February’s must-hear K-Pop tracks and must-watch music videos, from BTS’s latest epic to a Groundhog Day-style scenario from O3ohn
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.
When mega-girl group Twice and mega-boy group BTS announced they’d be making comebacks in mid-February, only the brave and foolish decided not to move their releases given the risk of being flattened on the charts. Twice, with their gorgeous visuals for “Knock Knock”, stuck to their tried-and-tested formula of hooky, pattering lyrical rhythms – understandable for a young act, but given they’ve smashed so many other girl groups out the park since releasing their debut, they definitely could have experimented slightly without risking the grip on their fandom.
Elsewhere, Girls’ Generation’ Taeyeon continued her slew of solo releases but, in an error of style over substance, made a purple, ruffled dress look so incredible that she forget to put an interesting song to go with it. Multinational boy group Cross Gene came up against the same problem – they released a juicy, blood-soaked, skull-crunching MV (music video) for “Black or White”, yet even after multiple viewings, there’s little chance you could hum the song’s chorus.
As any long-term K-Pop fan will attest to, East-meets-West rarely goes well (anyone who heard JYJ and Kanye West’s “Ayy Girl” is probably still going through group therapy), but the tide had to turn at some point, and you should thank Gallant, Tablo, and Eric Nam for breaking the collaboration curse with “Cave Me In”. It’s a silky hybrid of R&B, pop, and hip hop that feels completely effortless. Still in hip hop, Cheetah (the feisty rapper who won the survival show Unpretty Rapstar in 2015, with fluctuating success since), released “Blurred Lines”, blending jazz, simple beats, and old school scratching beneath one of her stronger vocal performances, let down only by a distractingly insipid piano refrain.
The month’s most divisive track had to be Red Velvet’s “Rookie”. If you played it to someone who’s never listened to Korean pop, it’d either put them off for life or drag them kicking and screaming into the K-hole. It recently scored its eighth win on Korea’s music shows, proving yet again that cute-to-the-point-of-nausea is unfathomably popular.
XXX – “LIQUOR”
Visually powerful and disconcerting, the striking MV that accompanies “Liquor” is the work of Mattis Dovier, who also animated XXX’s 2016 single “Flight Attendant” from the same album, KYOMI. XXX, a collaboration between producer FRNK and rapper Kim Ximya, developed because “Kim Ximya was one of the rare ones who saw eye to eye with me on music,” as FRNK tells us. “He understands and interprets beats better than I do.” FRNK describes their music as “eerie, bizarre, and grotesque,” and indeed “Liquor” is ugly (full of brutal stops and starts, and effects that pulse, reverberate then shatter) yet beautiful (in its jagged rawness, which exists only to please itself).
Ximya’s voice lashes out like fists, his lyrics plaited with cockiness, black humour, and fury – stemming from, he explains, a real incident that happened to him. “However, I enjoy my lyrics (being) confusing and misleading so I’d like to keep it that way,” Xiyma adds. “I find the music industry in Korea irritating, so I want to make music that irritates them back.”
BTS – “SPRING DAY”
Beneath the thought-provoking surface of BTS’s music lies a complex map of overlapping stories told in their MVs. Although “Spring Day” aligns visually with sections of the narratives explored in “Run” and “I Need U”, it feels like it’s seeking to widen the net by being a bit of something to everyone (unlike its brash sibling “Not Today”, which covers familiar territory). The song’s lyrics are opaque (to some, “Spring Day” documents a failed relationship, to others, it’s about the death or suicide of a loved one), while sonically it adopts the globally beloved but relatively safe language of British stadium rock. At first glance, it’s a step back from the adventures of their last single but BTS’s urge to mess with the rules lights their way, and they toss aside the former’s bombastic cliches create an intriguing tension, allowing the voices – particularly V and Suga’s – to paint a landscape of light and shade against shuddering bass.
“Spring Day” recognises a universal journey: the loss of friendships, the need to move forward, the desire to hold onto (and instinct to hurt) what we love most. The MV, at its core, is about the choice of life paths. So whether you feel compelled to understand the new references (to Those Who Walk Away From Omelas and Snowpiercer) or you’re familiar with older storylines (Jin’s death, Jimin’s depression), the beauty and success of “Spring Day” is that you don’t need either to be able to embrace it. However, such ambiguity, no matter how useful in pushing BTS deeper into the mainstream, is surely only a brief liaison for a group with a fearlessly loud voice, which raises just one pertinent question: where to next?
MISO – “TAKE ME”
Miso, who performs in English, was born in South Korea but grew up in England before returning to her homeland, where she’s become associated with the Club Eskimo crew, a diverse group of solo performers ranging from DJ/producer Millic to rapper Punchnello to the successful R&B singers Dean and Crush (with whom she collaborated on his 2016 album track “Castaway”). On “Take Me”, her languid vocals are utilised to create a full body stretch of a song, the slightly set back bass more like a heartbeat as she muses over broken trust in a relationship – and while she sounds like a gentler, dreamier Kehlani, there are also moments where you suspect Miso may be holding back some power, particularly as she sings, “I don’t need a man to complete me… but you can be my pearl king and I can be your diamond queen.” Although currently a little bit of a mystery, Miso – who was requested to DJ at the Fendi x Boiler Room party at NYFW, and who popped up on Spotify’s US Top 50 viral tracks – surely can’t stay under wraps for much longer.
B.I.G – “1. 2. 3”
Five-piece B.I.G debuted in 2014 with the tourist board-friendly “Hello”. Since then, though, they’ve struggled to get their hands on a hit song – so it’s unsurprising that their label is calling “1. 2. 3” a ‘rebirth’, because it overshadows their somewhat disjointed past and should be (if the fates are kind) the comeback that breaks them to a wider audience. They’re now without rapper Minpyo (who’s out with health issues), but “1.2.3” – with its nods to vaporwave aesthetics and VHS effects, colour-pop styling, and over-saturated grading – looks flawless. If it sounds reassuringly familiar then mark that down to how it splices the funk guitars of EXO’s EXODUS era, the sweeping strings of Infinite, and the vocal stylings of SHINee into its DNA. The trick up its sleeve is that while all those elements can be isolated and remarked upon, “1.2.3” as a whole is smartly coherent and easily one of the most immediately captivating K-Pop singles in recent memory.
O3OHN – “KALT” (FEAT. JOONIE)
The repetition in the video for “Kalt” – which was filmed in Berlin – is clean, simple, and uncomfortable, a Groundhog Day for a lonely soul. The routine o spliff, photobooth, and notepad descends into an act of giving up, of lying on the frozen ground and waiting for something better (or worse) to break the monotony and inspire him to live again. O3ohn, along with female vocalist Joonie, both soothes and acerbates the visuals. O3ohn’s voice is a defeated one, but within it remains the vestiges of hopeful sweetness. “I’m tired of myself,” he sings over a softened, organ-like drone, muted handclaps, fuzzy, spaced-out guitar, and burbling beats, “I know you want to hold onto me… Look at my heart.” Recurring images like the yellow notepad have already appeared in his work, with last year’s “Untitled 01” exploring the balance between creativity and mundanity, adding an intriguing allegorical dimension to a talented singer/songwriter/guitarist.