Review: Epik High’s ‘Sleepless in __________’ is Melancholic Gold
The veteran hip-hop trio sharpen their uncanny ability to capture facets of the human condition on a fearless new record
In the 16 years they’ve been in the music business, Epik High have made it tradition to deliver excellence with every album release– and it would seem it’s a streak they don’t plan on breaking any time soon. The veteran Korean hip-hop artists made their long-awaited comeback today with the EP Sleepless in __________ and seem to have unearthed melancholic gold. According to the band, each of the tracks on the release explore various thoughts and emotions that keep a person awake at night.
Like on almost every record they put out, rappers Tablo and Mithra Jin and producer Tukutz ensure to feature an impressive roster of collaborators on Sleepless in __________; Korean R&B artist Crush appears on “LOVEDRUNK,” boy band BTS’ Suga and producer El Capitxn work their magic on “Eternal Sunshine,” while vocalist Sunwoo Jung-A features on “In Seoul” and Malaysian R&B singer Yuna and Korean producer Code Kunst add their touches to “No Different.”
The EP opens with “Sleepless,” a slow piano instrumental paired with a haunting mechanical voice that addresses the crux of the album by asking, “Do you have trouble sleeping/Do you have nightmares/Are you heartbroken…/Are you always/Sleepless?” before making a quick transition into “In Seoul.” The nostalgia of old-school hip-hop beats is comforting when the track begins, but the addition of Sunwoo Jung-A’s soaring vocals and warped synth add wistfulness to the track which, in a way, maps out the trajectory of where this entire EP is about to go. Crush is at his ballad-best over slow R&B instrumentals on “Lovedrunk,” but it’s the contrast between his rippling vocals and the rage of self-admonishment within Tablo and Mithra Jin’s verses that truly impress. The lyrics are an exploration of the pain surrounding an ending relationship and the toxic attempts to rid oneself of it, “I’m trying so hard/So hard to erase you/Like a fool/Though I may lose it all…” It’s beautiful upon the first listen, but doesn’t leave quite as much as an impact as the tracks in the second half of Sleepless in __________.
On “Eternal Sunshine,” Suga takes on the mantle of producer to change the mood and present a blend of lo-fi hip-hop and jazz with co-producer El Capitxn. It’s a bit of a surprise to see him skip on the chance to add a verse on an Epik High track, but at the same time, it sticks true to Epik High’s tendency to bring out new sides of each artist they work with. The beat drop sticks to structured elegance with touches of funky guitar and record-scratching, while Tablo and Mithra Jin cruise through lyrics that address the anxiety and depression around youth chasing success. It’s deceptive because of its cheerful, relaxed beat a but perhaps also a mirror to the reality that so many individuals today hide their anxiety and depression under a cheerful exterior. The most impressive track on the record is “No Different,” a heart-wrenching R&B ballad which features prominent Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna, and Tablo’s long-time collaborator Code Kunst. The track pairs the rapper’s deeper voice with flowing layers of Yuna’s honeyed vocals to talk about the confusion and pain around a fraying relationship. The punch to the gut lies in the strange emptiness you feel after listening to it and it’s a hard track to forget.
“Rain After Tomorrow” picks up the mood again a little with quicker, steady percussion and tackles the restlessness around a brain buzzing with creativity–yet again a form of sleeplessness, but perhaps not one as heart-wrenching as the last few. The transition to “Lullaby for a Cat” is another highlight of this EP; it’s a seamless moment and the change in tracks is almost undetectable, achieved by slowing down the last few bars of “Rain After Tomorrow” and extending it into the entire first half of “Lullaby.” Tablo keeps his verse short, contemplating the ongoing cycle of loneliness, and the track harks back to “In Seoul” via its instrumentals–thus looping the album closed.
The trio’s first independent release since leaving label YG Entertainment in 2018 adds more depth than ever to their ever-evolving artistry. Revolving around themes of insomnia, love, death and nostalgia, Sleepless in __________ holds power within its intimacy and vulnerability. It’s a fearless record on which Tablo, Mithra Jin and Tukutz sharpen their uncanny ability to capture facets of the human condition with unbelievable accuracy. There are of course mixed feelings at the end–as beautiful as it is, it leaves you wanting more–but perhaps that’s the point. For long-time fans, Sleepless in __________ is a form of self-reflection as they grow with Epik High and arrive at similar junctions in life; for new listeners, it can serve as the gateway to artists that offer fresh perspectives on the trials of life through the familiar lens of hip-hop combined with the sense of ‘been there, felt that.’