Okay, it didn’t actually flop. It was decently successful, but it’s reception was not as grandeur as anyone would have liked. I think too many people are going with the independent-to-mainstream argument when approaching the issue, so here goes.
One of the reasons 99 didn’t win so many hearts as they would have liked was because of how different Epik High sounded. They grew into one of the largest names in the Korean hip-hop scene by building music around the deep, poetic lyrics that they are so well known for, and it just so happens that it’s is more noticeable in their quieter tracks. Sure, their past upbeat, dance-y hit songs generally have the same qualities in one way or another, but honestly, those songs didn’t become popular because how meaningful the lyrics were. That’s not how the industry works. They caught the attention of the masses with a catchy tune, then the people discovered the “behind the scenes” music and fell in love. That’s really how Epik High worked.
Just look at their discography and their reception. (Skip the first two albums because they did not really contribute to the construction of the group’s positive reputation.) Swan Songs, their third album, took off mainly because of “Paris” and “Fly.” Both of them are your generically upbeat, catchy songs about love and motivation. But then the rest of the album tackles politics, education, etc. Remapping the Human Soul had “Love Love Love,” the one “happy” song in the generally dark and murky album covering the dark corners of the human psyche and some controversial topics that earned censors by the government. Their music was the music that you thought “they are putting into words what I’ve always felt but just didn’t know how to express.” The album after that, and the album after that one, and so on and so forth all followed that same formula.
Then came 99. This album broke Epik High’s tradition by combining a bunch of “hit singles” worth of music into one disk with one or two fillers in between that were just watered down versions of the others. Lyrically, they all dipped their toes into subject matter to test the waters of potential, but ended up deciding that foot washing was all they wanted. Musically, the songs were decently composed but they did not sound like stuff from the Epik High everyone was so familiar with. It was hyped up so much because of the whole Tablo’s graduation controversy threatening the future of the group, and the fans’ cravings for the unique sound that Epik High had mastered. People were expecting the sequel to the clean, simple hip-hop sound supporting the poetry of the lyrics catered by [e] and Epilogue, but they were instead given a jumble of pop tracks that ended up disorienting them. No political wrestling. No arguments on organized religion. No shaming of the public education system. Yes, fans were warned that the album was going to sound completely different, but they were not expecting Epik High to rest their sacred formula and experiment with musical styles that honestly sound like just that - experiments.
It had nothing to do with Epik High going from indie to mainstream. They had complete freedom with their music, and the only thing different from before were petty names, titles, and labels. They could have signed with SM, back with Woolim, moved to a different country, or stayed independent. 99 was going to happen no matter what, provided they did not break up.
Look, I love Epik High. They are the sole reason that got me interested in hip-hop when I thought the genre had no merit. They are and most likely will remain my most favorite music artists. But being loving something or someone shouldn’t make you blind to their flaws. That’s insane fanaticism. I’m still trying to like 99, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. And yes, I do realize some people actually do like the album, and I respect that, too. Music is extremely subjective, I think. I’m not Tablo, Tukutz, or Mithra. They had their reasons on the direction of the album, and I can respect that. It’s just not my cup of tea, and I do believe that the album was a mistake. But hey, the next upcoming album that is due soon is good news for everyone, no matter anyone’s stance on 99, and I hope that at least the majority of the fans will be satisfied with what Epik High has to give.