B.A.P, “No Mercy”. This makes three singles in just under seven months for B.A.P, which is alarming (talk about “no mercy”), though at least this one promises to be attached to a full album. Equally alarming is how much their sound has evolved with every new release - as if each single means not to replicate, but to replace its predecessor. (If they all share the same structure, it’s because they’re all built on top of each other.) So “Power” dialed up the BPM of “Warrior” and turned hip-hop into nu-metal; now “No Mercy” brings the hip-hop elements back and adds a much-needed sense of humour, trading in their previous scowls for smirks. Perhaps that’s because this is a statement of their intent to dominate: as subdee points out, the lyrics are all about wanting to skip the usual routes to fame and go straight to the top, and when you’re assured of your own greatness, you can afford to have a little fun.
This new playfulness shows up in the lyrics, with most of the rapping done in heavily emphasized dialect (check those verb endings), but it’s most apparent in the musical tangents. The Space Invaders blips cued by Bang Yongguk’s line “music is a fun game” (at 1:52) would ordinarily disappear as soon as they’re no longer needed, but instead they continue under Zelo’s lines, for no reason other than because music is a fun game. Then there’s the dance breakdown, which is derived from samul nori, a form of traditional music that uses only two drums and two gongs. That brings us to two singles this year that use traditional music, but while Infinite did it to promote Korean culture through the K-pop wave, B.A.P do it to promote themselves (LOEN’s blurb on the YouTube video: “…making the song experimental and new, unique to B.A.P’s music”).
Even the imperious 2NE1 didn’t reach this level of ambition (megalomania?) until after a year, but B.A.P seem to be doing everything at an accelerated rate, from sounding like an established group at their debut to the constant fidgeting with their sound. Every group wants to reach the top, of course, but B.A.P wants it now.
13. Boyfriend, “Love Style”. I’m in the throes of a Sweetune obsession, and this song epitomizes why: catchy melodies, sparkly synths, hooks everywhere. That said, it also epitomizes Sweetune’s weaknesses - it does the same “let’s stop the song to change the key” thing that KARA’s “Step” does, but without being brave enough to really go for it.
11. EXO-K, “Mama”. From the beginning, everything about the EXO project has been ambitious, extravagant, oversized, and coordinated down to the last detail. It’s only natural that their debut single is all of those things too.
10. B.A.P, “Power”. In which power is the sum of confidence, control, and total commitment.
9. Dalmatian, “E.R”. Dalmatian’s previous singles were fluffy and fun, so it’s a pleasant surprise that they can do angsty melodrama just as well. (They’re like Sistar in this regard.) Big Bang and Beast have been herebefore, of course, but neither quite as mournful nor as willfully optimistic.
8. f(x), “Electric Shock”. This is where I confess that I don’t love f(x) nearly as much as I’m supposed to, because to me their singles (yes, even the great “NU ABO”) always have that one tangent too many, the same thing Super Junior’s been plagued by post-“Bonamana”. But “Electric Shock” is the opposite: it’s so unified, so self-contained, as if everything was carved from the same block of marble right down to the syllables.
7. Hello Venus, “Venus”. “Venus” thumbs its nose at the millenia-old dichotomy of cute girl group/fierce girl group (which is only code for another millenia-old dichotomy imposed on women, anyway). Instead, it brings a stompy minor-key cheerleader chant into a sisterly bond with a resolutely sunny chorus. V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!
6. Teen Top, “To You”. Breezy but not insubstantial, youthful but not immature, catchy as hell.
5. Wonder Girls, “Like This”. One of the only songs that can make me forget myself and dance while walking down the street. (Please don’t use this against me.)
2. 4minute, “Volume Up”. Because K-pop is having a “music for grownups” moment and 4minute totally called it.
1. Sistar, “Alone”. There’s not really much I can say about this song other than that it is perfect sad summer disco. So since this blog is also about my ongoing personal development, it’s an important milestone that I could understand about 10% of the lyrics right away without looking up the translation (mostly the chorus - “I eat alone, I sing alone, I watch TV alone, today I’m alone”). If you squint, this could say something about its universal appeal, but that’s apparent from the sound itself.
B.A.P, “Power”. Indeed. There are a lot of groups that try to do music like this, Huge and Important-sounding Rock Anthems, but B.A.P do it with the most accomplishment and conviction. (Also cleverness: rapper Bang Yongguk name-drops both décalcomanie and Guernica in his opening 8 lines, which, ?!?!) While comeback singles usually try to switch things up from whatever concept was used last time, “Power” continues what “Warrior” started, but it’s a sequel, not a remake. The second mini album, too, has an identical layout to the first - intro, single, backup banger, ballad - but the sound itself has been tweaked. Like its single, Warrior was slow, swaggering, their big-shouldered entrance; Power is quicker, leaner, and louder, trading in the R&B beats and lower brass section for nu-metal’s guitars and faux DJ effects. (“What The Hell” sounds like a Linkin Park outtake, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.)
Truthfully I’m amazed that they’ve already released two single albums in four months. I’m also interested in a group that releases a consistent body of work rather than constantly trying to sound different, but maybe finding a niche isn’t a desirable thing for a pop group.
8. Ailee, “Heaven”. I always get suckered into liking smiling-through-the-tears belters like this. Sometimes “Heaven” reminds me, strangely, of “Unwritten” (which I can’t stand); I don’t know if it’s the Big Meaningful Choruses or their voices or what. But its prettiness saves it, and I admit to getting wrapped up in that “heavenheavenheaven” hook. Ailee’s accent also gets me; I guess I find it relatable. Bonus: it sounds just as good as a rock ballad.
7. Nine Muses, “Ticket”. Nine Muses, while bland, make pretty good singles. “Ticket” is just plain fun, sounding both retro (the horn splashes) and immediate (the hints of dub and J-pop).
6. B.A.P, “Warrior”. The lyrics could be about The Hunger Games and the song sounds the way I imagine the movie feels, full of doom and full of spirit. Their mini is a potential album of the year, or at least top 5.
4. Miss A, “Touch”. Who knew the fun and sassy Miss A would sound so good as anonymous electro divas? In fact, the oxymoron “anonymous diva” is exactly what I hear in this song: it’s simultaneously hot and cold, passionate and detached. Shoutout to that bassline, too.
3. SPICA, “Russian Roulette”. Usually an extraordinary talent like SPICA’s Kim BoA would eclipse the rest of her group, but they all hold their own, and in fact she sounds all the better for having that backing.
2. EXO-M, “What Is Love”. This song has grown on me a lot since I first reviewed it. Perhaps it’s the offbeat quality that allows it to stick - the riff is ingratiating, but fades into the background just when it’s about to get obnoxious. I still prefer the Mandarin version to the Korean, partly because the sound of the language fits the rhythm better but mostly because of Chen’s voice.
1. Big Bang, “Bad Boy”.Alive is another top contender for album of the year. Every song is solid (except the middling “Love Dust”), but “Bad Boy” is the one that makes me want to cry, and apparently that’s what I like in a good single.
B.A.P, “Warrior”. For their debut single, B.A.P bursts forth like Athena, terrifyingly full-grown and fully armed. (Sometimes literally - what’s with all the gun choreography lately?) If it reminds me of other groups, it’s not because the song can’t stand on its own; rather, it’s because this is the kind of confidence that is usually reserved for comebacks, not debuts. In fact, among the various references I hear (the rap break from “The Boys” here, the chorus of “숨” (Breath) there), what it makes me think of most is the ultimate comeback, “Keep Your Head Down”: the gigantic low-brass beat, the indulgent drama of the vocals, and most of all the unapologetic swagger. The two-member DBSK could have come in desperate to prove something; instead they went for a confidence that they didn’t need to prove anything, and that’s the same thing B.A.P taps into here.
The rest of B.A.P’s first single album is equally as strong, even the requisite soft song. The only danger in having so strong a debut is being able to sustain it.