From the fastest-selling new boy group to dreamy bedroom R&B, 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.
The record for highest charting and biggest selling K-Pop album on the US Billboard 200 charts – the fastest boy group to reach 10 million, then 20 million views on YouTube – goes to BTS, who owned October with their album Wings. This success has, naturally, resulted in chatter that they’re the act to break America (a claim that’s been made so frequently and for so many different artists that it’s become something of a poisoned chalice). Spare a thought for 2NE1's CL though, whose attemps to take the US – with an upcoming nine-city tour that’s seeing her bring along Rihanna’s choreographer and Miley Cyrus’s tour manager – are now being seen as more of a gentle pawing than an all-out assault.
A lesson in the fickle nature of pop was learned with Crayon Pop’s excellent “Doo Doom Chit”, as it made little impact despite the girls having one of the most viral hits in recent years with “Bar Bar Bar”. We said farewell to I.O.I, the eleven-member girl group put together through the talent show Produce 101, who were – in a stroke of marketing genius – given a shelf-life from the outset. It gave the group a sense of urgency and poignancy, and “Very Very Very” has unsurprisingly been doing (very, very) well. It’s certainly fared better than SM Entertainment’s expansion of EXO members beyond their group – they brought in button-pushing bore Alesso, who turned Chen’s skilled vocals into generic dross on “Years”, while Chanyeol’s don’t-blink moment with Far East Movement on “Freal Luv” was underwhelming.
Hip hop had a quiet month. One of the better releases came from veteran rapper Verbal Jint, who teamed up with Chancellor (from the producer/composer duo Duble Sidekick) for “Sunshine”, while in R&B, Jay Park dropped a new album headed up by the sun-drenched “Drive” – worth watching for the sassy subtitling alone. We close out a month of goings-on with the welcome rumour that long-established male idol group Beast were breaking free of their label, Cube Entertainment, to manage themselves, only to have Cube shut down the allegation shortly after. So in the spirit of freedom and new beginnings, take a moment to appreciate former Topp Dogg member Seogoong, who returns solo as I’M (possibly the worst name to Google) with the better-than-anticipated “Try” and, one hopes with that title combination, a sense of irony.
BTS – “BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS”
BTS debuted in 2013 with “No More Dream”, a simple but effective nod to teenage rebellion, but over the past 18 months they’ve become complex visual storytellers, weaving deep symbolism and allegory around life, death, and the loss of innocence into their work. New album Wings is no exception, tying previous imagery to a new chapter of BTS, which makes heavy use of Hermann Hesse’s Jungian novel of self-realisation, Demian. The video for “Blood, Sweat and Tears” is a sumptuous, sexually-charged interpretation of its storyline, from Jin as protagonist Sinclair, to V as the titular temptor Demian – a production so lavish it almost knocks the song from focus. It takes several viewings for their sonic change to sink in; while other groups are playing catch-up to their distinctive hard beat tracks like “Fire”, BTS have already changed direction, swinging “Blood Sweat and Tears” towards the glossy, addictive reggaeton that Major Lazer have embossed on pop. The structure is straightforward, but belied by the breathy ride it pulls you on, dipping and slithering with a teasing build to the chorus, and a sudden outro that hangs in the air for a brief moment, which, for this MV (music video), certainly isn’t enough time to pick your jaw up off the floor.
MIGNON – “808 DUNK”
A quick trip around Mignon’s Instagram is to glimpse Seoul’s hotbed of electronica. Club flyers and images of the DJ/producer at the decks abound, as well as (possibly as a consequence of his night-time dedication) a shot of him napping mid-university lecture. “808 Dunk” featured on a recent Ruffhouse Munich compilation, and it comes hard out of the gate with crushing jungle and old school drum‘n’bass. He may not have grown up around Britain’s unique club culture, but the passion he harbours is hard to miss: “808 Dunk” (so named because it uses the sound of a basketball being dunked and a Roland TR-808 drum machine) feels similar to Jamie XX’s “Gosh”, but where the latter is muted, stately, and introverted, a love letter to a rave era gone by, Mignon piles “808 Dunk” high with brutish vocal cuts and 90s loops until it threatens to topple. If you’re wanting four minutes of stuttering bass riot, you’ve found it (and then some).
MATILDA – “YOU BAD! DON’T MAKE ME CRY”
Is there anything better than throwing defcon level one K-Pop into the public’s lap just to hear them cry, “what kind of batshit crazy is this?” The answer is no, fyi. Realistically though, you might think it problematic to champion “You Bad! Don't Make Me Cry!”: the song’s a hot mess, sounding like four separate songs stitched together and cherrypicking from previous girl group sounds (amongst them 4Minute, 2NE1, and what sounds like T-Ara’s “Sugar Free” on the chorus). It’s entirely ludicrous and egotistical in its initial belief that such a total car crash of ideas could work. Yet because of all that, it’s an excellent guilty pleasure. It revels in the what-the-actual-fuck factor, sticking its middle finger up and having a grand time being bloody noisy pop. And, sometimes, that’s all you should ever ask from a song.
SHINEE – “1OF1”
The nu-90s trend was fun before it ignited a full scale revival and heritage brands had dollar signs in their eyes. For some it’s translated into laziness, not just in the recycling of fashion, but music too – and SHINee's “1of1” is guilty as charged. SHINee, and indeed K-Pop as an entity, are no strangers to digging into the past for treasures, but it’s the spin on it, the merge with other sounds, that gives artists their singularity. Only SHINee, as skilled pop alchemists, can pull off “1of1”s unabashed worship of New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love”: it’s lovingly nostalgic and feather-light, but the refusal to be anything other than a mirror image of the past makes for an unsatisfying lead single. It’s also a major step down in their MVs, made more disappointing because they’re capable of a garishly good 90s pastiche video (as seen for album track “Woof Woof”). Visually, “1of1” really could have done with its memorable charms.
OCEAN – “BABY”
When you think of modern Korean R&B, the first name that probably springs to mind is king of the slow jams, Jay Park. Or Zion.T, Crush, and the much touted new upstart, Dean. R&B, whether homegrown or international, is big business in South Korea (Chris Brown is unfeasibly popular) and the genre is primed for a fresh wave of young artists. One is Ocean, who has been making music for only a year, yet his Soundcloud tracks are remarkably accomplished. He cites Tory Lanez, Trey Songz, and Bryson Tiller as influences, and you can certainly hear the latter in his low-key use of trap beats – but Ocean’s mellifluous voice, both a clear falsetto and an intimate rasp, verges tantalisingly on great things. He utilises it in the same manner as The Weeknd’s measured patter and crooning seduction and it gives “BaBY” (on which he fears his girlfriend is about to break off their relationship) and the minimal “Wish” a shimmering, impressive presence.