A new wave of R&B artists are disrupting the K-pop industry
Think of the music scene in South Korea, and it’s hard to escape the highly processed, slickly produced, bubblegum-flavoured world of K-pop. Between appearances on variety shows like Ask Us Anything and constant fan-service through Vlive sessions and concerts, the ubiquity of the genre seems to have swallowed up everyone else in the music industry. In the past few years, though, a new wave of R&B artists from independent labels have propelled the genre into the spotlight – so much so that K-pop’s birthplace has now become a surprising space for new, and often underrated, R&B talent to emerge.
R&B is not new to Korea. In fact, the country’s broader hip hop culture is where the present wave of K-pop traces its origins back to. The first notable developments in Korean R&B crop up with the debut of Seo Taiji & the Boys, often considered the godfathers of modern day Korean pop, around 1992. Even though they broke up after only four years, their technique – hybridising Korean music with hip hop and R&B elements from the United States – revolutionised the country’s music scene, breaking away from the Japanese folk music influence that had dominated the charts for decades.
By the time the band went their separate ways, Korean music was regularly borrowing from R&B, rap, and hip hop. It was also around the time, however, that the government’s agenda to mould music into a soft power was gaining momentum. With money pouring into the music industry, the focus was now on creating the ‘next big thing’, slowly turning K-pop into the competitive industry it now is. The only mainstay in R&B was possibly Yang Hyun-suk, who, after leaving Seo Taiji & the Boys, set up YG Entertainment, now one of Korea’s ‘Big 3’ music companies. Yang’s R&B roots carried over into his business, and YG artists have obvious influences in their music. YG is also the parent company to two of Korea’s primarily R&B labels, HIGHGRND and The Black Label.
Though co-existing in the same atmosphere, Korean R&B moves at a much more languid pace than its pop counterpart, and is dominated mostly by independent artists signed to smaller labels who write and produce their own music. And unlike most K-pop acts, R&B artists often actively promote themselves in other countries, collaborating with artists from around the world. The resulting international fanbase often feeds into the one back home. In 2015, Zion.T released the singles “Just” (featuring popular R&B artist Crush) and “Eat”, both of which later beat out more established artists to win Best Collaboration and Best Vocal Performance at the industry’s year-end music awards. Zion.T’s debut EP OO, which features industry mainstays G-Dragon and Zico, peaked at number two on the US Billboard World Albums chart.
While 2017 was one of the most noteworthy years for the genre so far, this year promises to be even better. Here are five artists set to dominate the next 12 months.
If you’re even only slightly familiar with Korean music, chances are you’ve heard of Zion.T. A reclusive artist with powerhouse vocals and an affinity for sunglasses, everything about Zion.T (real name Kim Hae-so) is smooth, languid, and decidedly old-school – although he disagrees with the latter description, despite his classic ‘suit and old-fashioned fedora’ looks. Zion.T is one of the more experimental Korean R&B artists, drawing inspiration more from experiences than from people. “I write down everything, from what I see, hear, eat, where I slept, what I did with this particular person,” he told Kpopeurope, “From these events in my life, I write and release music of the experiences that I don’t want to keep to myself.”
If you want to start somewhere, his latest EP, OO, is the way to go. Featuring famous names like G-Dragon and Beenzino, OO is a concoction of jazz, soul, and crooning vocals, with a relaxed pace that ties the tracks together. Think strolling down the cobbled pathways of Greece on a sunny day.
It’s sometimes hard to dissociate Penomeco from Fanxychild, the R&B collective he’s a part of alongside his long-time friend, Zico of boy group Block B. But with self-deprecating lyrics about heartbreak balanced neatly between rap and vocals, his Film EP does a great job of putting his own unique personality in the spotlight. “Like a timid guy who wants to be sexy,” in his own words.
Listened to in order, each of the three tracks on Film underlines a distinct emotion – disbelief, anger, and resignation. The best part about his voice, though, is how he uses Auto-Tune to bounce perfectly, complementing the whole set-up. Start with “Hunnit” and go on to listen to the rest of the EP: it’s a perfect prelude to his artistic potential.
While not new to the scene, Suran’s brilliant vocal colour and experimental nature pegs her as an artist to look out for with each new release. She was a songwriter long before she debuted with her hugely successful digital single “Wine”, produced by BTS’s Suga, and has since collaborated with R&B favourites like Dean, Crush, and Mad Clown.
Her music blurs the boundaries between R&B and hip hop, like composite art – a phrase she often uses to describe it. “I don’t have just one genre; I have my own fantasy that I present and think of musically,” she once told Dazed Korea. “I like to paint. I want to dissolve the image into sound.”
Seo Dong-hyeon chose his artist name because he was fascinated by how people responded to the words of the prophet Samuel. “I hope people hear my words seriously,” he told Rhythmer. That could be the reason why his work – arranged, composed, and written all by himself – is so self-reflective in nature.
Rooted in R&B, soul, and hip hop, Seo’s songs are instinctive and deep, more often than not mirroring his mental health struggles. His single “Kafka”, for example, talks about some particularly difficult times in his life: “That time was like a storm. From late last year to the beginning of this year, I couldn’t go outside and couldn’t see people,” he once said. His exploration of mature themes has gained him somewhat of a cult following, often putting him at the forefront of an evolving underground subculture.
Before he released his first single, Rad Museum – or So Haejoon – was known as Camper, the all-rounder of artists Dean and Crush’s crew, Club Eskimo. He dabbled in graphic design, tattoos, and music production before changing his moniker to the present Rad Museum and releasing his debut single, “Island”.
While the single, with all its choppy audio and raw vibes, was a perfect introduction to his laidback style, what set him up as a promising artist was his debut EP, Scene, released in October 2017. In seven tracks, the release hops from true blue R&B to old school rock to Latin influences, all backed up by Haejoon’s almost lazy vocals, making you feel like you’re sitting in on an impromptu jam session rather than listening to an album.