MBLAQ, “남자답게” (Be A Man).Broken, MBLAQ’s newest mini, picks up where last summer’s Sexy Beat left off, with another thematically and musically coherent collection of songs that continues their movement away from the overstatement of early singles like "Y" and towards a smoother sound. Sexy Beat played with different contemporary R&B sounds, opening with something like a Neptunes beat through a broken speaker and closing with a shimmering 90s house track, neither of which are common entries in the current K-pop musical lexicon. Broken gives us the all-ballad version; none of its seven tracks are for the dance floor, but they’re all executed with the same level of variety and invention.
After being disowned by spiritual father Rain and freelance producer Rado, who between them composed most of MBLAQ’s songs up to 2011, MBLAQ have been in need of a producer to define them. The usually reliable Dublekick Music proved to be a mismatch — 2012’s 100% Ver. (see the hyper-macho "전쟁이야" (This Is War), or don’t) and especially its repackage BLAQ% Ver. contain the most unlistenable, tuneless entries in the band’s catalogue since their debut. Dublekick’s contribution to Broken is curbed to a single song, "열쇠" (Key), which fortunately plays as subdued as the other tracks.
Increasingly, MBLAQ are becoming self-sufficient, as is the trend nowadays among idols that want to be seen as serious about their music. While none of the members are full-fledged producers in the vein of Jinyoung, Zico, Junhyung et al., the four tracks composed by Thunder and G.O dictate the tone of the album, particularly Thunder’s. He had a hand in both the opening and closing tracks of Sexy Beat, and here he once again contributes the intro and the most upbeat track, "12개월" (12 Months), whose strident guitar strumming pattern gives the album the closest it has to a danceable beat.
"Be A Man", the title track, is composed by Korean R&B legend Wheesung (which if nothing else explains why it’s clearly set in his native key rather than in any member of MBLAQ’s). It took me a few days to warm up to, but it’s a song that only reveals more depth the more that you listen to it, and it lingers after it ends. Rather than fiddling with the beat to create drama, it starts with emptiness and builds from there; that climactic string and vocal swell at 2:21 is fully earned. I’ve seen a few comparisons to NSYNC’s "Gone", and I definitely hear them, too. Even the titular refrain works as a refraction: one song takes place in the present of a breakup ("Should I be a man and let you go?"), while the other is after the fact ("I’ve tried my best to be a man and be strong"). And as with "Gone", "Be A Man" is proof that a group’s "mature" phase is not an ill-fitting costume, but something they’ve grown into. While I’d hesitate to confirm that this is MBLAQ’s new direction (Sexy Beat's repackage was the more conventionally idol pop-soundingLove Beat), I’m glad that, at least for now, it’s where they’re heading.
Held up to the mirror, the credits read, “Mr. Mister - ‘Girls Generation’” 1
Madeleine Lee: This year marks Girls’ Generation’s 7th anniversary,2 and SM has spent the last few promotional cycles searching for a way to keep their star girl group fresh, grafting new-era schoolyard rap3 and/or maturity-signifying retro sounds onto the girls with varyingdegreesof success. Little did they realize that they’d had a workable prototype for the group’s mature sound this whole time: Girls’ Generation, their first Japanese full-length from 2011. Half the album is remakes of Korean singles — standard procedure for most K-pop groups debuting in Japan4 — but the other half is dance pop of a type the group had barely touched before: glitchy, dark, and not so much futuristic as ultra-modern. The trick is that while SNSD were never built for hip-hop,5 the members’ professional air and well-developed voices translate excellently into this kind of haughty electro. “Mr. Mr.” is the first post-Oh!6 single to capitalize on this (even Girls’ Generation's lead single was the cheeky "Mr. Taxi"), giving an echoing, bass-heavy backdrop to the group’s synthesized harmonies. But rather than rejecting the previous few experiments as failed, it incorporates them as new skills. The rap is distributed to make the chorus a snappy call-and-response; the vocals don’t blend into the soundscape like before, but sound out in your face, and by the end Tiffany and Taeyeon have summoned enough lung power to haul the key up twice. The lyrics are the usual cheerleading for dudes,7 but that’s to be expected. Girls’ Generation haven’t changed; they’re finally taking advantage of what they’ve already got. 8
Annotated version (or “Singles Jukebox: The DVD Commentary”, to quote Jonathan Bradley):
1. I didn’t write the subhead, but I still maintain that MR.MR (the Koreans, not the Americans) should have named their diss track “Girls’ Generation” for best chance at running Naver interference. (But I guess they wouldn’t want to tread on someone else’s claim to the name there.)
2. Since fellow Class of ‘07 groups Wonder Girls and KARA are more or less on hiatus, SNSD is one of the most senior active girl groups, along with labelmates CSJH The Grace (2005), Brown Eyed Girls (2006), and Sunny Hill (2007).
3. Prior to “The Boys”, SNSD’s deepest foray into rapping had been giving Tiffany a verse in live versions of “Tell Me Your Wish (Genie)”.
4. As in other countries, there are already Japanese fans of K-pop groups before these groups debut, so for entertainment agencies this has the double benefit of using the fans as a soft entry point into the Japanese market and saving money by sticking Japanese and English lyrics onto a pre-existing song.
5. While SNSD does not have a member with the official title of “rapper”, they’ve filled that role with dance; Hyoyeon’s dance break in "Into The New World" is as much a stand-in for the rap part as anything.
6. I picked Oh! to represent a certain peak point in SNSD’s career: they were still running high on the success of “Gee” and “Genie”, which appeared as bonus tracks on the album, and "Oh!" is their last Korean single to continue the sweet, fresh concept they’d started with. Then "Run Devil Run" canonically destroyed its house, and it hasn’t properly returned since.
8. I’m still trying to find my balance on the 0-10 scale (and let the record state that I should have given “What’s Happening” a 7, “Fxxk You” a 6, and “The Fox” a 5). My most accurate score for “Mr. Mr.”: 8 for everything up to the dance break, 6 for the dance break, and 9 for everything after that. (“I Got A Boy” would be either a 7 or an 8 from me, but using a different metric; “Bad Girl” would be an 8 or a 9.)
BTS, “BTS Cypher Pt. 2: Triptych”. If you’re not sure why these three young men are filled with so much vitriol, first read Radio Palava’s summary/analysis of the beef between B-Free and BTS, which touches on many points of the ongoing rapper vs. “idol rapper” debate. Without going so far as to name him - this isn’t "Control" - “Triptych” is without a doubt directed at B-Free. To that end, getting Supreme Boi to produce and feature on this is exactly like getting your big brother to handle the kid who’s been bullying you at school, but the three rappers are no pushovers themselves. While I admit that I’m a weak judge of technical skill aside from “what sounds right to me”, I like that this track showcases each rapper’s own technique and ability: J-Hope’s melodic flow, Rap Monster’s quick (and bilingual!) wordplay, Suga’s rapid-fire delivery.
Something I find interesting about this track is that unlike on their first cypher track (translation here), they aren’t trying to defend themselves against the “idol rapper” tag, which is what I would have expected. If anything, the majority of their brags here seem based in the fact that they’re idols and why that makes them superior, from “leading hallyu” to being constantly on TV to, of course, getting money. These lines of Suga’s verse make it clear that they don’t want to be ashamed of being pop idols, and that they feel it gives them just as much credibility as underground rappers, if not more:
When you were playing underground, BTS was playing at ground level Compared to you who sleeps all night, I’m a workaholic, shopaholic
The second line is particularly interesting. BTS as a group constantly emphasize how hard they work, how many hours they put in the practice room; for instance, they’ve released two Christmas singles with the concept of “we’re too busy for Christmas” ("A Typical Trainee’s Christmas" and, after debut, "A Typical Idol’s Christmas"). This is not at all unusual for an idol group - I’m not sure that anyone nowadays has any illusion that idols get more than 4 hours of sleep on a typical night - but it’s rarely been seen in the context of boasting. They’ve done this before, too, as far back as "We Are Bulletproof Pt. 2": “When you guys partied,” Jungkook says in the first verse, “I gave up sleep for my dreams.” (Though at the end he still calls out “you who are called rappers because you can’t sing”, i.e. the origin of “idol rapper” as an epithet.) It’s an ingenious move, given that hard work already equals credibility in the rap narrative. And no matter what you think of their makeup or their female fanbase, that’s one thing an idol rapper can’t be accused of faking.
In Korea, idols are often admired and at the same time they are easily the subject of criticism. Especially, when you get the idol title in your name, you have the tendency to be looked down upon by other musicians. Because of this, management companies emphasize the fact that the members participated in composing and writing in order to add the artist and musician image.
If that is the case, these guys are on the line between idol and artists.
Zico explained, “I feel like the words like idol and artist are completely removed of their definitions and we use it to fit our language. I think it’s a disappointment to see that by being an idol or wearing sunglasses, you are judged even more. Members who are good at singing or rapping tend to outshine others who compose well in different conditions.”
Yong Junhyung who was nodding his head at Zico’s words joined.
“I’m grateful that people see me as an artist or an idol, but I don’t want to be defined by that. I will continue to work hard until people realized my music abilities and this is something that I can’t infuse on to the public.” (Yong Junhyung)
The oldest hyung, Kim Jaejoong, who passed his 10 years since debut last year said a transparent answer.
He said, “Management companies debut idol singers in order to make them stars and that’s what we wanted. But, if you wanted to become successful by being called a musician, this is not the way to debut and you should have chosen a different path. So in the end, you shouldn’t be feeling too disappointed about it.”
G-Dragon’s recent album Coup D’Etat was initially released online in two parts. While the choice to divide it was likely a practical one, it functions well symbolically, too. The lead single from part 1 is the Diplo-produced “Coup D’Etat”, while part 2 is represented by “삐딱하게”, or “Crooked”. “Crooked” was written by GD and YG’s go-to producer Teddy in order to fill in what they felt the album lacked - a stadium-sized anthem, something for an entire crowd to sing. So they made the opposite of “Coup D’Etat”: a rock song about heartbreak with lyrics entirely in Korean, meant not to promote the individual but for the use of the collective.
It’s the same dichotomy GD used on last year’s One of a Kind mini, where the opening electro-rap track declared, “Yes sir, I’m one of a kind,” while the closing track featured the singer of alternative rock band Nell on guest vocals and a group singalong of “We wild, we Rolling Stones”. It’s an easy shorthand: modern hip-hop, with its built-in narrative of self-propelled upward mobility (ignoring its roots in and continued obligations to a larger community), versus arena rock, a genre intended for a giant audience and a universal scope (ignoring the fact that it was built on any number of oversized egos). To deepen the extended metaphor, whereas GD’s rap and hip-hop borrowings are often specific - a Kanye grunt here, a Missy guest spot there - the rock in “Crooked” comes from a more generalized conception, visually represented by the self-referential punk looks GD sports in the video. (Shooting in London localizes it somewhat, but the line from the Sex Pistols to “Crooked” is a very, uh, twisted one.) It doesn’t matter that in “Crooked”, GD sings about “I”, not “we”, because it’s the experience that’s meant to be universal. Very few people are in a position to stage a coup of the music industry, but everyone’s had their heart stepped on in a way that makes them want to act out.
So why write this universal heartbreak anthem entirely in Korean? Having no English in a song isn’t just rare for GD, but rare for any non-ballad K-pop song since 2000. There’s no real intellectual explanation for “Crooked” having no English, except that Kwon Jiyong is Korean, and for all his jet-setting ways, that’s his default language and his default perspective. Of course, as a native English speaker, I automatically parse certain sounds into English anyway - “beoreokbeoreok”, for instance, becomes “what up, what up”. (Sidebar: this isn’t entirely a miracle of linguistics. The anglophone lineage of modern idol pop, especially G-Dragon’s, has led to some flattening of Korean vowel sounds when they’re sung or rapped in order to bring the sound closer to English - compare GD’s pronunciation of the “o” in oneulbam, “tonight”, to the isolated Forvo version.)
So perhaps language isn’t a barrier to universality after all. With “Crooked”, the lyrics are important, but the reason the song was written is in the music: a feeling that can carry across a stadium, a feeling that even if you don’t know what’s being said, you’re not alone.
2. Nine Muses, Prima Donna Title track: "Gun"; also: "A Few Good Man", "아님 말구" (Whatever) This year, Nine Muses have remained one of the most reliable great singles groups. So what could be better than an album where every track still sounds like a single? Not in the sense that they’re all too bold, crowding each other out for the spotlight, but in the sense that they’re all perfectly formed and self-contained.
4. Zion.T, Red Light Title track: "Babay (feat. Gaeko)"; also: "She (feat. Beenzino)", "Neon" Zion.T’s jazz-inflected delivery has been heard on enough K-pop tracks this year that his inclusion on this list isn’t that offensive. The most unique voice in the game right now also proves to be one of the most versatile.
6. MBLAQ, Sexy Beat* Title track: "Smoky Girl"; also: "Dress Up" MBLAQ continue to be the most well-ripening of 3rd-gen idol pop’s beastly boy bands, and R&B fits them well. Producer Primary moves his retro fascination forward to the 90s and strikes gold.
8. SNSD, I Got A Boy Title tracks: "I Got A Boy", "Dancing Queen"; also: "Look At Me", "XYZ" The theatrical single got a lot of attention on its own, but it functions best as an overture for its namesake album, in which SNSD take on any number of genres - albeit at a less frenetic pace - and sound like the right women for the job every time.
9. VIXX, Voodoo Title tracks: "저주인형" (Voodoo Doll) (link goes to clean version), "대답은 너니까 (Only U)"; also: "B.O.D.Y." While it eventually peters out into filler, the first eight or so tracks demonstrate the leaps and bounds the group has made since last year’s debut. It’s developed, without losing the whimsy and camp that took them this far in the first place.
10. G-Dragon, COUP D’ETAT, Part 2* Title tracks: ”미치GO”, ”삐딱하게 (Crooked)”; also: ”너무 좋아 (I Love It) (feat. Zion.T and Boys Noize)” It’s probably against the rules to split it up like this, but the first “half” of the year’s event album (the black cover, “Coup D’Etat” through “Who You?”) is soggy and can’t bear the weight of its guest features. It’s the second half that’s got the brains, the swagger, and the joy, and that deserves to be celebrated.
11. B1A4, What’s Happening* Title track: ”이게 무슨 일이야” (What’s Happening?); also: ”별빛의 노래” (Starlight Song) The gravitas they fought for with last year’s In The Wind hasn’t gone anywhere; if anything, it’s what allows the title track to be such a release. It’s serious, but never veers into soppy. Opening track “Starlight Song” is the brightest example of a B1A4 that can tone it down without muting their colours altogether.
12. BTS, O!RUL8,2? Title track: "N.O"; also: ”팔도강산” (Satoori Rap), ”진격의 방탄” (Attack On Bangtan) The rookies of the year in 10 tracks: a brainy single that both expresses their generation’s point of view to adults and incites their peers to action; the use of hip-hop vocabulary ("cypher", the mid-album skit) to bring it closer to idol pop, rather than to hold it at a distance; and a high-energy finish that anticipates the future to come.
Madeleine Lee: In the year of the female president, the adage “All men are wolves” (or “dogs,” translated more colloquially) has taken off in Korea. Whether spoken as a boast or a warning, the message is the same: boys will be boys, so girls, watch what you wear and what you do. Enter Lee Hyori, herself no great fan of the female presidency, who’s written a song about girls who wear and do what they want over a Norwegian Dick Dale-lite beat. But this is not a retort or a revenge fantasy; that would make it about the men. Just listen to the overwhelmingly female fanchants for Hyori’s comeback stage. This is a song for the bad, bad, bad, bad girls themselves: cool like surf rock and hot like mambo, talking shit but still cute, not hiding their wits and smarts, “showing a little skin to be sexy.” One caveat: the virgin/whore tropes of the lyrics are regrettable, but all lobbed bombs lose accuracy for the sake of impact. 
This was my Amnesty pick for this year! One day I want to go into a bit more depth about that Gag Concert corner and Infinite’s “Inconvenient Truth” (which I admit to liking musically, even as the lyrics make me shrivel up inside - and there’s a reason I didn’t link to any fancams of the music video, which is that I didn’t want to look at it again). In fact I’d like to write a few things about Gag Concert and women, but…time…
Madeleine Lee: Four years ago, "Turn It Up" was left for dead, baking in the desert; now it returns, staggering, loopy and vengeful. The heavy beat and one-note chorus have warped and darkened into a drone. Fashion (Givenchy, McQueen) has aged into art (Basquiat, Kubrick), and the preening messages of seduction have dissolved into a cut-up that layers images of nuclear apocalypse against a recitation of the Korean alphabet in the space of a verse. In the end it’s more noise than signal, but the endless repetition of the title is true dada: an incantation against order, an excitation to an action that never arrives, and ultimately, its own obliteration. 
Alternate blurb: “How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada.”