Counting down five summertime sizzlers that have emerged from South Korea’s music industry over the past four weeks
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 past four weeks have seen comeback after comeback, spearheaded in part by SM Entertainment. The K-Pop entertainment giant issued major releases from Red Velvet (the brilliant and wonky “Red Flavour”), EXO (the slow-burn addiction of “Ko Ko Bop”), and Girls’ Generation (who celebrated ten years as a group with “Holiday” and the glamorous disco bop “All Night”).
From the other entertainment companies, YG’s Winner – after the surprise success of “Really Really” in April – returned with another double A-side. Both “Island” and the superior ”Love Me Love Me” firmly stay on the trop-house trend that reignited their career. Meanwhile the company’s rookie soloist ONE debuted with the sensual “heyahe” and “Gettin’ by”.
Over at JYP, GOT7’s JB and Jinyoung resurrected their former high energy JJ Project for an EP of grown-up, considered, and emotion-stirring pop that pleased their long-standing fans.
On the underground and indie scene, it’s worth looking into Luda (from the Dickids crew and whom you might have seen on survival show High School Rapper), whose B-side “Jesus Piece” is an exercise in sonic contrasts, as well as the former YG trainee Jung Jinhyeong, who has resurfaced with the ultra-chill “Calling You”. Elsewhere the synth/guitar duo Glen Check returned with the hauntingly warped and hypnotic “Follow The White Rabbit”.
Rapper Zico – remarkably busy with solo work, a guest feature for Big Bang’s Taeyang, and his stint on Show Me The Money – provided a true highlight with the dark, aggressive and complex “Anti”, featuring G-Soul. He flipped the narrative, penning lyrics from the perspective of his anti-fans, exploring their irrational thought processes and unwaning desire to hate him in a fascinating reverse-“Stan” tirade against himself, with a moody, pointed video to match.
Finally, Australia was announced as a new destination for KCON, the huge K-Pop convention and concert that runs globally throughout the year drawing in tens of thousands per city. KCON has only touched down in Europe once before (Paris, 2016) and its absence is another blow for European fans who’ve already been antagonised by ‘world’ tours from the likes of EXO, BTS, and Seventeen that doesn’t quite match up to the one in the atlas. Prayer circle, anyone?
GUGUDAN 오구오구 (GUGUDAN 5959) – “ICE CHU”
K-Pop is never more enjoyable than when it’s playing the bonkers card. “Ice Chu”, with its ice cream-head wearing extras and candy bright sets, is hard not to love. Gugudan 5959, a subunit of the nine-member girl group Gugudan, are filling the gap left by the main group’s underperforming second single “A Girl Like Me” earlier this year. While their label Jellyfish Entertainment are perhaps musing over the group’s next move, their 17-year-old maknae line of Mina and Hyeyeon have stepped up to the plate – and there’s nothing that resembles caution or tentativeness here.
Elements of Orange Caramel, another legendary girl subunit, are at play in “Ice Chu”s disco lean as well as within the vocals, while the chorus sparkles with brass and funk guitars that are not far off from PSY’s “Napal Baji”. Yet Mina and Hyeyeon wholly inhabit this release with a self-assuredness beyond their years that makes it their own. They’re vivacious and minx-like as they bounce through a random EDM rap verse and vogue in the breakdown, while the track’s lightness of touch and perky blitheness makes it the perfect single to round out the summer.
N.FLYING – “THE REAL”
Pop rock five-piece N.Flying have spent their four-year career in a fragmented state with more Japanese singles (four) than Korean (three) – and of the latter, the only thread that links them is the decadent production. Where N.Flying have stumbled is in their identity – on “Endless Summer” there’s a 5SOS vibe, while on “Awesome” it’s a confusing mix of mid-00s rap rock and late era Panic! At The Disco.
On “The Real”, their first Korean single in almost two years, they haven’t forgone their noisy beginnings, but the visual kinks have been ironed out while their mix of styles and influences has been balanced and streamlined. The difference it makes is startling. Though they’ve been polished rather than redesigned, some bands might have balked at such a tinkering, yet it suits N.Flying – a group with idol good looks, a highly charismatic frontman, and plenty of energy – perfectly.
Underneath the guitars, “The Real” crackles with a pop sensibility (the staccato vocals leading into the chorus evoke those on Seventeen’s “Very Nice”). Their new second vocalist Yoo Hweseung adds a welcome extra dimension, smoothing in a subtle curve around lead singer Seunghyub’s more aggressive and flamboyant style. The video (complete with a surprise ending) by the prolific and talented studio Digipedi accentuates this refined version of the group, marrying a more idol-like, reaction-heavy style to straight-up performance cuts. If this is the path N.Flying continue on, then they might finally be caught in the spotlight that’s evaded them so far.
WANNA ONE – “ENERGETIC”
Thanks to some high octane fangirling – from screaming the studio down at a recent SNL filming to shoving Daewhi into a fence as the group tried to enter a television studio – certain sections of Wanna One’s newly formed fanbase (‘Wannables’) are swiftly earning themselves the enmity of the K-Pop community. It’s the culmination of weeks of frenzy around this year’s second season of idol survival show Produce 101, through which the 11-member boy group were formed. In light of the wide strata of fans to please, it’s unsurprising that their first single makes no attempt at experimentation, instead hoping to please everyone.
Because of this, “Energetic” isn’t much above a basic club-friendly beat, but it derives life from sax-like flourishes on the verses and an understanding that it shouldn’t outstay its welcome, setting a well-paced gallop from start to finish. But really, this isn’t about creating an interesting instrumental – its construction needs only to be solid to allow the voices to shine. That much is clear in the odd glossing over of the chorus, which never really takes off but slides past like the view from a fast-moving car before you’re propelled to the next vocal highlight, where Jaewhan, Minhyun, Seongwoo and Sungwoon, in particular, chomp through the track like seasoned pros.
“Energetic” does exactly what it says on the tin, an upbeat, no frills bop with an MV (music video) that features every charming close-up and cute scenario a fan could wish for and clear the stage for their next move – which is, we hope, a more definitive and directional view of Wanna One’s future.
DMEANOR – “RIGHT HERE”
It’s taken R&B singer DMEANOR three long years to get to the point of releasing an official track and he hasn’t wasted any time since, with “Right Here” being his second single in as many months. Winning fans by performing on the underground scene, covering tracks from Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” to Taeyeon’s “I” and guesting for the likes of Hanhae of hip hop trio Phantom, his anticipated debut was the smooth bounce of the Swings-featuring “Don’t Hold Me”, which took a leaf from Jay Park’s groove-laden book.
With “Right Here”, DMEANOR changes tack, slowing things down into a sun-drenched cruise. Its gentle opener is, however, a ruse; this track quickly becomes a sensory overload as DMEANOR’s pillowy, warm tones begin to act like an ever-tightening cocoon as the instrumental thickens and intensifies. Where it really surprises is on the middle eight, clutching at you with a guitar solo so 80s power ballad it’s still wearing acid wash Jordache jeans. It’s punctuated by the bright, tinny echo of synths favoured by Roxette, Martika, and pretty much anyone who draped leopard print scarves off their mic stand.
“Right Here” works not just as a postcard to a bygone era yet suitably of the now, but more importantly as a memorable foot forward in a Korean R&B scene that’s becoming more crowded and harder to stand out in.
CLC – “WHERE ARE YOU?”
If there was ever a group who continually suffered from their label not knowing what to do with them, it’s Cube Entertainment’s seven-member girl group CLC. From the perky brass and sophisticated vocals on their debut “Pepe” to being shoehorned on “Hobgoblin” into the mold occupied by former labelmates 4Minute, each CLC comeback seems like it’s been devised by executives throwing darts at a wall papered with images of more successful groups.
And so we’re met with “Where Are You?”, another 180-degree swing onto a new concept which will probably fall flat. The salt in that wound is that “Where Are You?” is damn great. From the needle jumping on a pop classic playing at a drowsy 33rpm to 8-bit renderings overlaid with VHS markings and Katakana, it’s a gorgeous tribute to vaporwave, the internet-bred music and visual movement that splices all things 1980s into glitchy, shimmering objets d’art. Vaporwave’s moment may have passed with K-Pop only briefly dabbling in its visual aesthetic (most notably on the Japanese version of EXO’s “Love Me Right”), yet no idol group has tried to adapt to it sonically. “Where Are You?” stays true to vaporwave’s core elements with a remote-sounding intro of sax and synthesised strings which then loom into sharp focus as a slow, staccato bass beat meanders underneath, and CLC’s vocals cut through the haze on the verses and harmonise like a fairyfloss-pink dream on the chorus.
Strong as this single is, the reality is it’s too nostalgic to attract new, younger listeners, too obscure for current trends, and the MV fails in creating anything interesting to give the song a fighting chance at being watched through curiosity or word of mouth. It’s a well-executed but far too risky comeback – which feels particularly bittersweet, as the girls deserve so much better.