It’s no secret that aespa are one of the most innovative artists out there, centering around a metaverse concept, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. And part of what makes it so unique is that every once in a while, we get an episode of the SM Culture Universe diving further into their story! This time around, we’re escalating to the ‘Next Level’ as aespa tries to find out why their ae avatars are disappearing.
Despite being named ‘Next Level’ after aespa’s May 2021 hit, this episode also includes references to their October 2021 title track ‘Savage’ and b-side ‘aenergy,’ which probably explains why we didn’t get it until a year after ‘Next Level’ came out. And because of that, there are so many little references and nods to their storyline and music, from their 2020 debut to the present!
So let’s head to KWANGYA and take a look at the Easter eggs we caught…
The ‘Next Level’ episode opens up with an orchestra playing a string version of ‘Black Mamba,’ aespa’s debut single. That’s where we see the first ae avatar, a cellist, disappear – if you aren’t familiar with their lore so far, an ae is a virtual version of someone with a few different traits, drawing from their social media presence and interests to make them the ultimate digital best friend.
Black Mamba is the force that’s hacking the aes and making them disappear, so it makes sense to be playing the song named after it to kick off this episode! Between the arrangement and the galactic visuals, it’s giving us a little throwback to aespa’s UN Day Concert performance:
Once the aes around the world disappear and #aemissyou starts trending, people start posting photos with their aes to pay tribute to them. During the #aemissyou sequence, you can see a few pictures of Karina, Winter, Ningning, and Giselle hanging out with theirs:
But those outfits look familiar, no? That’s because we’ve seen them before! Karina and Giselle’s came from the ‘Next Level’ photoshoot, and you can see them on the single art.
Ningning’s also came from the ‘Next Level’ photoshoot, specifically the look she wore in her solo teaser, and Winter’s picture is from the ‘Black Mamba’ photoshoot.
We can’t take credit for this one – it’s by the eagle-eyed @4lmklyy on Twitter! In the same #aemissyou sequence, there’s an avatar that looks suspiciously like Irene of Red Velvet. Could we be meeting more groups’ aes soon?
After hearing so much about SYNK DIVE on ‘Savage,’ and the girls even naming one of the Savage album variants after it, we finally learned what SYNK DIVE really is! Naevis – who’s pretty much the Fairy Godmother of KWANGYA – explains it to aespa:
You haven’t actually come to the FLAT. Your physical body is still in the real world… The consciousness of you [and your ae] is synchronized right now. You can feel each other’s senses. This is what is known as SYNK DIVE. However, this is not always possible.
After she breaks it down, we see a shot of (an animated) Karina merging with her ae, showing how they synchronize when Karina steps into the digital world. Pretty cool, huh?
Naevis doesn’t get to finish her explanation of why SYNK DIVE isn’t always possible because before she can, ae-Winter wants to show Karina her powers! As we learned in ‘aenergy’ from the Savage album: Karina is a rocketpuncher with a robotic arm that appears on command, Winter is an armamenter who can summon any weapons the girls might need to defeat Black Mamba, Giselle has xenoglossy (which we’ll get to later), and Ningning is an “E.D. hacker” who can merge the digital world with reality. Ningning even gives Naevis a little makeover with new hair! Like Giselle’s, we’ll get to her powers a little later.
In the ‘Savage’ music video, Naevis gives aespa a butterfly to follow while they’re in the FLAT, so they’ll know if they’re getting closer to saving the aes. She does the same thing in the ‘Next Level’ episode! With so many butterfly references, we’re kinda wondering if there’s a reason why Ningning’s official symbol is a butterfly, too…
The ‘Savage’ Outfits
When Winter, Ningning, and Giselle join Karina in the FLAT, they get a little wardrobe upgrade! But of course, we’ve seen these looks before, too, and they’re anything but flat.
This time, we’re throwing it back to the ‘Savage’ photoshoot and some of the performances the girls did in the same outfits! These have seriously been some of our favorite aespa looks of all time, so we’re glad we get to see them one more time post-‘Savage’ era.
“Don’t covet things of KWANGYA…”
We get a little more advice from Naevis before aespa officially steps into the wild world of KWANGYA, and it’s that “you shall not covet what belongs to KWANGYA.” Sounds a little familiar, no? That’s because Ningning gave us the same advice during her retro pop section of ‘Next Level!’ It seems like she was quoting Naevis there.
“Don’t covet things of KWANGYA
If the promises are broken, everything will be out of control…”
The Voyage To KWANGYA
Once Naevis sends the girls off, we return to the animated scene from ‘Savage!’ It’s just as magical as the first time we saw it, and we love that this episode of the SMCU has given us more context on what led up to it.
Ningning’s Street Art
Like we promised earlier, we’re going back to talking about Ningning’s powers! When we first heard that she’s an “E.D. hacker” on ‘aenergy,’ we were kinda confused about what that meant, but it seems like she can alter reality and merge the digital and physical worlds to do so.
aespa head into KWANGYA and get separated into two areas: a darker area where Karina and Winter wind up, and a colorful area where Ningning and Giselle find themselves. The latter is probably so playful because of Ningning’s powers, and we get a little nod to another talent of Ningning’s – her art! We first saw her spraypainting in the ‘Dreams Come True’ music video, now the ‘Next Level’ episode has “MY” painted on the road as a nod to aespa‘s fans, MYs.
It seems to be pretty normal right now for things to go south in KWANGYA quickly, and that’s exactly what happens in Ningning’s painted dream world. A giant pink teddy bear tries to attack her, but Giselle throws up a forcefield just in time to save her! ‘aenergy’ says that Giselle’s power is xenoglossy, which means the ability to speak multiple languages, so we’re wondering if xenoglossy has a different meaning in the SMCU.
After Giselle saves Ningning, we get to see this comic-esque shot where the girls explore different areas of KWANGYA. We’ve already seen most of them before!
The green area with the glowing arcs and the iridescent purple area appeared in the ‘Savage’ music video. We see a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of that tree in the ‘Next Level’ video, and there’s another panel of a desert landscape that kinda reminds us of the sandy section of the ‘Next Level’ video as well.
Next Stop: KWANGYA
The next stop on aespa‘s journey is a train, and you guessed it! We’ve already seen it. The floral train set was one of our favorite parts of the ‘Black Mamba’ music video, and the girls are back there in the ‘Next Level’ episode, flowers and all. Why can’t real-world commutes be this pretty?
Black Mamba Returns
But our girls couldn’t just have a peaceful train ride, could they? It’s not long before our serpentine villain starts circling the train car and we hear that same eerie whispering we heard in the interlude of the ‘Black Mamba’ music video. What does it mean?!
We’re Off To See The Naevis…
During a flash to a solo train ride, Karina drops a copy of The Wizard Of Oz, and we’re buzzing trying to figure out why she was reading that specific book. Is it because of the parallels between KWANGYA and Oz being immersive dreamlands where anything can happen? Is there a suspicious force at play behind Black Mamba like there is for The Wizard? Are we just reading too much into this?
“An Unexpected Blackout”
Later in the episode, we also get to see how aespa get affected when Black Mamba hacks their aes. There’s a sequence where Karina and ae-Karina, who’s usually her best friend, get into a fight, and Karina almost deletes her ae entirely before she realizes it was Black Mamba belittling her the whole time. Similarly, Winter feels insecure after hearing people gossip about her and how they feel like she’s an unnecessary member of the group.
Giselle gets overwhelmed by a horde of paparazzi and flashing lights, potentially hinting at the downsides of fame like we hear about on ‘Life’s Too Short.’ Ningning is standing in a cute area filled with emojis until they grow spikes and devil horns. Is that reminding anyone else of the ‘Savage’ music video scene where Ningning is surrounded by emojis?
As each member deals with their own obstacles, their eyes turn black just like Karina’s did in the ‘Black Mamba’ music video. At the same time, the faces of anyone around them flicker between pixels and flesh, which might represent the clash between worlds. Creepy, but props to the special effects team for making the queens of our hearts look so intimidating!
So there you have it: our rundown of what you might’ve missed in aespa’s SMCU Episode 2, ‘Next Level!’ What did you think of this episode? What kind of challenges do you think the girls will face next in KWANGYA? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter! And for more aespa content to keep you busy until we get Episode 3, click here.