OHYUNG’s deviant sophomore album ‘PROTECTOR’ defies all labels
OHYUNG has never been a conventional musician.
Two years ago, the Brooklyn-based experimental musician released Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame), a still-unrivaled politically rabid record about the minority experience in America. Furious, hilarious, and filled with thoughtful moments of reckoning, Untitled was an amalgamation of all of the pent-up, sporadic feelings about the world’s bullshit released through OHYUNG’s brash vision. But while Unititled’s volatile message seethed, OHYUNG worked in an almost completely opposite parallel through film scoring at the same time. 2019 saw the musician composing the emotional center for more than a few films–including Maegan Houang’s short film “In Full Bloom” and Andrea A. Walter’s Empty By Design–transforming the artist’s usually spastic musical energy to a more subtlely melancholic form. On OHYUNG’s sophomore album PROTECTOR, these two polar opposite energies collide and expand, creating a demented DJ set that is wildly ear-catching while underlined with breathtaking moments of unrestrained beauty.
Once again tapping into that abrasive headspace that so defined Untitled, the songs on PROTECTOR are similarly radioactive, buzzing with unstable melody snippets that dissolve and fade into each other. Influences as far-ranging as KPOP, guttural hip-hop, rap, trap, trip-hop, and film samples sparkle and fizz throughout the album. It’s hard to compartmentalize the album; there are so many factors that shouldn’t belong in the same sentence–let alone work so harmoniously in a single album. OHYUNG, who has never been one to shy away from ferocious juxtaposition, thus uses the songs on PROTECTOR as a sonic experimental playground. Trademarked with his iconic “oh my god” and “what the fuck!?” soundbites, PROTECTOR has a free form flow to it, surprising its listener at every twist and turn.
Successful musical experiments, like the meditative gamelan music on “jade cabbage,” bleed seamlessly into heart-pounding rocket-fueled beats. Slithering whispers mingle with blistering cathartic yells on “spiral spiral.” Traditional Korean pop song karaoke butt heads with a rush of aggressive shouts on “ga ga ee,” creating a bombastic concoction that also makes for one of the more catchy songs on the record. “shenme gue,” perhaps the best example of OHYUNG’s cross-cultural influences that define his style, delightfully shivers with pop ferocity. Aided by Space Meow Doll who lays down Chinese lyrics and Qing Liberty who triumphantly queers the Chinese New Year reminiscent beat with implosive lyrics (“Dyke boot to the neck!”), “shenme gue” is a twitchy banger that lights a raging fire. With all of the explosive ADHD fervor of the album, destructive glee is an apt description for the mixed emotions that cement the record. Dancefloor raves have never really hit their stride until PROTECTOR.
Even though OHYUNG’s work is notoriously self-confident (see: the brash complexity of Untitled), PROTECTOR seems to deal with a muddled self-conflict within its message. Whereas Untitled dealt with overt politicization, PROTECTOR is an album that allows the musician to tackle more internal issues. On “no one else,” a high-pitched hip-hop hype track with frequent collaborator Charlie Sheena, OHYUNG and Sheena revel in their own agency (in a particularly off-the-wall moment, Sheena even raps “If it was up to me / I would 69 myself”). But on other parts of the album, that braggadocious self-confidence gives way for more anxiety-ridden moments. “fraud” finds OHYUNG lapsing into self-imposed imposter syndrome, lethargically repeating to himself “oh my god you are a fraud” even though his backtrack is reassuring him that he’s got it. Similarly, “i hate myself” turns a looping backtrack into a self-conscious voice that won’t stop churning out deprecating thoughts. These slowed moments of self-consciousness mirror that constant anxiety that exists even in a talented musician like OHYUNG, never really going away even in an album as confident as PROTECTOR. So in a sense, it’s ironic that PROTECTOR reveals these destructive thoughts in OHYUNG’s head while simultaneously proving that he is, in fact, has nothing to worry about.
But while OHYUNG strikes a nerve with grimy beats and Splenda sweet euphoria, the album’s softest moments glow with a quiet reverence that makes it hard to believe they exist on the same record. “wrapped in floral sheets,” the first of two especially tender moments on the record, is a brief pocket of respite. Precious and preening, “wrapped in floral sheets” is a soothing, gorgeous balm that is soon accented by laser-like sound effects that bring you back into destructive flow of the album. A similar description could be given to album closer “now i close my eyes the world i see is so beautiful,” which samples a scene from Taiwanese New Wave director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi. Intimate and endearing, here we see OHYUNG’s masterful hand at scoring contemplative, ruminating scenes in film. It’s especially easy to imagine the hopeful scene in your mind as it plays out in the song the album closes out. With all of PROTECTOR’s ferocity, OHYUNG still springs back to dreaming about a hopeful future.
In an interview for the first anniversary of Untitled, OHYUNG once said that he didn’t want his music to be relegated to background music. True to his word, the songs on PROTECTOR are anything but. Shining with extravagant complexity, OHYUNG’s sophomore album demands your attention, inviting you to challenge its snarling, reactive sounds.
PROTECTOR is now out via Chinabot. Header photo by Marion Aguas.