If we’re all being honest, the concept of an album in the streaming era feels less and less than a fully formed work—structured and cohesive—and more of a strategy to inflate sales. As a result, many albums end up as glorified bloated ideas.

For our list of the 20 best Asian hip hop and R&B albums (both LPs and EPs), we wanted to explore more of the nuances of these projects, albeit the limitations in language and knowledge in deeper cultural references. Admittedly, proximity had a lot to play when it comes to which albums ended up making the final cut. This continues to be a challenge for us, as it becomes increasingly apparent how much we still need to learn when it comes to regional hip hop, disproportionate to how we analyze and are invariably influenced by not just English-language hip hop but American hip hop (that’s a whole other rabbit hole to dig for another time).

In the end, this list is largely based on preferences—a more specific, individualized criteria rather than, say, engaging with the work that reflects and relates to histories and broader cues beyond the text and beat. I, and the rest of our growing team, hope to diversify the way we take in hip hop and R&B music outside of American dynamics and contexts. This, we promise.

For now, here are our final choices, in plain A to Z order. — MC Galang, Editor

Words by MC Galang, Sofia Guanzon, and Lex Celera

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Alisson Shore – GARUDA

Much like the rest of the albums produced this year, Alisson Shore’s GARUDA is propelled by the shared themes of loss, isolation, and distance brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes GARUDA stand out is how immediate the project is to the situation.

Somehow, Alisson brings a myriad of different styles under a singular direction. Feelings of longing and desire are heightened and nourished into jubilant melodies, broken down into radio-friendly bops found in “UNBLOCK ME” and “HALAGA” (Worth), as well as experimental flourishes, including G-funk inflections in “TAGPUAN” (Meeting Place) and atmospheric trap in “SEVEN.”

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Even his choice of collaborators seems to be leaning towards this exciting direction of newness: DENY, Colt, and John Roa, to name a few. Together, GARUDA becomes not just a product of lockdown-era sentiment but a comprehensive picture of what Filipino R&B can offer.  — LC

Stream Garuda on Spotify

Astro – Buhay

“Bawat kanta sa mixtape na to, tungkol sa mga pangarap ko. Mga gusto ko tuparin, mangyari, kasama na din yung mga hindi na nangyari at naranasan,” (Each track on this mixtape tells a story of a dream of mine. My aspirations, things I want to accomplish, along with things I’ve never experienced and those dreams that never came into fruition,) Filipino rapper A$tro of hip hop collective Owfuck writes of his album, Buhay Mixtape (Life Mixtape). Like many musicians in the pandemic era, sentimentality fills much of the narrative. In A$tro’s case, it also presented an opportunity to test out his dimensions as a rapper, his lyrics more considerably mature, his tone more mellow, his production choices more wide-ranging.

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The Pinoy MC attempts to understand life’s gray areas with an assistance from his collaborators and contemporaries Luci J, Mhot, Polo Pi, Just Hush, Ron Henley, and more, showcasing his aptitude for compelling narration and wordplay forged with street wisdom. There’s also a counseling aspect in Buhay that feels intimate, as if A$tro’s inviting us to process life’s mysteries with him. He knows there are no assurances, but ultimately, it’s about soldiering on. As the saying goes, Habang buhay, may pag-asa (While there’s life, there’s hope.) — SG, MG

Stream Buhay on Spotify

Ben Utomo – Indo Kid

Indonesia’s Ben Utomo finds himself returning to form in Indo Kid. Utomo cites the album’s significance as a representation of his identity and authenticity. True to its premise, the record, which was produced in solitary during the pandemic due to logistical constraints and health risks, chronicles how moving inward with his work challenged himself creatively and brought out a new vitality to his career.

Artistically and production-wise, Indo Kid is a rich tribute to Utomo’s past while also mirroring his present and future possibilities. Throughout the record’s ten tracks, he explores deeply personal themes: an homage to his family and a reflection on his restlessness in “Masih Di Sini” (Still Here), his stubborn drive and persistence in “Tak Kenal Lelah” (Relentless), and his uncompromising self-belief in “Indo Kid.”

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Peppered with intricately woven drill production and layered percussive arrangements, Utomo’s flair for witticisms via harrowing bars are centered on persistence, a trait appraised in hip hop. Yet, his introspection evokes a new dimension to the frequented subject of steely “hustle culture” and “the grind” greatly celebrated among MCs.

Utomo revels in the turmoil that survives the good underdog stories with a musicality that feels instinctive, as much as it is honed through years of tireless work. — SG

Stream Indo Kid on Spotify

BIBI – Life is a Bi…

South Korean singer (and relatively newcomer) BIBI’s five-track EP Life is a Bi… surrenders to life’s random bitterness with self-effacing introspection. Life is a Bi… feels less of an examination on the strength of our will to trod on life and more of a resignation to its proclivity towards failure.

In “PIRI the dog,” she reveals the severe emotional consequences of a codependent relationship, likening herself to an abandoned dog. In “Birthday Cake,” she reconciles the defeat of only knowing one’s worth. The songs are revelatory, littered with melancholy, confusion, and sadness. But BIBI only leans into it. Life is a bitch, after all. — SG

Stream Life is a Bi… on Spotify

Calix – Crash and Burn

Five years after releasing his debut, The Breakout Satirist, Filipino rapper-producer Calix explores new sonic territory without changing his tune in Crash and Burn, released under LIAB Studios. Previously imagined as a full-length project—its story arc reminiscent of previous album Ikugan included—features catchy, pop-inflected bops in “Crash and Burn” and “Juicy,” the latter of which could be as easily heard in a dance studio playlist.

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Thanks in part to his collaborators, “Some Of Y’all Pt.2” and “K.A.C.” capture the same vitriolic poetics and stark political critique we’ve come to know from Calix without coming off as stale. The EP ends on an affecting, poignant note in “What Do You Want From Me?,” a confessionary tale rendered in waves of Auto-Tune. Calix’s polished production permeates the whole project despite its genre-hopping; one can see how wider and farther the EP could become if initial plans came into fruition. But even in its shorter iteration, Crash and Burn is a career highlight, and just an enjoyable listen through and through. — LC

Stream Crash and Burn on Spotify

DPR Live – IITE COOL

In IITE COOL, DPR Live dreams of a never-ending sunshine, a near-perfect escapist pandemic record that understandably evokes utopia in an weary world.

The South Korean rapper draws out this carefree world with—what else–easygoing, funk-laced groove cuts, drawn from dance-pop and alternative rock peppered with infectious basslines and melodic rap with the occasional falsetto.

It’s one of those pandemic releases that make you feel like the only way this should be listened to (and fully experienced) should be with a hundred others, cramped and swaying together in suffocating heat during a festival or party, if not on a tropical paradise somewhere. In particular, tracks like “Yellow Cab” and “Hula Hoops” featuring Beenzino and Hwa Sa yield the impression that IITE COOL is the kind of record that’s simply not satiated with solitary listening. DPR Live proves that South Korea’s nebulous hip hop scene has room for experimentation. — SG

Stream IITE COOL on Spotify

Kontrapunto – Kontrapulis

Released on Labor Day in the Philippines, the five-track Kontrapulis (Against the Police) EP by Filipino artist group Panday Sining’s music collective Kontrapunto (which translates to ‘Counterpoint’) is a dense yet focused project that sets its eyes on a topic much-discussed in hip hop’s history: injustice at the hands of the police.

Each track takes this singular thread and goes towards many directions sonically: a bombardment of aural shrapnel directly aimed at the police in “Makiakab” (a wordplay on Filipino protest slogan “Makibaka” which loosely translates to “Join the struggle” and ACAB, or “All Cops are Bastards”); a painful retelling of abuse from the voices of victim and perpetrator paired with a masterful use of a ticking clock as motif for time running out in “Tiktok”; and sample-heavy soundscapes including protest chants and a snippet from A Rustling of Leaves, a 1981 documentary on the Philippine left in “Basta Pulis, Ekis (Interlude)” (which loosely translates to “As Long as it’s the Police, It’s a No”).

Coursing through the same vein as the Rap Against Dictatorship artist group in Thailand and fellow Philippine organization Sandata’s Kolateral, Kontrapunto’s Kontrapulis presents a collection of narratives through sound not just as an attempt to historicize unheard voices but to arouse and mobilize. — LC

Stream Kontrapulis on Bandcamp

MC Syze – Syze Does Matter

Malaysian rapper MC Syze returns to form in a lush, personable project 14 years after his hit single “Dancin’.” You can hear the sugar-high soul production and lyrical dexterity reminiscent of Kanye West’s The College Dropout and Lupe Fiasco’s Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, respectively—elements that still hold up to great effect, in part to the enjoyable selection of beats that permeate the whole project, particularly in “Macha Dei” and “Selamba,” the latter of which features MC Syze’s mentor and Malaysian hip hop OG, Joe Flizzow.

But it’s the second half’s unexpected turns that make the project truly memorable. “Atcl (A Thing Called Love) sees MC Syze’s vocal chops over a charming, stripped-down R&B joint, crooning about (what else but) love. ”When the hype slowed down / After the single buzz / Had to still get by / So I had to hit the club,” he raps in “Here to stay,” as MC Syze drives out the burdens of his past in an emotional high point for the project.

Syze Does Matter, then, isn’t a feeble attempt at a comeback but an honest, sobering effort that points towards a brighter direction for the veteran MC. — LC

Stream Syze Does Matter on Spotify

Moki Mcfly – Lumiere

The dazzling ingenuity of Lumiere, the latest album by Filipino producer Moki Mcfly (who also goes by Apo Lerma of rap group Illustrado), serves as a stark reminder of sampling’s transformative role in hip hop. It is also fitting that Moki Mcfly names his album after the French word for “light,” illuminating a (still) often-underestimated, if not dismissed, practice.

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Broken into 20 tracks, Lumiere is dominated by a continuum of philosophies, politics, and prevailing sounds of different eras. Moki Mcfly amplifies solemn, powerful moments from American civil rights icons interspersed with vintage Pinoy records as statement pieces, crafted carefully enough to avoid coming off as empty platitudes or, worse, gimmickry.

Through these sampling choices, the Filipino producer recontextualizes bygone music (often by forgotten artists or remnants of a particular time, even foley) while shining the light on enduring human issues, which is a decent summation of sampling’s heritage: nothing and no one is inherently dispensable. — MG

Stream Lumiere on Spotify

Nasty – Unapologetic II

Pioneering Nepali rapper Nasty has overseen the local hip hop for over a decade, establishing a thriving hip hop community in Nepal with his record label Eye Crown. In his 12-track English-language mixtape Unapologetic II, the second of a mixtape series he promised at the beginning of the year, he reflects on his own career, his place in today’s scene—surveying his environment, his peers, and his reputation with renewed introspection, assuaged with good fun.

Performing over trap-heavy production and gritty drill beats, the Nepali hip hop heavyweight attempts to cover a lot of ground: from commenting on performative activism on social media on “Not Nice” (“Never been one for lack of ambition or lack of vision / So I don’t fuck with that social media activism”) to the classic boy-wants-to-get-back-together track in “Want U Back?”

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Most astonishingly, the mixtape shows us an artist who is self-secure. It’s not unheard of in hip hop, but as a veteran MC, Nasty’s able to avoid the pitfalls of trying to stay relevant—no apologies. — SG

Stream Unapologetic II on YouTube

Owen – P.O.E.M. III 

Owen’s third installment to his P.O.E.M. album series flaunts its obvious ‘90s hip hop influences with admirable flair: skits, sounds, and references—he got it covered. The South Korean rapper has harbored an image similar to the icons he’s deferential towards in P.O.E.M. III: Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. (most evident in “Rose That Grew From Concrete” and “Who Shot Ya?,” named after similar titles the two hip hop legends released, respectively—the first, posthumously and a companion piece to Tupac’s book of poetry).

Despite the hardened exterior of both ‘Pac and Biggie, which in many ways, extend to Owen’s reputation online, there is an inherent tenderness in P.O.E.M. III, revealing instead a thoughtful, frustrated artist whose contempt of mindless acquiescence (“Today” and “Rose That Grew From Concrete”) has oftentimes worked against his favor.

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The album’s strongest, most affective moments are most palpable in the repentant “Snow-white” (his version of Biggie’s “Juicy,” down to the interpolation of “It was all a dream”) and “You,” a piano-laden sonnet that derisively aims at sham, trend-jacking rappers (“They say old is bad and what’s new is the trend / Uh, I doubt that / They can’t handle swag that’s why they dumbing the rap / Uh, I ain’t bout that”).

But more than anything else, Owen’s P.O.E.M. III pulsates with staggering emotional energy. While it doesn’t excuse his past misdeeds, its moments of contrition and defiance demand our attention. It makes one think of our own outrage at his outrage, a byproduct of Internet mob culture (and how he’s evidently affected however little he wants to care for it). On P.O.E.M. III, the South Korean rapper attempts to rid himself of the “role model” label people immediately assign to anyone who boldly shares their life in public, an act of claiming his peace and joy without having to suffer the indignation of others and their perception of how he has failed in their expectations of him. — MG

Stream P.O.E.M. III on Spotify

Prabh Deep – Tabia

Clocking in at almost an hour with 15 tracks, Tabia is a strikingly glorious concept album rife with meticulously crafted textures and introspective lyrics that take off between genres. Named after the Arabic word for the opening moves in chess, Tabia departs the trappings that encapsulate Prabh’s Deep previous projects instead of going for something undoubtedly more ambitious but confessional.

Despite the length, each track doesn’t run out of steam, thanks to its careful, crafty use of samples. While jazz rhythms (“Qaabu”) transition into EDM territory (“Huqum”) then dive deeper and longer into a cross-genre moment reminiscent to drum n’ bass (“Babur”), Prabh Deep interrogates himself into grains of universal truth.

Tabia represents a number of things: a masterful career-high for the 27-year-old rapper with only two full-length projects in his repertoire so far, a shining beacon towards the capabilities of Indian hip hop, and a proof of concept of boundary-crossing, genre-breaking prowess found in the Global South. — LC

Stream Tabia on Spotify

Priya Ragu – damnshetamil

For diasporic artists, the idea of self-exploration can sometimes unearth deeply seated fears. Swiss-Tamil Priya Ragu faces this head-on with a powerful homecoming in her debut album damnshetamil. The 10-track record paints a tender portrait of a worldview shaped by one’s heritage and upbringing and how the two coalesce in her search for identity.

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Ragu brilliantly hones her knack for creating otherworldly soundscapes that diverge into a rich amalgamation of left-field R&B, soul, pop, and Tamil music samples throughout the record. Its reconciliation of the concept of home with the transitory nature of migration (and/or displacement) is further heightened by Ragu’s excellent artistic choices: soulful backing vocals, vibrant textures, and stirring harmonies that seemingly call out to one another. Entrenched in her expansive self and cultural history, damnshetamil bears Ragu’s explosive joy and offers a full spectrum of emotion levied by commemorating one’s past.

More than a moving testament to home and what this means for her, damnshetamil is a prism through which Ragu’s musical talents are spectacularly illuminated. — SG

Stream damnshetamil on Spotify

punchello – Demon Youth

Historically, punchnello’s music verges on the syrupy vortex of K-R&B and K-hip hop—often balmy and relaxing. Before Demon Youth arrived in July this year, one or two tracks, 2019’s “Absinthe” and 2017’s “Detox,” hinted at something restless, in-between more radio- and K-drama-friendly releases. This year, it felt like something finally burst.

Demon Youth deftly navigates punchnello’s issues with conformity, deigning to challenge decorum with an extreme Grand Theft Auto-esque approach: stuffing people at the back of a car in ”Boy In The Mirror” and going on a mice shooting spree on “BACK”—feels as if punchnello has not just tapped, but morphed into his Mr. Hyde.

The visual and thematic violence in Demon Youth feels lived-in rather than spontaneous. The South Korean rapper has openly shared in a matter-of-fact “sober” interview that he drank while making the album (“There’s no song in this album that I made without the help of alcohol”), which helps contextualize the ferocious nature of the album.

In an interview earlier this year with HipHopDX Asia to unpack the lyrics of “Yellow tape” (referring to the police tape used to cordon off crime scenes), punchnello simply said that the song speaks for itself. In the “sober” clip, he also expressed that drinking helps calm his nerves and anxiety and spoke about cyclical feelings of regret whenever he thinks he drank too much. Demon Youth allows us to take in this deeply personal experience vis-à-vis his reflections on mortality (the title was inspired by the late Juice WRLD’S “Legends”—a tribute to XXXTENTACION, off the Too Soon EP, released a year before his own demise). For punchnello, this album is all him, no “meeting certain needs of the audience” (even the pressure is gone, he admits), saying that if there’s a scale of how close Demon Youth got to him as Lee Yeong-sin (his real name), this album got real close. That closeness sometimes can get frightening, but does that say more about him or us? — MG

Stream Demon Youth on Spotify

Rekstizzy – KILLER SMILE

No one quite does it like Rekstizzy. For KILLER SMILE, the Queens-born Korean-American alternative hip hop artist recruits an exhaustive list of collaborators—including Awkwafina, Dumbfoundead, and Jay Park—to join in on his antics, including speaking nonsense in Korean (“말도안대”) or listing out sexual preferences (“Hentai”).

KILLER SMILE features a different producer on each track and runs the gamut of themes familiar to hip hop, such as luxury and higher aspirations, but also a tinge of melodrama and sincerity. Yet the common thread that ties KILLER SMILE is an audacious and undoubtedly amusing vision of life that doesn’t seem to run out of gas across nine tracks.

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The all-star roster of features adeptly serves as an introduction to Rekstizzy’s world, but you’ll end up hooked into an interesting perspective rendered in catchy hooks and cheeky references. There is something refreshing when you just let loose and don’t take yourself too seriously, as KILLER SMILE smartly presents. — LC

Stream KILLER SMILE on Spotify

Suboi – NO-NÊ 

What has Suboi, Vietnamese hip hop’s dark edge, been up to in the seven years since her last full project? A Vogue Japan feature, sharing the stage with Barack Obama, and a spot at Forbes Asia’s 30 under 30 list, among many other headlines that have propelled Suboi to international acclaim.

In her latest outing, NO-NÊ, she brings the outside world in: traditional Vietnamese instruments rub shoulders with Auto-Tune, and elements from alternative R&B, PC music, and old-school hip hop melt into something entirely new. Suboi takes all these elements to find a space outside of society’s judgments and discuss topics in the periphery; sexuality, social stigmas, and love are explored in depth in “Sickerrr” and “Lava.”

While Suboi has always been a habitual line-stepper, she seems to have carved a world of her own in NO-NÊ. Unapologetic, commanding, and oozing with radiance, the female MC’s sophomore album is a landmark release not only in Southeast Asia but for Asian hip hop as a whole. — LC

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Stream NO-NÊ on Spotify

switchbitch – Lalamunan

Of all the things that make Lalamunan Album of the Year-material, it’s the brutal honesty that compels critical assessment as much as it does engagement. The Filipino rap duo’s Orwellian debut has no use nor care for our comfort: the impetuous industrial-noise production in “Fax Machine” (prod. MALLWARE), which showcases how mechanical clicks can sound nefarious; the lingering ambient horror of “Nightmare” (prod. AHJU$$I) and the opposite menacing terror of “Salem Witches” (prod. Moshi Moshi Defect); the decidedly thrilling provocation of “Atta Girl / Ate Gurl” (prod. Inkyu Demon); and the palpable anguish in the Inkyu Demon-produced “Halika” (Come Here), the EP’s only slow and resigned cut. Except for “Halika,” the production choices in Lalamunan joyfully remind me of ALIAS, the debut EP of English rapper and DJ-producer Shygirl, a great accompanying listen, dare I suggest.

The subjects of switchbitch’s fury, derision, and pain are obvious: from the Philippine government to film director/producer Quark Henares (rapper Ez Mil didn’t escape the line of fire, either). The duo’s delivery acclimate perfectly to each track’s emotional demands. Even in its top-tier diss moments (especially in the excellent beat-switching “Atta Girl / Ate Gurl”), switchbitch never comes off as petulant or pedestrian. As they put it, “An ate gurl doesn’t just observe / Marunong din siyang mag-serve” (An ate gurl doesn’t just observe / She also knows how to serve). Right on. — MG

Stream Lalamunan on Spotify

Tohji, Loota, and Brodinski – KUUGA

KUUGA is not a rap album—there’s not much rapping that happens in it, really. It is, however, inarguably a hip hop album though not in a traditional rhythmic sense. Its creators are neither traditional nor conventionally rhythmic. A short background: Japanese rapper Loota has been dabbling in dance music, particularly IDM, while London-born Tohji has been infusing the grit and rule-breaking spirit of alternative rock, most prominently grunge with electronic music: from Detroit techno to ear-splitting brash electronica. Meanwhile, Brodinski is one of Kanye West’s growing list of French collaborators (alongside Gesaffelstein and Daft Punk), whose credits include “Black Skinhead” and “Send It Up” off 2013’s Yeezus (“Yodaka,” in particular, recalls Yeezus the most).

While the credentials of KUUGA’s creators make the structurally provocative instincts of the album almost naturally occurring, the result is surprisingly hypnotic: the use of vocal synthesizers creating absorbing spatial dimensions using the human voice.

Watch Tohji And Loota Perform 'KUUGA' In Osaka’s Docklands

KUUGA’s brevity is also its strength (its total runtime is just 15 minutes, 17 seconds). Its songs function as dystopian vignettes, a form of apocalyptic table-setting. On the other hand, as a whole, it represents the never-ending excitement of beat-making, how it can manifest beauty from the arbitrary. — MG

Stream KUUGA on Spotify

Various Artists – YUPP! Compilation Album

In grand Avengers-like fashion, Thai label YUPP! Entertainment brought together some of the country’s biggest hip hop and R&B superstars for their first collaborative record, YUPP! Compilation Album. 

Boasting their impressive roster of artists that include Maiyarap, Lazyloxy, MILLI, Ben Bizzy, Blacksheep, NAMEMT, and AUTTA, the result is a vibrant odyssey of genre and experimentation. Drawing inspiration from electronica, dance, rock, and trap, the record threads together the strength of Thailand’s vibrant hip hop scene: young artists unafraid of going against the grain.

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Unafraid to step out of their comfort zones, each artist trades their established sound for high-octane sonic fusions to bring out the best in each other as much as themselves. With a consistent influx of artists churning out music in Thailand every day, it seems as if the country has exhausted its possibilities within the genre. Yet with the YUPP! Compilation Album, these assumptions are cast away with its dynamic production and uncompromising commitment to reinvention. — SG

Stream YUPP! Compilation Album on Spotify

Yugyeom – Point of View: U

Yugyeom’s solo debut, Point of View: U, operates within the soft luster of R&B, particularly under the K-R&B label (which, in turn, often sees an overlap with K-hip hop). This domestic branding serves as a marketing tool more than anything else: an effective way to create multiple (and comparably successful) adjacent avenues for wildly popular K-pop members to explore. Critical and commercial success don’t always happen, but in this case, I’m excited to say it does.

After the South Korean singer-songwriter and his fellow GOT7 member Jay B debuted FOCUS last year under their Jus2 sub-unit, it became apparent how restrictive these marketing-enforced labels are. At least half of the album—particularly back-to-back dance tracks “SENSES” and “LOVE TALK”—gave us some of the most memorable left-field sensibilities and dance music savviness I’ve seen since K-pop duo TVXQ’s (also back-to-back tracks) “Honey Funny Bunny” and “Rumor” off 2011’s Before U Go, all-time personal favorites.

Yugyeom’s Point of View: U exudes an abundance of charm not atypical of K-pop idols but somehow manages to feel giddily normal (consider the infectious standout track, “Love The Way” featuring fellow AOMG cohorts Jay Park and punchello). Two of its strongest moments belong to opener “I Want U Around” with singer DeVita (whose debut EP, CRÈME, last year boasted well-crafted retro and hyper-pop moments) and “Running Through The Rain,” both nifty pop-R&B cuts with high replayability and an adorable flair for drama.

Point of View: U doesn’t necessarily defy rules but its willingness to make them work for Yugyeom, the K-pop idol, actually inadvertently allows us a chance to appreciate him just as Yugyeom. — MG

Stream Point of View: U on Spotify