more lines here as their voice of course suit the style perfectly. Though pinpointing exactly what the chord structure is somewhat beyond this one writer’s musical abilities, it’s definitely something that’s been heard in J-Pop songs more so than K-Pop. The entire feel is very energetic and unapologetic about it. Again, no overly cutesy way approach was taken to this despite the playful soundscape it uses. Another track from the Produce48 archive’s, IZ*ONE do well in making this feel as natural as they’re Korean songs, and that’s a mark of performers with skill.
The second ballad of the album, ‘As We Dream’, is arguably the better of the two. It’s also the third a final Produce48 song rearranged for the final line up. Perhaps for this reason, there’s a lot more emotion to be found here. The chord progression in the chorus is evocative and hopeful. The girls’ vocals match nicely with this tone and all blend together in a satisfying way at the climax of the song. Again, for those who watched the members journeys to debut, this song will likely pack more of an emotional punch. But the same could be said for much of the album. Even the bonus CD only version of this seasons ‘Pick Me’, this time named ‘Nekkoya‘, will hold a lot more weight if the listener has supported one of the final members from the first time the song was performed.
With these Produce project groups, there’s always an inevitable sadness to be found in following them. Eventually, IZ*ONE will disband, though we have much longer with them than we did with I.O.I or even WANNAONE. Thus, what the group releases in that time will always have significance as there is only so much audiences will get to hear from them. COLOR IZ is a great start to the legacy they’ll leave as a group. It appears that MNET, and subsequently Off the Wall, have learnt from the mistakes they made with their first two Produce groups, and this has worked greatly to IZ*ONE’s benefit. It’s a strong performance and provides many great building blocks for releases to come. For that reason, it’s exciting to see where exactly they will go from here on out.