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.
Over the past four weeks, there’s been no bigger story or talking point in South Korea’s music industry than Big Bang’s T.O.P, who was charged for having consumed marijuana, dismissed from the police division where he’d been placed for his mandatory military enlistment – then rushed to ICU after overdosing on benzodiazepines. It sent shock and panic through the global K-pop community. Although T.O.P recovered consciousness, according to the latest reports he’ll continue treatment before his trial, which will undoubtedly reignite the debate around celebrity power versus the law, gender equality when it comes to the careers of K-pop idols, and South Korea’s stringent drug laws.
Amid the chaos, bandmate G-Dragon quietly forged ahead with his new release, a deeply personal five-track EP that saw him achieve an all-kill on the Korean charts, sell more than a million albums in China, top 39 iTunes charts simultaneously, and start his solo world tour. Also achieving an all-kill was SISTAR, whose recent disbandment was finalised by the farewell single “Lonely”, an introspective track with an MV (music video) that ends with an assault on the tear ducts.
Elsewhere, boy group SEVENTEEN returned with the brilliant “Don’t Wanna Cry”, earning them an impressive six wins on Korea’s music shows. Speaking of which, rookie boy group A.C.E had everyone talking about their pop-meets-hardstyle-techno debut “Cactus” by appearing on Music Bank in seriously thigh-hugging, high-cut shorts. Cosmic Girls ditched their beguiling winsomeness for the trend-following but otherwise indistinguishable “Happy”, and for something intriguing (and for anyone seeking a noisy alternative to the chart-destroying, laidback female indie duo Bolbbalgan4), K-pop fans should look to girl-band newbies Marmello and their pastel aesthetic-meets-riff-heavy rock effort “Puppet”.
Meanwhile, Eric Nam made an English-language guest appearance on the hooky and pleasing “Idea of You” by Russian EDM producer Arty, the ten-strong boy group Pentagon took some influence from EXO’s “Growl” and the riff from Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” for the entertaining “Critical Beauty”, while over in hip hop, the vastly underrated Dino.T continued his run of mesmerising tracks with the melodic “약하지 않아 (I’m Not Weak)”. Finally, Nine Muses made their long-awaited return with the emotional slow-burn of “Remember”, and rising boy group Monsta X blessed us with the dangerously good “Shine Forever”, which managed to be deliciously moody even with its power vocals and enormous future bass sound. Get your teeth into everything.
G-DRAGON – “(UNTITLED, 2014)”
A solo release from G-Dragon, Korean pop music’s undisputed king, always feels like an event thanks to his elaborate and expensively staged videos, and his knack for a chorus that’s big and catchy enough to withstand the visual onslaught. The likes of “Coup D’Etat”, “Crayon” and (though he’s no longer partial to it) 2009’s “Heartbreaker” were all vivid, slightly mad creations, and the newest single from his mini-album Kwon Ji Yong was supposed to follow in their footsteps. However, rather than release the laconic snarl and harsh EDM of “Bullshit”, the release was changed last minute to the album’s ballad “Untitled, 2014”. While some may have been disappointed not to see the accompanying video to “Bullshit”, G-Dragon’s decision was timely in light of his Big Bang bandmates’ health issues – but also creatively interesting for a man on his fifth solo release.
Though known primarily as a rapper, G-Dragon is more than able to turn his distinctive tone to singing, and what emerges on “Untitled, 2014” – alongside its apology to, and yearning for, a former lover – is a raw emotion that cracks at the edges over a single piano accompaniment. The video is simply G-Dragon alone in an empty studio, yet rather than it be a maudlin show of heartbreak, it feels real to the point of the audience being an intruder to his private reality. “Untitled, 2014” is beautiful and emotionally charged, and while he clearly enjoys creating the spectacle when it comes to his music, he loses nothing when stripped of it. If anything, it strengthens his position as a compelling, forward-looking artist, even when the song itself is looking back.
SURAN – “1+1=0” (FT DEAN)
From feature artist to chart-topper, Suran’s ascent has been slow but steady since 2015, chalking up appearances with Hwasa (of girl group MAMAMOO), and rappers Beenzino, Zico and Mad Clown, while Suga (of boy-group darlings BTS) produced her hugely successful track “Wine” earlier this year. Its follow-up features DEAN, the young R&B singer-songwriter who has penned for EXO, collaborated with rapper Zico and singer Crush, and is already selling out shows around the world – basically, “1+1=0” is an inviting proposition before you’ve even hit play.
What you get is Suran on an ethereal funk trip, the opening riffs bouncing like light beams, with DEAN crooning and Suran’s voice dipping down into a lower key where the delectable rasp seen on last year’s “Ddang” scratches through. “1+1=0” takes a sideways look at Korea’s burnout work culture and constantly darts forward, playfully picking up and putting down instrumentation like an indecisive shopper – a bit of percussion here, woodwind over there, and a dose of brass to show it out. DEAN, meanwhile, uses his ad-libs and verse to give the song a rich hue to counterbalance Suran’s smooth, sweet vocals. Keep this one close to hand for the rest of the summer.
NCT 127 – “CHERRY BOMB”
Of the three male NCT sub-units, the nine-member NCT 127 have been the most active – they’re now on their third EP, Cherry Bomb. In their short history, they’ve become recognised as their label SM Entertainment’s experimental group, from the aggressive and punchy “Fire Truck” to the sinuous tease of “Limitless”. “Cherry Bomb” feels closest to the former – it’s a challenge to breach it as a pop song, but that’s beginning to feel like the point of NCT 127 singles. Its initial surprise is that the vocal hook of “Hurry, hurry, avoid it, right cherry bomb, feel it yum, I’m the biggest hit, I’m the biggest hit on this stage” acts as opener, outro and chorus, while beneath it runs an atmospheric instrumental of perilous synths rising and falling around a thickly oppressive bass. Rappers Taeyong and Mark, who put in a blistering performance, take the lead for the most part, but the intense yet swaggering claustrophobia of “Cherry Bomb” is broken momentarily on a verse by vocalists Doyoung, Jaehyun and Taeil, who provide a sweet respite.
The MV is unexpectedly light considering where the darkly demanding “Cherry Bomb” leaves you sonically, but its choreography is satisfyingly territory-staking and the juxtaposition between the song and visual, looked at in a wider sense, keeps it flexible enough for its two versions (the original and performance mix) to bookend a highly accomplished EP, which traverses deep house elements on “0 Mile” to the tender echo and pulse of synths on “Sun & Moon”. “Cherry Bomb” might take a little time to stick, but don’t underestimate its ability to do so.
SLCHLD – “SLOW DOWN FOR ME”
Although his Soundcloud only stretches back five months, SLCHLD – whose name is an abbreviated form of ‘Seoul Child’ – has been a busy man. As his artistic moniker suggests, Jang Doohyuk was born in Seoul, though he now bounces between the motherland and his current home in Vancouver. Despite appearing to be a newbie to the industry, he’s already nabbed himself an opening slot for successful Korean rappers Reddy and G2 on their upcoming North American jaunt. Performing in both Korean and English, SLCHLD is heavy on the ambience, with his producer otxhello creating heady, somnolent beats under the influence of slow-groove 70s soul (think Raydio or The Isley Brothers) using a mix of electronica and guitar, both acoustic and electric. It’s around the halfway mark where “slow down for me” brings all those elements together – the echoey synth ad-libs, the guitars, and Jang’s voice, which rises into a clean falsetto – and pushes it right down your spine. The sadness inside you EP that the track comes from is more than deserving of a listen – once you’re done, play it again and pinky-promise yourself keep SLCHLD on your radar.
SAMUEL SEO & QIM ISLE – “MANGO”
Between rapper Qim Isle and singer Samuel Seo (both signed to indie label Craft and Jun), there’s an enviable wealth of talent that joins forces on Project Elbow. The five-track EP is led by the irresistible “Mango”, its new jack swing feel nodding to Bell Biv Devoe and Bobby Brown while being held together with Seo and Isle’s tag-teaming and intertwining vocals. Their collaboration, Seo tells Dazed, had moved fast because “Isle signed in May 2017 and agreed on making his debut on this before summer, so the project had to be done as quickly as possible.”
Collaborations are plentiful, particularly in South Korea’s busy hip hop scene, yet Isle and Seo – no strangers to a working with other artists – point to key differences within theirs. “Samuel is a champion at leaving just enough space for his peers,” says Qim. “I would do what I do, he’d do the same; this kind of chemistry doesn’t happen often. All the collaborative works I’ve done before this would have the song planned out and I’d try to fit to their vision, no more or no less.” Samuel adds: “I’ve never felt this comfortable while working on an album because this had nothing to do with standing out against each other, it was only about making good music.”
Yet “Mango”, as fate would have it, almost never happened. “First time I heard the song,” Samuel admits, “I was desperate to be a part of it, but it was originally planned to be released as Isle's solo.” In the end, a creative block pushed it forward. “I have a habit of sticking my nose into producer’s trash bins because they always throw out the best beats,” says Qim. “‘Mango’ (by singer/songwriter/producer Vinicius) was one of them. When I first heard it (in 2016), I jumped on it to make the hook. Vinicius and I only took a day to finish the instrumentals, but in 2017, I still couldn’t write anything else on it. That’s when Samuel came to rescue.”
The must-watch video is just one part of the extensive visuals of Project Elbow. Created by ADVVVENTURE and nvrmnd, its origin lies in “extinguishing colours and to make the video transparent with plain black-and-white, since the song is about ‘finding one’s colour and identity’,” as Qim explains. According to Samuel, “We had this idea of parasitising it on cool websites, but we had to call it quits due to the obvious legal problems!”
Follow Taylor Glasby on Twitter here @_xtgx