Charting the biggest and best bangers from South Korea’s pop and hip hop scenes this May
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.
While Psy won’t reach the stratospheric heights of “Gangnam Style” again, there’s still a big market for the star’s brand of tongue-in-cheek pop. He returned this month after a two-year absence with new album 8th 4 x 2 = 8, which saw double A-sides “I Luv It” (with its old-school Technotronic “Spin That Wheel” samples) and the football-terrace shoutiness of “New Face”. Both sport great MVs (music videos), but neither do very much musically.
On the other hand, BewhY’s string-and-brass laden “Deja Vu” takes you on a dramatic hip hop trip. The rapper is going from strength to strength, and this is already high on our list of best releases of 2017 so far. Elsewhere, one of the brightest young female indie singers, SURAN, released the pretty “If I Get Drunk Tonight” (featuring Changmo), which took her to the top of the charts, and girl group Lovelyz released with the frothy “Now, We”, securing their first music show win since debuting nearly three years ago.
SM Entertainment’s Station project rolled on – from NCT Ten’s release last month, it was the turn of another NCT member, Taeyong, who teamed up with the unpredictable producer/songwriter Hitchhiker for “Around”. It’s a brutal synth banger, like a totally demented M.I.A track, with the young vocalist growling his way over Bhangra-esque beats.
In what was a somewhat insubstantial month for releases, we instead observed the hysteria on Twitter as BTS’s global ARMY began voting on an eye-popping scale for them to win the upcoming Billboard Top Social Artist award. The fandom lived up to their name, marshalling themselves to garner a staggering 200 million+ (and still counting) votes, which will hopefully (probably) see the first K-Pop act to be nominated for anything at the Billboard awards actually win.
And in a moment of slight cheating, at least for this Korean release-dedicated column, it was EXO-CBX’s Japanese single “Ka-Ching!” that got replayed to death. It’s perfect pop – fluffy but substantial, fattened on a juicy hook and generous melodies – and it was impossible to find anything more endearingly absurd than EXO’s Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin camping it up in front of extravagantly tacky graphics so bad it turned the video into a surrealist piece of art.
VIXX – “SHANGRI-LA”
Before they released “Shangri-La”, VIXX put out a concept film that combined both modern and traditional dance and music to create something beautiful and minimalistic. But it was a ruse. These elements do inhabit “Shangri-La”, both as a song and a video, but the concept actually delivers on so many more sumptuous layers that it’s a delicate luxury to unpack it all. Unusually for a pop song, “Shangri-La” is not reliant on its chorus (despite the song’s instantaneous hook). Instead, its excellence emerges when you listen in its entirety – only when it’s slid past in what seems like seconds do you realise how clever it is. The song is pieced together like a jigsaw where you can’t see any cut lines, where each member’s distinctive vocal tone is audible even as they merge seamlessly, and the dreamy tinkle of the zither is jolted by vocal effects and a staggering array of chirpy, plinky, and buzzy samples that add intrigue between the beats. The more you listen, the more you hear, and the deeper your appreciation for its quirks goes, reinforcing that VIXX – now nearing their five-year anniversary – are truly a class act.
OLNL – “OYEAH”
Carrot-haired rapper OLNL popped randomly into the spotlight with “OYEAH”, racking up over 120,000 views in just a couple of weeks. Upon deeper inspection, OLNL has been grafting away for quite some time, uploading plenty of music (including his yesyesyes mixtape) to Soundcloud and working with the two crews he’s associated with, juiceoveralcohol and WYBH. Like Giriboy (a member of WYBH, whom OLNL has collaborated with and is clearly influenced by), OLNL spends a large part of the song utilising a singing-rap style that provides a simple, effective hook. “OYEAH” often veers close to being oversweet in the instrumental thanks to the constant high-pitched altered vocals, but he deftly pulls it back each time by cutting down the beats or dropping into a solid rap. This balancing act lends “OYEAH” the depth to keep it moving forward. The MV, directed by FlipEvil (responsible for big hitters like Red Velvet’s “Dumb Dumb” and EXO’s “Monster”), perfectly captures both the childlike and adult elements, using stop-motion, frames of Boomerang-style movement, and scribbly animation placed over dusky empty spaces or glaringly bright industrial sprawl to close the circle on a promising official debut.
TRIPLE H – “365 FRESH”
Girl group 4Minute and boy band Beast not only shared a record label, but were high on the K-Pop food chain – that was up until drama bested them all. To recap their slightly confusing story, after 4Minute disbanded, HyunA stayed with the group’s label Cube Entertainment; meanwhile, Beast’s Hyunseung left both the band and the label. Hyunseung then returned to Cube, yet the great subunit act Trouble Maker which he and HyunA had been a part of hasn’t been resurrected. As a substitute, HyunA’s been teamed with E-Dawn and Hui, two members of Cube’s rookie boy group Pentagon, who at least get an opportunity to shine beyond their crowded ten-member group as Triple H.
It seems almost pointless to talk about “365 Fresh” as a track – it waters down Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic” which, considering Mars’s song already diluted James Brown into bland supermarket-brand funk, means that “Fresh” is almost devoid of uniqueness. But Cube are tenacious button pushers, and by borrowing from Reservoir Dogs, Thelma & Louise, and former Trouble Maker MVs, they’ve created a video with sex, spliffs, suicide, money, booze, blood, and boobs, and the two boys styled up and bleached out to look like Hyunseung at his quasi-druggy, brittle best. It’s pure schlock and irresistibly entertaining, and although Trouble Maker sadly died so that this gorgeously-filmed cluster of shock tactics could live, the result is beautiful people doing ugly things – and that’s been a bona fide crowd-pleaser since pretty much forever. Don’t think, just watch.
DOUBLE K – “SURF” (FEAT. SIK-K & JAY PARK)
35-year-old rapper Double K has been on the Korean hip hop scene since 2001, but there’s still solid tunes coming from the fertile plains of his mind. After closing out last year with “OMG” (featuring Seo In Guk and Dok2), a neon-saturated panty-dropper that was surprisingly graceful, he’s returned with the Green Wave LP, which features “Surf” as a major standout. Lyrically it’s a simple affair. There’s surfing surfing, then there’s surfing disguised as fucking. There are bad girls. There are model girls. And there’s the perfect girl. You get the idea. Produced by rising star duo GroovyRoom and featuring Jay Park and Sik-K, “Surf” is a layer cake, with slivers of slow strings akin to The Weeknd’s “Earned It” overlaid with gleaming, piercing bleeps that circle the song like satellites, and sharply rapid bars which segue into an opaque, falsetto chorus. It’s atmospheric and beguiling, particularly as the echoing, faded vocals kick in post-chorus. Despite the title, it does little to evoke beach vibes, which is a nice twist, more effectively soundtracking a liquor soaked, sweaty summer night in a big city, rolling through in an expensive car with dented fenders and smoke streaming from the windows.
TWICE – “SIGNAL”
Nine-member act Twice have become the biggest girl group in K-Pop in under two years with singles that were catchy, unrelentingly upbeat and borderline headache-inducing. But they worked, they snapped and fizzed and did everything well constructed pop should do. Thus those who live for the high octane energy of “Like Ooh Ah” or “Cheer Up” may feel empty-handed as “Signal” is far flatter and more mechanical than previous releases, with even the determinedly cute “jjirit jjirit” (“buzz, buzz”) sections of the chorus sounding slightly sleepy. Dahyun, Chaeyoung, Mina, and Momo get the most divisive lines – the chanted openers to the verses – and there’s something delightfully ‘off’ about their voices throughout, their tone and delivery jarring against the rubbery bass, obtusely giving “Signal” its most engaging moments. The charming MV has helped the track stick, and, as expected, it did well, even breaking their own record of first day sales by a girl group. Undoubtedly that happy fact will be thrown into every argument for the foreseeable future regarding this comeback, but shifting units has never been a seal of quality (just look at The Chainsmokers and their platinum selling dross) and while “Signal” has its moments, it will now and forever struggle to reach above being mediocre.