虎媄304 is an inaugural mixtape by Balming Tiger, a collective of six young artists from Seoul. From cover art to album composition, this album screams trippy. The tracks combine an absurd and goofy sentiment with a variety of musical influences, from old school hip hop to psychedelic and even ballads. The eclectic mix befits the album’s purpose as Balming Tiger’s initial statement of identity.
The first track “CHEF LEE” immediately evokes images of a dystopian Asian ghetto, the sidechained synths building up a dark atmosphere as plucked strings add the oriental touch. The whimsical bilingual wordplay in the heavily delivered lyrics is the element of absurdity present throughout the album. The track seems to pay homage to renowned Chinese cuisine chef Lee Yeon-bok, rapper Byung Un speaking of his “chef life.” The rattling of wooden chopsticks being used as rhythmic samples is telling evidence of the group’s wittiness.
The CD version of the album has the beginning of the second track “SONG FOR ABYSS” tacked onto the end of “CHEF LEE,” perhaps hinting at intentions for the two tracks to be played immediately in succession. The intro borrows from jazz elements like the upright bass, warm keys and the drums on an odd time signature. The off-kilter mood takes a turn toward a cyberpunk aesthetic into less-treaded areas of kitsch, incorporating 8-bit and lofi oriental synths into the mix. A sense of speed dominates the track.
“못 UNDERSTAND” samples a piano waltz, modifying the triplet beat patterns from the previous track into a trap-friendly beat. This track emulates an intoxicated state of mind, especially with the disconnected trains of thought in the lyrics and the drunk-sounding chorus. The bilingual skit followed by the outro allows Byung Un to reveal his identity as a particular kind of Korean youth (one that has absorbed Anglophone cultures) using the vehicle of drunkenness.
Trap continues to intersect with the fourth track “SONG FOR SANYAWN.” The modulated synths lead the track into a beat that weaves in and out of boombap and trap until landing at drum and bass. The slap bass shoots out like lasers, while metallic drums speed along with chopped vocal samples. The track slows down as the bass recedes into sub frequencies and the drums are distorted into bigbeat, finaly stopping with a sigh.
The snare and claps in the next track “CUT (FEAT. Kim Ximya)” create a sticky soundscape, providing a perfect contrast against the XXX rapper’s hard rap tone. The growling sub bass, combined with synths that fill in the remaining frequencies, gives this track an almost oppressive quality in spite of the low bpm. The breakdown and outro are especially overwhelming, perhaps befitting of the Korean socioeconomic inequalities Kim Ximya rather offensively points out in his lyrics.
“ONCE AGAIN,” also featuring Kim Ximya, had been released before the album. Byung Un, previously best known for his acoustic cover of “It G Ma,” collaborating with Kim Ximya was enough for this track to draw attention to Balming tiger. Byung Un’s low rap tone contrasts well with the higher tone of Kim Ximya. The greyscale noir atmosphere of the song features lyrics wrestling with a generational identity. Byung Un places himself among the many Korean youths in Seoul, content (but not really) with meals at the convenience store. The sense of pointlessness is juxtaposed to his position in the music industry, subject to “rookie extermination” as an “f(x) generation,” referring to SM Entertainment’s previous capstone girl group F(x).This topic fits right into much of Kim Ximya’s other work, such as “What You Want” by XXX, struggling to define his place as a full-time artist.
The final two tracks, “NATURE REPUBLIC” and “BALMING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON (FEAT. SUKKARY),” are only available on the CD album. The former brings in old school hip hop beats and arrangements. The saxophone and string samples near the end brings an explosion of soul that oddly aligns with Kpop from the early 2000s.
The final track is has a watery and psychedelic beat, almost explicitly oriental with the plucked string synths. The auto-tune vocals are reminiscent of Joji, but Kpop ballad influences are also present. Hawai’i enters the picture after a change of mood, both in lyrics singing of paradise and the beats featuring samples of seagulls.
As far as debut mixtapes go, 虎媄304 (read Ho Mi 304, meaning respectively tiger and beauty) delivers an impactful punch. The beats pull from multiple genres and combine with the lyrics to form an absurd persona, which somehow aptly describes a portion of Seoul’s underground youth culture. Given their proximity to the club scene and XXX’s popularity, Balming Tiger seems set to become a new fixture in Korean hip hop.