This is the second of five essays MTV News will publish this week honoring our 2022 Albums of the Year. See the first here.
Over the past year, the sun has served as a metaphor for the end of romantic torture on Harry Styles’s “Daylight,” the freedom that comes with young love on Nicky Youre’s “Sunroof,” and the lingering presence of an ex on Steve Lacy’s “Sunshine.” But for Seventeen, it represents everything they fear: love, change, and vulnerability. As a seven-year-old group nearing the height of their success, the 13-member team — comprised of S.Coups, Jeonghan, Joshua, Jun, Hoshi, Wonwoo, Woozi, The8, Mingyu, DK, Seungkwan, Vernon, and Dino — has a lot to lose. But rather than continuing to live comfortably in the shade, the K-pop superstars chose to bask in the light and combat their anxieties head on. With the release of their fourth studio album, Face the Sun, a nine-track piece of pop exploration, they did just that, and, in turn, created their most sonically settled, emotionally confident record yet.
Since their debut in 2015, Seventeen have worked tirelessly and diligently to solidify their standing in the ever-changing, highly saturated K-pop landscape. Their story is not one of overnight success, but instead that of a slow burn. Reaching a pinnacle with 2021 EPs Your Choice and Attacca, both of which surpassed a million first-week sales, Face the Sun marks the start of their reign as South Korea’s newest it-boys, doubling that number in pre-orders alone and achieving their first Top 10 hit on the Billboard 200. Released in late May to celebrate the group’s anniversary and subsequent re-signing of their contract, Face the Sun sets their stardom in stone. And with that comes the freedom to be bold.
Their new era began with “Darl+ing,” an endearingly delicate love letter to their fans. As the group’s first fully English composition, the members aimed to express their affection not just deeply, but widely across the world. One of their more understated singles, the track perfectly layers instrumental elements, like plucky acoustic guitars and melodic pianos, with soft electronic sounds to create the sonic equivalent of a warm hug. Yet the album’s only other single, “Hot,” confronts listeners with a campy, American Western-inspired melody, covered in siren wails and heavy 808s, then sprinkled with Auto-Tune and beatboxing from The8. Serving as the explosive antithesis to the mellow “Darl+ing,” “Hot” is representative of the darker, edgier side of Face the Sun: Behind the beaming sunshine is an ever-present shadow. The album lives and breathes within this duality.
Ostensibly a pop album, Face the Sun seamlessly ebbs and flows between multiple subgenres in an expression of artistic range and creativity. An evolution from the pop-rock stylings of last year’s “Rock With You,” “March” leans even further into their moxie, utilizing a cacophony of rugged drums and electric guitars to create a melody you can feel in your soul. But in the way that “March” is made to be blared in an arena, “If You Leave Me,” a signature Seventeen ballad, is designed for a quiet moment alone. Co-written by the three unit leaders, S.Coups (hip-hop), Hoshi (performance), and Woozi (vocal), the piano-driven composition is the record’s most emotional and lyrically vulnerable effort, contemplating life once the curtains close and the cheers die down. Despite the stress on trends and “eras” in the larger K-pop industry, which at this moment largely consists of noisy electronic numbers, Seventeen seek out individualism and artistic challenge, which, regardless of the outcome, is always a risk worth taking.
Surprising no one, lead vocalist and producer Woozi’s name runs up and down the album’s credits. However, Seventeen have always been known as a self-producing group, and other members are regularly given the opportunity to contribute and shine. “Shadow,” a dynamic composition about accepting one’s “dark side,” features lyrics and production by the group’s youngest member Dino, a main dancer whose unsuspecting rap during the bridge is the song’s meta-point. As Seventeen embarked on their Be the Sun World Tour earlier this year, the electro-pop track became both an album standout and a fan-approved favorite.
Similarly, the American-born Vernon brought his unique point of view to the trap-leaning “Ash.” Reminiscent of his work on the polarizing unit track “Gam3 Bo1,” “Ash” also relies on full-bodied synths and heavily Auto-Tuned vocals to bring it to life. This one, inspired by the phoenix of Greek mythology, is truly for the Darkteen champions and hip-hop team enthusiasts. However, similar to that of 2020’s Heng:garae, Face the Sun presents no individual unit tracks in a valiant stride toward group solidarity. Though Vernon and his fellow rappers S.Coups, Wonwoo, and Mingyu rightfully shine, the track is purposefully designed with all 13 members in mind.
When HYBE first dropped the album’s trailers, Face the Sun was expected to be exclusively dark and stormy, a 180-degree vibe shift to start the group’s new chapter. This narrative was furthered when promotional clips posted to social media had each member declare, “I am not Seventeen anymore.” (As the certified “theater kids of K-pop,” the Seventeen members clearly live for the drama.) Though the album does mark a change in energy and attitude for the group, love songs like “Domino” and “‘Bout You” (the latter referencing the group’s debut song “Adore U”) present an upgraded, mature version of the Freshteen, sparkly pop sound for which they are both known and loved. Meanwhile, a song like the viral hit “Don Quixote” finds the group flexing their sonic and thematic maturity — and as such, it’s the one that most aptly defines the album in its entirety.
Just as art imitates life, Seventeen grew from bright-eyed teenagers to semi-mature twentysomethings (don’t forget that they still play “Aju Nice” a million times in a row on tour), and their music has grown with them, serving as the soundtrack to every era of young-adulthood. Now, at their shining moment, their latest album proves that they are grounded, daring, and, most importantly, free. They have not only faced the sun, but have truly become it. How lucky we are to live in their light.
See MTV News's other 2022 Albums of the Year: