IU has never truly had a moment to breathe. When she coyly declares, “I'm really, really fine,” on the title track of Palette, her first full album in 4 years (a decade in the lightning-paced world of K-pop), it's no small declaration. Branded 'Korea's Little Sister', naturally sexualized just the same, and essentially a facet of the Korean music industry ever since her first single's release – when she was fifteen – there has never really been a grace period for the still-young singer. As a teen, she was mocked for her appearance and presentation. She lost weight, began showing her naturally light skin tone: baseless accusations of cosmetic surgery. Moving forward, she was involved in a needlessly dramatized “scandal” with an older, male singer, all thanks to an innocuous photo.

Most recently, with the release of 2015's Chat-Shire EP, she came under heavy fire for lyrics, greatly depending on one's reading, that could be seen as suggestive or offensive towards the child character she'd drawn inspiration from. All of these things likely sound minor, if not outright ridiculous, to a Western reader, and especially in the latter case, one can imagine her frustration as her artistic license drew so much ire. Indeed, the publisher that started the original raucous eventually apologized for not appreciating, “diversity of interpretation,” but public opinion still ranged from understanding to outraged, as IU more or less stuck to her guns.

All this preamble is regrettable, but assuming dear reader is unfamiliar with the singer, it must be reinforced: as we arrive to Palette going on two years later, the confidence displayed is no small feat. Some anticipated – perhaps vindictively – a mea culpa. If anything, IU – real name Lee Ji-Eun – is more boldly responding to the, frankly, odd level of hateful obsession that's long been directed her way. In the video for ‘Palette’, as she dances, midriff bare, the prettiest exposure she allows herself, a message pops up, covering her jubilation, with the words, “Do you know this? Everyone hates you!” as she sings with a smile: “I know you hate me, I got this. I am truly fine.” The message couldn't be clearer: she gets it, alright? Calm down. For better or worse, she has been finding herself in the public eye, judged under a microscope during phases awkward for anyone during the best of circumstances.

Age has always played a major role in IU's music. After all, she has said herself that she feels her youth spent in the spotlight separated her from any concept of an adolescence, even viewing herself during the earlier years of her career as a “cyborg.” Understandably, her songwriting has long chased what she lost, imagining herself as the youthful princess, clinging to the magical in a drab world. Her albums have followed this progression, from the telling titles of Last Fantasy, to Modern Times, up until the aforementioned Chat-Shire, in which her eternal daydreaming fell victim to her inevitable, encroaching adulthood.

In the time since, she went through said scandals, but perhaps equally importantly, ended a long-term relationship. Palette, then, is the first truly mature recording in her career, or, at least, her first fully genuine reflection of self. Naturally, there is some heartbreak to be found here, with songs such as ‘Can't Love You Anymore’ and ‘Love Alone’ bearing just the emotional weight you'd expect, made something special by her soft, emotive voice and gentle playing.

However, the best moments here are when she unburdens the music of others, and simply allows her quest for self-actualization to shine through. This is very much an album of a young adult finding herself, former doubts cast aside for a newfound comfort. An accomplished guitar player and songwriter in her own right, her music has long been known for a classic feel. Whether experimenting with folk, swing or even Latin influences, IU has always retained a quirky, homegrown aura. Here, the music advances to match her confidence. She finally isn't bashful about taking on pop, plain and simple. Her R&B explorations flourish with life, the title-track being among the most effortlessly catchy recordings in her career thus far. Equally addictive is the boisterous sarcasm of ‘Jam Jam’ and the scene-stealing, “Trust me, I'm not too drunk” anthem ‘Black Out’, either of which one could easily imagine fitting on any current American diva's latest release.

In short, IU is no longer satisfied to be sandwiched as a niche artist, even if it was one who dominated endorsements across her home country. Leaving behind fantastical imagery, and grounding herself in the present, offering fighting words to all comers, there's no imagining where K-pop's arguable young Queen will go next. So long as she hangs on to this much boldness, and keeps bringing the hits – jams with actual lived-in character – it's all her's for the taking.