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K-pop songs September
Spica’s “Secret Time” video

The K-Pop songs you need to hear this month

From a killer single by the Queen of K-Hip Hop to upbeat girl group nu-disco, we look at the latest developments in South Korea’s music world

Whether you’re a serious fan or a curious newcomer, discover a monthly roundup of new releases from South Korea. From K-Pop to hip hop and everything in between, gorge yourself on all that’s new.

Despite some major comebacks, like Red Velvet’s grower “Russian Roulette”, the past month has felt strangely flat. Perhaps it’s the seasonal transition, or maybe it’s the run up to Chuseok, Korea’s Thanksgiving, but the entertainment fires have burned a little low recently. Before we get into five tracks you need to know this month, let’s walk through some of the general action coming out of Seoul.

Two groups thought to be stuck permanently in the pop basement were revived, but to little fanfare. They included Two X, whose “Over” wasn’t sure what it wanted to be (Trap? Rock? Doo-wop?), and Crayon Pop, whose “Vroom Vroom” was a shrill, frantic attempt to recapture the earlier brilliance of “Bing Bing” and “Dancing Queen”, running after a slighted fanbase who hadn’t been given a comeback in over a year and a half. Coming to pop’s rescue was Infinite, who gave their fans flashback with “The Eye”, which had an MV (music video) that looked like “Before The Dawn” (including the revival of Blonde!Sungjong) and sounded like a mix of previous singles “Back” and “Bad”. Meanwhile, the always thought-provoking singer Gain went forward into a heavily theatrical sound with “Carnival” – stick with it until the end for guaranteed tears.

One of the most talked about tracks, however, was “Roll”, from rapper Iron and former idol Kidoh. The song is ostensibly focused on a BDSM relationship, and includes lyrics like “I heard you said, ‘Boy, just rape me’” and “Engrave it in your mind, I’m yo fuckin’ owner.” Social media users picked up their pitchforks and burning torches, to which Kidoh made ill-thought out overtures to an apology while Iron stayed silent. You could try to reason away such appalling lack of taste – is Korean hip hop’s continual, blinkered cherry-picking through certain facets of American hip hop, in which women are sometimes objectified or degraded, a culprit? Was it poor shock tactics? Maybe “Roll” is symptomatic of South Korea’s ongoing and widely reported problem with men’s perception of women, as well as how sexual assault and rape is defined and dealt with. It could be one of these things, all of them, or none at all – and, because it’s doubtful that either will discuss it, we’ll probably never know.

What did come to light was that stupidity often begets stupidity: certain sections of the public responded by attacking Kidoh and Iron’s Instagrams with rape and death threats, which only served to undermine a valid argument and hijack a process for change. Neither of them have a major label to be dropped from, and after their recent marijuana court case, few outside of their small following cared about their existence – but the bitter outcome of this whole debacle is that they now have vast publicity about an over-produced, badly Auto-Tuned lyrical shitshow of a song. And for every #IronIsCancelled tweet, some other misogynistic arsehole now knows about them. When hashtags are currency, silence makes them poor – has no one learned anything from the Kardashians?

YOON MIRAE – “JAMCOME ON BABY”

While some Korean hip hop artists twist their counterfeit badman dials to a #yolo 11, there are those – like half-African-American/half-Korean rapper and singer Yoon Mirae – who are counteracting such contrivances. There are also plenty of young pretenders to her Queen of K-Hip Hop throne, but Mirae is in no hurry to relinquish her crown: she coats “JamCome On Baby” with an R&B sensuality similar to what artists like Yuna and Tinashe are exploring before unleashing a short blast of that unmistakeable biting flow. Nineteen years in the business has served her well – many upcoming artists spit like they’re afraid that people will stop listening, but Mirae infuses her bars with the tenderness the song desires yet without ceding an iota of impact. Her contemporaries should be scrambling to take notes.

THE SOLUTIONS – “TICKET TO THE MOON”

“Ticket to the Moon” slipped under my radar with a late July release, but excellent indie pop shouldn’t go overlooked – when Korean indie is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad, it sounds like watered-down Franz Ferdinand. The Solutions consists of vocalist/guitarist Park Sol and guitarist Naru. Naru cites the Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Daft Punk, and even EDM as influences, while his method, as he explains to Dazed, is to “make soundscapes wider and deeper by using many elements from many genres, but our final goal is to make it sound like pop.” On “Ticket to the Moon” his reach is wide, with an intro reminiscent of 80s soft rockers like Icehouse or Mr. Mister, winsome storytelling akin to Belle & Sebastian, and the stocky percussion and synths of The Killers. It’s familiar, but cleverly reconfigured and layered to not only avoid being dated or contrived, but to create their own lovely pocket of sound.

MOBB – “HIT ME” (FEAT. KUSH)

Only the staunchest YG Entertainment stan wouldn’t see putting together Winner’s Mino and IKON’s Bobby, the company’s new generation rappers, for a double single as a way to recreate the magic of GD&TOP (the hugely popular duo of G-Dragon and Big Bang’s T.O.P). The night and day vocal styles and personalities of Big Bang’s rappers were key, but Mino and Bobby often skate too close to being interchangeable on the bass-heavy but mostly forgettable “Full House”. Its ‘money and babes’-saturated MV might have some entertainment value, but you’re left wondering why YG continues to crib hip hop tropes that fall flat given that the label can not only come up with uniquely exciting ideas but also, like few others, clearly understand that banging songs don’t have to be these huge artifices.

“Hit Me” is naturalistic in comparison. It’s a potent mix of charm, chill, and high energy – its catchy cry of “빨리빨리 전화해”(hurry, hurry, call them)” echoes over a simple beat, while their obvious friendship and enjoyment of the loose style of filming lends the MV authenticity that “Full House” lacked. “Hit Me” is impossible to dislike – hell, it even gets away with making an obvious nod to GD&TOP’s “Please Don’t Go” while ripping visual cues from their “High High” video. There’s a winning formula here; the ongoing advice would be to not fuck around with it too much.

ELO – “ROSE”

First things first, any MV that brings together #pastelaesthetic and a glorious throwback to Roller Boogie is getting all the votes. Secondly, whatever you think of rapper/singer/often shirtless Jay Park, there’s no denying his eye for signing talent to his burgeoning label AOMG. Though a consistent presence as a featured singer on AOMG tracks, ELO (25-year-old Oh Min-Taek) is the least known of his artists, so the Gray-produced debut album 8 Femmes and its lead track “Rose” rightfully puts the spotlight on his dulcet tones. The album’s opening slant is decidedly R&B, but shifts gear into a masterclass of post-enfant terrible Jamiroquai style funk and nu-disco. “Rose” puts down the top, dons the yellow-tinted aviators, and cruises smoothly into the sunset, girl (and rollerskates) in hand.

SPICA – “SECRET TIME”

Five-member girl group Spica have had a rough time – they parted ways with their label, their sales have been on the slide, and they’ve been on hiatus for two years. They’ve had plenty to offer previously, from the Motown-esque “You Don’t Love Me” to the Hall & Oates sophistication of “Lonely”, and in Kim Bohyung and Kim Boa they have vocalists capable of wiping the floor with other singers. On “Secret Time”, they deliver snippets of their sorely missed richness and power, but it’s to a well-intentioned yet overly simple disco homage, its nods to Chic’s “Good Times” and Madonna’s “Holiday” sped up and polished to a diamond shine. Is it fun? Absolutely. Will you remember it six months? Probably not, but it’s a punchy reminder that K-Pop is poorer without them.