30 November 2020 ☼ Q-pop ☼ Song Review ☼ Artist: Ninety One
First of all, let us celebrate a major milestone in Ninety One’s history. It took five years, but at long last we got to see Ace smile while dancing.
And at ZaQ, no less. Is there anything Dulat Mukhametkaliev can’t do?
“Write a decent song,” you snort. (ZaQ has co-music writing credit on this one, with Alem and Bala, and full lyrics credit, although I think that credit split probably underplays the amount of influence Juz’s in-house sound engineer Khargy had.) And it’s true: “Señorita” (I’m not going to write out the full title, Bala and a chorus chanting “tekketekketekketekke” is the weakest part of the song) is not top-tier Ninety One. In terms of leadoff singles, I’d rank it above “E.Yeah” but below “Aiyptama” (I’ve heard that ZaQ regards the first EP as on the juvenile side, and he’s got a point, but “Aiyptama” is still a lot of fun), “Su Asty,” and “Men Emes.”
I will say: I appreciate the manner in which “Señorita” fails. It doesn’t fail for lack of ambition. There is a whole lot going on here, more than the TikTok clips released in advance of the video implied. The main innovation is the Kazakh-to-Spanish punning, which I won’t rehash here since I discussed it in the Twitter thread for Part 3 of the Ninety One Series, but knowing that “Señorita” is a vehicle for Kazakh-to-Spanish punning makes the song a lot more ambitious than it seemed when there was no obvious reason for, say, Qué pasa toca TOCAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.
Ambitious; but awkward. No part of the song flows smoothly into any other part of the song. Some parts belong in another song entirely. Any song that has Alem muttering at the bottom of his voice, “In a very cramped room / She scratched my body,” should be sexy. We should be in “All I Need” territory at that point, where the mere act of playing the song necessitates dimming the lights. But “Señorita” is not an intimate song, what with the thudding percussion (which should be tying everything together and really just ends up calling too much attention to itself, slowing down Ace’s chorus unnecessarily) and the many-voiced backup chorus showing up at the very beginning. It’s a party song, which is fine, but I think they were trying with Alem’s section to imply a moment of intimacy even in the midst of a crowd, and they don’t quite have enough space for the bit to work.
I think “Señorita” succeeds most when it leans into its awkwardness, and just starts veering from one vocal style to the next without any need for a throughline: the middle section, from Bala’s overly processed part to ZaQ using his voice to provide oscillation back to Alem’s muttering, all very quickly. If the rest of that song had been that chaotic it might have worked for sheer bravado, like “Su Asty” did. As it is I’m glad the guys tried to inject that much chaos. But then everything comes to a screeching halt for the “tekketekketekke” part, and the chorus just feels so slow and staid afterwards.
The awkwardness makes a bit too much sense. The first release just two months after AZ’s departure was going to be awkward. (Relations with AZ seem to be good, thank goodness, but it meant that the remaining four wouldn’t have enough of a chip on their shoulder to make the equivalent of Made in the AM.) 2020 is an awkward year for everyone. Even the “dance performance” video has its share of awkwardness: I think Assiya Nestay does good work for the guys, especially (again) “All I Need,” and I appreciate that even Ninety One’s most idol-ish presentations involve a great deal of the guys just standing around, but… there’s a lot of the guys just standing around, especially in that middle section, where Alem and ZaQ are grooving up front but Bala and Ace are condemned to linger at the back.
The video is similarly ambitious and similarly wacky. (At 2:52, does Bala just… trip? And did the director decide to just leave it in and hope we’d write it off as symbolic of Bala’s character’s troubles in the shamanic world?) There’s a storyline, in which decisions taken in the ancient shamanic world, complete with runes, influence the modern world, but the shamanic world is dark and sexy and the modern world is goofy and splash-filled, and the two halves don’t quite make up a whole. Also filming the shamanic-world scenes at night means everyone except Bala falls victim to that particular Q-pop malady of Dude Styled for Maximum Hotness and then Foiled by Bad Lighting. (Yes, I’m still mad about how badly Rufat was lit in the “Tokyo” video.)
“Señorita” is a misfire, but it’s less than a misfire than I was anticipating. I expected to hate “Señorita,” because “Señorita” is such a shopworn song title at this point (again, this was before I knew about the bilingual punning), and because the group was embracing idol promotion techniques they’d previously eschewed, such as promotional teasers and trying to make the dance go viral on TikTok, and because I hate TikTok. I thought “Señorita” was going to be unambitious and dumb. (Because, let’s face it, sometimes going unambitious and dumb pays off mightily.) It is neither. Still not Ninety One’s best; still, hopefully, nowhere post-AZ Ninety One’s best; but in the way it fails it implies that better will come.