G-Dragon, “One of a Kind”. Okay.
Let me preface this by saying that I have great respect for G-Dragon as an artist; I think he’s a great and capable songwriter with an endless supply of interesting ideas and an obvious command of what it is that he does. I say this not to ward off attacks from stans (“don’t worry guys I like him too!”), but rather to excuse the fact that I’m inclined to view him charitably at all, or willing to take the time to understand what’s going on here. It’d be easy to watch this, say “screw this ego trip” and move on, but because I want to like G-Dragon, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. By the same token, it’d be easy to watch this, say “masterpiece!” and move on, but because doing that doesn’t quite sit right with me either, I want to understand why.
1. We could start with the song itself. It’s immediately recognizable as late-00’s hip-hop pastiche, with its the autotuned hook and the gimmicky vocal tricks. Acknowledging conscious influences is not the same thing as calling something a rip-off or drawing an equivalency; and in fact, it would probably be more insulting to G-Dragon not to bring up Nicki Minaj when talking about this song, as if he didn’t know what he was doing. (There’s “geeeeeeee”, of course, but he also spends almost that whole second verse occupying the role of a hater, bemoaning his own ubiquity before stepping in as himself: “So you just can’t live without me, huh?”) But he adds in a few tricks of his own, like the nice and chewy saturi rap and the various voices and styles he adopts throughout the song.
However: “One of a Kind” is not a title song, but a video-only advance release. So, in a way, it’s designed to be consumed with the video, and the meaning of one is linked to the meaning of the other. Therefore the rest of this post is about the MV, of which the song is only one element.
2. So what do we see when we look at the MV? It’s quite similar to the song, actually - a collage of hip-hop video tropes (the kids in tracksuits, the conspicuous luxury brand flashing), but also elements specific to YG and G-Dragon (it looks similar to GD&TOP’s “Knock Out”, and the black room with the glass cases is reminiscent of “I Am The Best”, with the glass-smashing signifying about the same thing as it does in that video). This is logical: as an artist, G-Dragon is a master synthesizer above all else, equal parts curator and creator.
That said, being a pop curator does not exempt one from participating in appropriation, and I see as much appropriation of specifically black culture as general hip-hop culture. The styling is a dead giveaway, especially the hair on Taeyang as he appears at 3:05. And this isn’t the first time this has happened with a YG artist, either, nor with these specific YG artists. The presence of black (or part-black) children is a step, but as has been noted by others, black adults are nowhere to be seen in any of YG’s videos, even as symbols and signifiers taken from black/rap culture abound. (Well, there’s probably a few in “High High”, but trying to see anyone in the background of that video is like playing Where’s Waldo at 100km/h.) Obviously, I’m not very qualified to talk about it since I’m closer to G-Dragon’s tribe than any other, but this is why this video does not sit entirely right with me.
3. To elaborate on that point: YGE’s relationship with blackness is complicated. (The country’s relationship with blackness is too much to get into here; regarding the depiction of blackness in popular media, I strongly recommend Gusts of Popular Feeling’s post on the history of blackface in Korea.) Of the Big Three, they’re the agency that’s built the most on rap culture (a quick, extremely oversimplified breakdown: YG = electro + rap; SM = R&B + pop + rock; JYP = soul + R&B). They probably use the word “respect” a lot when talking about hip-hop culture and black culture. They have been known to employ stereotypes with a straight face, such as in the video for “How Gee”. But when Papa YG was a judge on TV talent show K-Pop Star, both he and fellow judge JYP championed half-black, half-Korean contestant Lee Michelle despite her unpopularity in audience polls. After the show ended, YG signed her alongside other contestants on the show, and is planning to place her in their upcoming girl group Su:Pearls. So as a company, YG puts its money where its mouth is - even if that mouth sometimes likes to engage in blackface.
4. But there’s another obstacle to my being able to read this video properly, one that actually must be cleared before the topic of appropriation: How much of this is serious?
After all, this year especially, YG has proven they’re not above releasing a satirical MV. (I’d argue that SM is the only one of the Big Three that is always earnest in everything they do, and I’d also argue that that correlates to my earlier equation of companies to genres.) And G-Dragon is known to approach idol work as dress-up - there’s the various guises he adopted for his last solo album, Heartbreaker, and his recent tendencies towards androgynous dressing and gender play. And the video he released a week after this one, “That XX”, has an entirely different visual tone, more “Blue” than “Fantastic Baby”. Then there’s the past examples of what appropriating rap culture in earnest looks like, namely Big Bang’s videos for “La La La” and “Good Bye Baby”. So it’s clear that “One of a Kind” is at least a little ironic, not 100% serious.
But the lyrics aren’t joking around, and G-Dragon’s persona is nothing like Psy’s - if Psy is the rapper as gagman/everyman, bringing the viewer in on the joke, G-Dragon is the rapper as tastemaker/insider, whispering the joke in the viewer’s ear so nobody else knows it. Punchlines like the dining table scene from 2:05 to 2:15 lose their impact as commentary if it’s all meant to be a joke. (It may well do to bring Nicki back into this, as she has a similarly outsized, cartoonish approach as “One of a Kind”, but her context is entirely different: she’s a woman, for one, and operating in a musical culture that historically 1. is masculine and 2. equates artistry and skill with seriousness.) Visual cues don’t clarify anything: returning to the YG MVs this looks like, “Knock Out” is meant to be fun, but “I Am The Best” is not. “That XX” complicates things, as well; that video is entirely G-Dragon as Artist, so what does that make this one, which is so different?
5. The problem of how seriously to read this MV is further complicated by adding appropriation back into the picture. If we read it as entirely satirical or ironic, it dismisses the appropriation that’s happening here and trivializes whatever actual hurt it causes (“I’m just kidding! Don’t take it personally”). Conversely, if we take it entirely at face value, it ignores whatever artistic/intellectual credibility G-Dragon does have in favour of a blanket dismissal of ignorance that’s all too common against Asians in hip-hop, not to mention Asian pop in general. (Imagine how disappointing it would be if “Gangnam Style” were being taken at face value.)
6. Perhaps, then, the most logical way to read this video is to follow my first impulse and call it what it is: a 3-and-a-half-minute ego trip, reflective of G-Dragon in all his irony and all his earnestness, the places where he unfairly appropriates rap culture and the places where he successfully reinterprets it. Perhaps that’s the only way to read it.