While a lot of pre-summer hits from South Korea’s biggest stars have missed the mark, April has still had its share of pop and hip hop bangers – here are some of the best
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.
Perhaps everyone is keeping a few tricks up their sleeves for the summer hits season, because recent weeks have been marked by a disappointing glut of ‘almosts’ and ‘nearlys’ from established acts. The return of long-standing girl group Girl’s Day after a long hiatus had fans hoping it would be as much a killer hit as “Something”, and “I’ll Be Yours” did come with big vocals from Minah and a great chorus but fell into some kind of “Hey Pachuco” time-warp everywhere else. Oh My Girl’s “Coloring Book” totally missed the benchmark they’d set with “Liar Liar”, and EXID fell flat on their sonic change to bog-standard MOR in “Night Rather Than Day”.
It wasn’t just the girls on the ropes. Rapper and producer Giriboy released 5 Songs For Initiation, an EP that lyrically engages but, musically, is one he could have written in his sleep; IMFACT’s “Tension Up” had good intentions but was smotheringly overproduced; and Teen Top (now permanently one member short) pulled out “Love Is”, which had plenty of vocal highlights, only to be held back by a dated instrumental and rehashed choreography.
Of course, it wasn’t all bells tolling and black arm-bands for the songs that fell short. We turned our faces to the heavens and thanked them for rookie girl group Dreamcatcher, who didn’t let up on their J-Rock spook-fest with second single “Good Night”, complete with Blair Witch twig dolls. R&B singer Dean and rapper and half owner of Illionaire Records, Dok2, brought the croon and ‘skrrt skrrt’ respectively to YAMMO’s “B.O.S.S”, making it a definite fix if you like your hip hop dripping in bravado. Try Somedef’s “Ring Ring Ring”, for a leisurely vibe, featuring a stellar rap line up of Verbal Jint, Paloalto, DPR LIVE & Car, and the garden, or “Resist” from DJ Fritz (half of electronic duo Planet Shiver) who’s enlisted the Kwabs-sounding vocalist mrshll and teamed him with glorious lowkey electronica and blues guitar and a heartbreaking animated video.
Finally, after being caught up in controversy over two participants’ behaviour, the survival show BOYS24 (containing 27 members) sent their first sub unit, the eight-member Unit Black, into promotions with “Steal Your Heart”. It’s about 50 seconds before anything much happens, but from there the “oooh ooooh ah ooh” on the chorus will lodge in your brain and you can contemplate yet another boy band creeping onto your stan list.
WINNER – “REALLY REALLY”
On seeing “Really Really” for the first time, stylistically, it makes little sense given former-five piece Winner never kowtowed to music trends – but over the past year they’ve lost one of their driving forces in Taehyun, whose songwriting gravitated towards a zero-fucks-given indie vibe, and their spotlight was at risk thanks to their ongoing inactivity. Arguably, the onus was on the group’s remaining songwriters – Seungyoon, Mino and Seunghoon – to net as many willing ears as possible as well as rebirth themselves as a four-piece, and if that means treading overly familiar, chart-friendly ground, then so be it. Thus “Really Really” flows unashamedly in the vein of Justin Bieber’s trop-house work, but on repeated listens the chorus becomes its own little earworm and Seungyoon’s vocals are constantly kicking the track up a gear. Eventually it emerges the somewhat negative first impression lies mostly with the music video. Dave Meyers, who was behind CL’s cringey visuals for “Lifted” but also Kendrick Lamar’s captivating “Humble”, is not a bad director, but this is an expensive exercise in lazy filmmaking. There’s an unfortunate irony in that this is a double release, for while “Fool” is a bland track, its music video contains the creative vision that “Really Really” is begging for.
SAULA – “WISH” (FEAT. JAYCI YUCCA)
Who is Saula? He’s a facemask-wearing headshot on an empty Instagram account, and an extensive Google search reveals... nothing at all. His Soundcloud account has three tracks, a feature slot and two of his own, and it’s these originals that are most interesting. “Wish” and “I Feel You” are pensive, moody, and deliciously languid slices of R&B. They’re brief flashes of excellence (neither make it past two and half minutes), though “Wish” is probably the more fully formed song of the two, with touches of Jay Park in his lyric patterns and vocal runs. This slight familiarity gives the well-crafted, eminently replayable R&B an easy affinity, bolstered by the appealing warmth in Saula’s voice and the equally chilled vibe of accompanying rapper Jayci Yucca. Saula may be new, or at least appears to be, but his work feels accomplished despite the stunted song lengths. Based on this auspicious start, he should really clamber into the public space soon, EP in one metaphorical hand, social profile in the other, because he’s certainly worth knowing more about.
GAEKO – “GAJAH” (FEAT. RAP MONSTER)
Veteran rapper Gaeko (half of hip hop act Dynamic Duo) hasn’t released music for over two years, but given the calibre of his first (and only) solo album Redingray – which twisted and experimented over its nine tracks – expectation was high for his return. He’s brought BTS’s Rap Monster along on “Gajah” (Korean for ‘elephant’), and it’s a bold ride, with Gaeko’s staccato delivery piercing over twanging guitars, summery beats, lightly echoing brass, and warped background vocals. He doesn’t bother with allegory; his lyrics are direct jabs at himself, what’s around him, he questions what’s required of an artist, and what to expect from life. RM, as a more enigmatic writer, delivers a poetic slant to his verses, but his vocal timbre and flow intersects particularly effectively with Gaeko’s, making this not a sparring match but two men coming at the world on an equal footing despite a generation-spanning 13-year age gap. Neither feature in the music video, but when you’re instead offered late 90s style 3D animation that sees a trip to the dentist get amazingly weird – somewhere between Gorillaz, Rugrats, and Mad Max, and featuring a dancing, ass-kicking hand – there’s nothing to complain about.
(SM STATION) NCT TEN – “DREAM IN A DREAM”
Trying to explain NCT can get complicated but, at its base level, it’s the umbrella name for a boy group currently splintered into three sub units – NCT U, NCT 127, and NCT Dream. SM Station, owned by SM Entertainment (home to EXO and NCT) is a project that allows the label’s artists and producers to spread their creative wings and release music away from their mainstream slate. Got it? So, to Ten, the 21-year-old Thai rapper and dancer of NCT U, who excels in this mostly instrumental performance where zither sounds ripple in and out of beats that shift fluidly from minimalist to lush soundscapes. Ten widens his repertoire by singing – his voice akin to clear, gentle vocalists like Astronomyy or Shy Girls – but with a simple refrain sparsely repeated, the focus is squarely placed on his dance. The video uses NCT’s aesthetic of tilting camera work and a near empty studio drenched in coloured light, but within it Ten is a graceful, singular presence. Even when he’s amongst backing dancers, his movements are light and beautiful. His hand work alone creates a delicate spectacle as he mixes traditional moves with modern, and the tight, sporadic percussion is used as a bodily emphasis or seamless transition points. It’s captivating and emotional, and a strong indicator that, given couple of years, Ten has the ability to become a formidable, triple threat performer.
MONSTA X – “BEAUTIFUL”
Since forming through the survival show No.Mercy, followed by a scorching 2015 debut with “Trespass”, Monsta X have released one damn good track after the other. Their choreography and dance are excellent and they’re memorable personalities, but this seven-piece are yet to find their big step up on home turf. They can, however, add “Beautiful” to an enviable song catalogue, which follows their infallible lead single formula – squalls of EDM that clutch you by the throat, an aural battering by rappers Jooheon and I.M, and vocalists (here, Shownu and Wonho) setting up the drop into the impressive chorus, which, for “Beautiful”, sees Kihyun, Minhyuk and Hyungwon play with a slightly tortured plaintiveness to create an emotional fullness above the orchestrated cacophony of production. Although the MV (music video) nods to the magical blue flower storyline of last year’s “All In”, the group dial things back to a simpler, though visually rewarding, performance‘n’pose piece in which money is burned, pocket watches are given close-ups, crotches are stroked, jackets are flung, and everyone looks eye-wateringly attractive.