January’s must-hear K-Pop tracks, from glowingdog’s atmospheric trip hop to Dreamcatcher’s horror film pop
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.
Just because it’s January and everyone is hibernating, that doesn’t mean the K-Pop machine has slown down. Now that award ceremonies are winding down and the notorious ‘gayos’ (end-of-year televised concerts put on by the big TV networks) with their moments of triumphant performances yet generally shambolic production are done, it’s time for a fresh batch of releases.
Last August we wrote about GRAYE in this column, and it was good to see the electronic producer’s output ramp up exponentially as 2016 came to end. He spent his time working with 75A on some dreamy R&B-influenced electronica, producing warped vocals and icy beats for female vocalist Jvcki Wai’s EXPOSURE EP and taking a creative director role with previous collaborator CIFKA for her debut EP Intelligensia, which includes the beautiful, Björk-esque “My Ego”.
But what would a new year be without at least one oh-no-they-didn’t moment? VIXX rapper Ravi came through with the overwrought and unmemorable “Bomb”, which saw him styled up like Zico on fashion steroids with a Fatman Scoop-esque chorus – even a snappy feature slot from San E couldn’t alleviate this misfire. AOA also began the year on the wrong foot, releasing two singles (“Bing, Bing” and “Excuse Me”), both of which failed to match their previous successes and set rumours alight that they would disband. Meanwhile, Hello Venus continued their odd habit of making an inferior attempt at another girl group’s hit sound just a few months later, this time mining Mamamoo’s jazzy cabaret vibe for “Mysterious”.
The most fun came from Cosmic Girls’ MV (music video) for “I Wish”, which resembled nothing short of an explosion in a Lisa Frank factory and provided breezy bubblegum pop to cheer up the winter-trodden soul. And Blackjacks (the nickname given to girl group 2NE1’s fandom) managed to lift their mourning veils at the news that the girls would release a farewell single at the end of the January called (wait for it) “Goodbye”. Warn your tear ducts.
NCT 127 – “LIMITLESS”
Although debuting last year as a seven-piece, NCT 127 have added new members (Doyoung and Johnny) for this creatively muddled comeback, which – perhaps to widen the group’s appeal – veers away from distinctive previous single “Fire Truck” to resemble sections of labelmate EXO's “Overdose” and “Wolf”, with a chorus not dissimilar to the rearranged version of “Black Pearl”. The deja vu is made all the more obvious because “Limitless” is actually limited in its range, a chorus-centric song that hangs off short, addictive bursts of densely packed harmonies and pleasingly unsettling effects, but falls to the wayside elsewhere, despite having a number of strong singers to play with.
If you can stomach the jittery camera work, the performance MV is the more exciting visual, the punchy choreography giving a welcome acceleration to the song’s laggy middle, while the ‘Rough’ version resembles a fashion film mixed with found footage. It’s ambitious, yet it’s confused as to what it’s doing or what it wants to be: it's beautiful, creepy, and expertly crafted one minute, then derivative and amateurish the next. NCT 127 has copious potential, as the six track Limitless mini-album deftly demonstrates, but refining their identity (and never again dreadlocking the members’ hair) should be a priority.
BEVY MACO – “SFTS” (FEAT. K.VSH)
Bevy Maco, who hails from the small rural town of Sangju, is now based in Seoul as part of the houseonmars crew – and he’s making the kind of music that seeps through the night like fog. Imagine early Jamie Woon playing at the speed of molasses, underpinned with the deep bass that haunts Nosaj Thing and Burial, then given light by Maco’s childhood love of Donny Hathaway, D’Angelo, and Musiq Soulchild. He creates complex emotions in the instrumentals which, when combined with the echoey layers of his voice, provides a haunting, almost painfully exquisite experience, an authentic reflection for the story behind it. Maco says he wrote it about a former girlfriend: “I discovered (she) was a callgirl after we’d been in a relationship for six months,” he explains. “At that time I didn’t break up with her ‘cuz maybe I was naive. I gave her a second chance and she promised me to quit, but she never did.”
DREAMCATCHER – “CHASE ME”
Formally known as Minx, Dreamcatcher’s rebrand has seen them gain a couple of new members, and their re-entry into K-Pop is about as far removed from what’s trending in girl groups as possible. If the likes of Cosmic Girls, Lovelyz, and Apink are girls with fluffy pen toppers and glittery phone cases, then Dreamcatcher are the ones sharing cigarettes behind the bike sheds. Alongside a video that borrows from any number of horror films, Dreamcatcher’s “Chase Me” binds itself with impressive pacing to a Japanese anime theme style (not unlike GARNiDELiA) more than anything recognisably K-Pop, pounding through choruses of chunky guitar riffs and tight, frantic percussion, then dropping into softer melodic verses. Although the MV ends with a teasing “To be continued,” it’s not uncommon for entertainment agencies to abandon concepts without reason – however, sticking with this unexpected yet wholly successful reboot would be a wise move for a group lucky enough to get a second crack at fame.
YOUNG CREAM – “042”
Back before B.A.P and BTS were marrying underground rap to idol stylings, four-piece M.I.B were crossing genres and producing their own tracks. However the group finally split at the start of 2017 after a long period of silence, and rapper Young Cream has been quick to drop a solo track. “042” refers to the area code of Daejeon, his hometown, and he sets a simple but moody trap beat over which he looks back at a rebellious childhood. His delivery is tinged with weariness, and particularly affecting is the promise he’d once made to provide for his mother, reiterated here in a way to suggest he hasn’t yet been able to do so. The MV, which he had a hand in directing, is also a muted, introspective affair and while all of this points to a potentially self-indulgent release, Young Cream manages to infuse “042” with the sense of having learned a life lesson rather than wallowing in nostalgia.
GLOWINGDOG – “THE HERMIT” (FEAT. SAVINA & THE DRONES)
“The Hermit” is so assuredly sophisticated in its construction, so effortless in wrapping you in its sleepy embrace, that it’s hard to believe it’s the electronic producer’s first EP. Signed to a small label, MUNHWAIN, glowingdog borrows memorable vocals from indie staple Savina & the Drones, whose tones evoke those of Lou Rhodes from 90s Manchester trip hop duo Lamb. Indeed “The Hermit”, with its swooning synths and graceful, rolling snares, feels like a 21st century interpretation of that hazy, hypnotic era, where bands like Portishead and later Air soundtracked wintery, weed-heavy nights. Its MV utilises cinematic aerial footage over what looks like the rugged frozen beauty of the American Midwest, and delivers plenty of aesthetic in the neon lines that spear through ice and snow, to round out an impeccable debut.