From a new girl group’s fanwar-starting debut single to deep house from the independent scene, we look at the latest developments in South Korea’s music world
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.
Summer is always busy for K-Pop as everyone vies for the seasonal smash hit, but with new girl group BLACKPINK killing it with their hyped debut singles “Whistle” and “Boombayah”, everyone else can probably kick their feet up. EXO, however, aren’t sitting back: the repackaged version of second studio album Exodus (and new single “Lotto”) makes this their third million-selling album. At the other end of the spectrum, BTS (also known as Bangtan Boys) rapper Suga released his accomplished mixtape Agust D for free. It pulls no punches – caustic on fame and greed, and candid about mental health, an issue South Korea has long struggled to face. Still in the hip hop world, survival show Show Me The Money finished its fifth season in mid-July and, a month on, winner BewhY has released “Puzzle”; it’s musically pleasing, but contains the lyrical Show Me The Money smackdown that every rapper now, boringly, feels obliged to spit post-show.
Anticipation ran high for ex-4Minute leader HyunA, now three members lighter and solo full time, returning with “How’s This?", which was memorable for sounding like Sean Paul in places and forgettable everywhere else. So we turn to 2NE1’s CL, whose almost mythical US debut extracted itself from the pop void with “Lifted”, with a chorus that will latch into your head and go nowhere fast. It's now a question (or prayer circle) of whether her label stalled too long and lost the momentum built last year to succeed in the notoriously difficult US market.
There's nothing like rounding out with dollops of scandal... Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany must be ruing the day she joined Snapchat. Outrage erupted last week over her photo taken in Japan using a Rising Sun sticker, but posted on Korea's very important National Liberation Day, which marks the country’s liberation by the US and Soviet Union from 35 years of colonial rule by Japan. Ruh-roh! Malicious or mistake? Pick a side, this will be a long saga. In the meantime, dive into the tracks from the past month you absolutely need to hear!
GRAYE x CIFIKA – “D.A”
With K-Pop idol music often stealing the show, it’s easy for international audiences to overlook the teeming indie scene, particularly when it comes to electronic producers. GRAYE, not to be confused with Korean hip hop artist Gray, is one such upcoming knob-twiddler quietly making his mark, taking inspiration from UK garage and, if previous tracks are anything to go by, other British electronic geniuses like Autechre. Teaming up with LA-based Korean singer CIFKA, “D.A” builds layer by sparse, precise layer, never once getting ahead of itself nor overpowering the vocals that delicately bloom and fade. It’s a cosmic serving of hypnotic deep house that taps into your best ever 5am bliss out.
BLACKPINK – “WHISTLE”/“BOOMBAYAH”
YG Entertainment’s new four-member girl group are smashing records with their double single debut, and causing fanwars amongst already-diehard BLACKPINK stans and those who believe that YG's other girl group 2NE1 have been unofficially retired to make room for them. While it’s too soon to call it a ‘2NE1 2.0’ situation, what is clear is that Rosé, Jisoo, Jennie, and Lisa visually fit the favoured YG type, using the label’s signature sound to achieve the best possible chance of success – and that’s one reason why “Boombayah” absolutely blows. It's so tightly conceived to a multi-million-selling formula, seen as far back as 2NE1’s “I Am The Best” (in 2011) and recently as BigBang’s “Bang Bang Bang” (2015), that it’s devoid of individual merit. Dated and predictable (not to mention the embarrassing appropriation of Native American culture), it’s four minutes of slack-jawed disappointment.
Though “Boombayah” is a snooze, the man behind it, Teddy Park, hit jackpot with its stellar sister track – the insouciant, teasing “Whistle”. Minimal bass and finger clicks as the only musical anchor for two opening verses is a thrill, but throwing it to a twangy, countrified chorus is exactly the kind of slick risk you want BLACKPINK to take because YG, when they want to, do curveballs brilliantly. “Whistle” achieved the important all-kill (topping all Korean charts simultaneously) and is, one hopes, a clear signifier that we don’t need a new 2NE1 – and that BLACKPINK, armed with fresh sounds, will be just fine as themselves.
FTISLAND – “TAKE ME NOW”
With nine years under their belts as one of Korea’s most successful bands, FTISLAND’s latest album Where’s The Truth? defiantly slams a door on their back catalogue. Much of their output up until last year’s album I Will (and its riotous single “Pray”) was fairly innocuous lightweight pop rock – however, “Take Me Now” completes their 180 degree pivot with a swaggering, Molotov cocktail-throwing confidence. Remember when 30 Seconds To Mars made songs that sounded like the world’s biggest stadiums couldn’t contain them? This track’s teeth-vibrating guitars and a monstrously hooky chorus grabs Leto’s bombast of 2005 and impales it on 2016 with the kind of bigger, louder, wider, turn-the-fucker-up-until-the-speakers-break abandon that propels FTISLAND to a new peak.
UNICORN – “BLINK BLINK”
Wealthier entertainment companies attract world-class songwriters and video directors, but smaller agencies and their groups often struggle to compete in the ultra cut-throat Korean music business, making instantly slipping under the K-Pop radar a professional hazard. Unicorn, in less than a year since debuting, have already downgraded agencies and lost a member, making “Blink Blink” an admirable exercise in tenacity and the will to survive. The eager-to-please fluff of their debut “Huk” has made way for harder-edged dance/EDM beats that clatter beneath the harmonies, with just enough well proportioned action in its verses to keep it moving. Having sacrificed a good MV (music video), presumably, for upscaled production, “Blink Blink” runs with its expensive aspirations and, surprisingly, gets within reach of the industry’s big guns.
VIXX – “FANTASY”
VIXX, who are often criminally overlooked, continue experimenting with mythology as inspiration via part two of their Greek God trilogy, the Hades EP. Whereas part one, the Zelos EP, featured the funky (and un-VIXX-like) “Dynamite”, “Fantasy” returns to familiar turf – epic pop accompanied by dramatic, gothic visuals. For a moment, set aside the arresting MV which, like all good K-Pop concepts, demands you think it through, and allow yourself to be seduced by the track's sheer magnitude. On first listen it’s an intimidating wall of sound, but persistence brings rewards. Pianos build ominously beneath the trap bass, snares and hi-hats that dominate the verses, all of which converge on the chorus along with sawing strings and VIXX’s impressive vocals guiding the controlled chaos. And the MV? The group explained it at a recent show: “The goddess was kidnapped by the god of Death (Leo) from a mortal man (Hakyeon). He has to go to the Underworld to get his love... can he reach Elysium?” Say no more.