K-Pop Stars ATEEZ Return to the States, Finally — and Leave It All on the Dance Floor

K-Pop Stars ATEEZ Return to the States, Finally — and Leave It All on the Dance Floor

01/25/2022

The Korean word yeoyu (여유) doesn’t have a direct translation in English. It’s essentially a sense of ease — and onstage, the idea that there’s an inherent freedom in an artist’s every movement that allows the entire performance to breathe. 

It’s one of those concepts that you have to see with your own eyes to truly understand. You either have it, or you don’t. Three years ago, in an intimate venue in Brooklyn, South Korean group ATEEZ gave the audience a glimpse of it. And when the eight members took the stage at the sold-out Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, on Monday night, it was unmistakably clear that they have it. With every sly cock of an eyebrow, every flourish of an arm, and every unwavering belt, ATEEZ performed with the deftness of a group that has nothing to prove — when, in fact, they’re only just getting started.

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It’s not as if doing this show, let alone this world tour, didn’t come with a ton of pressure. After a nearly three-year-long tour postponement, ATEEZ have been one of the first Korean acts to perform internationally since the start of the pandemic, and therefore help carry the mantle of welcoming K-pop back to the States. And to top it off, this show — the third on the current U.S. leg of the tour, after stops in Chicago and Atlanta — was the biggest venue of their careers to date. The last time they were in town, they played to an audience of 800 — roughly the size of their soundcheck performance for VIP ticket holders before the Newark show. Last night, when the curtain dropped, they stood before nearly 20,000.

It’s difficult to pinpoint just one factor that has led to ATEEZ’s unreal growth since their 2018 debut. It’s surely a testament to the accessibility of their music, spanning everything from fiery trap beats, EDM and R&B to tropical house, and often sprinkled with quirky production flourishes. Their visuals weave together a colorful narrative featuring pirates, time travel, and dual-identities. (If there’s one thing you’re bound to see at an ATEEZ show, it is fans clad in blacks and reds, and adorned in silver chains.)  But beyond their expert showmanship and bold aesthetics — essential from the get-go when trying to stand out in the competitive, crowded K-pop landscape — is an emphasis on fostering a tightknit relationship with fans, called ATINY (a portmanteau of “ATEEZ” and “destiny”). Not only did they make sure to meet them face-to-face on tour early on (less than six months after they debuted), but they also have continued to hold intimate fan events ever since. Prepandemic, that meant everything from showing up to dance meetups to joining reaction videos. During, it’s meant holding Facetime fan calls virtual concerts, and in-person fansigns, even through glass.

From the beginning, this show promised high-octane energy, as Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, Mingi, San, Yeosang, Wooyoung, and Jongho, clad in sparkling black-and-white military jackets, burst onto the stage with fan-favorite hits like “Wonderland (Symphony No. 9),” and “Pirate King.” As Seonghwa brandished a sword, holding it up triumphantly in a way that recalled their pirate-themed debut concept, the message was clear: ATEEZ is fearlessly forging ahead, and inviting fans to come along for the ride.

Yeosang, Wooyoung, Mingi, Hongjoong, Jongho, and San at Prudential Center

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Then came time for opening remarks — one of many, along with recorded video interludes that would pepper the lengthy setlist throughout the night. That’s right, the group had prepared 27 songs — a tall order for any artist, let alone those who sing while executing complex choreography. “We promise to show you an amazing performance so that you won’t remember the two years you had to go through,” said rapper Mingi in his gravely baritone. “Okay sailors!” San shouted emphatically to fans. ATINY shouted back, waving their lightsticks in the air. “We prepared well and are finally ready to sail. We’ll do our best to get the ship going on a bon voyage.” They cast off into “Say My Name,” a song that showcases ATEEZ’s unique mix of explosiveness and swagger, then the sonic twins “Treasure” and “Precious,” before leaving the stage for a costume change.

The group returned wearing different variations of silky white suits, setting the tone for the brighter next chapter of the show. After the twentysomethings shared their recent dreams (eventually used as a tie-in to their song “Inception”) and then promptly made an arena full of dreams come true by starting a “Daddy” chant (directed toward their boss in the audience, the CEO of KQ Entertainment — but still), the dark moodiness shifted into bright pinks and sunset palettes as they delved into their more poppy discography. This is where Jongho’s powerhouse vocals truly had their moment, especially on the anthemic “Utopia” and a small (chaste) snippet of Bruno Mars’ “Versace on the Floor.” As the youngest member flexed his monstrous belting range without faltering, excited gasps and yells would burst from the crowd. It was also a moment in which the group nearly got to take a break from dancing — but no, nice try. In came the choreography as “Wave” hit its second chorus.

The crescendo of shimmering colors and summery bops came to a climax at what may have been the most surprising highlight of the night: “Take Me Home,” a B-side off of 2021’s Zero: Fever Part.2. Beginning with a blindfolded San, the members took turns dancing in front of textured silver mirrors, reflecting the same smooth sensuality as the Weeknd-esque track. A wailing saxophone solo added the final touch.

Some other high points included the high-drama “Hala Hala,” which the octet dance so vivaciously that the only way they can end the song is by miming breaking their own necks, “Rocky,” in which Mingi emerged wearing a boxing robe and belt, and “The Real – Heung Version,” a rollicking anthem with traditional Korean instruments that sent the entire arena into a celebratory frenzy.

After the classic K-pop charade of pretending like there wouldn’t be an encore, a 6-minute video played featuring interviews with the members. They talked about the excitement of putting on their first world tour in 2019, and how deeply the pandemic and tour postponement affected them. “It felt like all our hard work became meaningless,” Yeosang said. They then shared how they felt about finally getting back on the road. “As this chapter ends, I will have grown,” said Yunho. “I always thought that there’s always a new beginning to every ending.”

ATEEZ came out in their own merch to perform the last four songs, opting for airy ballads rather than a punchy button to end the night on. Despite his best efforts to hide it, leader Hongjoong broke down in tears during “Star 1117,” later admitting during the goodbyes that he’d sometimes thought during the pandemic that he’d never meet his fans like this again. But the 23-year-old’s final thoughts were more positive: “Lastly, please look forward to what’s to come.”

An amusing dig at ATEEZ has been that they “overperform” — that their flare for drama and camp is somehow a hindrance to their power as a group. But it’s in fact this very trait that has allowed them to electrify an entire arena, even without the added benefit of the extended stage that had factored into their pre-covid setup. ATEEZ’s commitment to their performances — practicing so much that the choreography is muscle memory, emoting as if their lives depended on it — gives them the freedom to actually have fun and push their boundaries. To let their performances actually breathe. And last night felt like a giant exhale. 

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