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.
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.
The hype for Trouble Maker’s return was initially generated with a single picture posted on HyunA’s Instagram, becoming headline news all over the internet. Moreover, as an extension of their new single “Now”, the group ran unorthodox “No Tomorrow” marketing strategy, providing an extraordinary experience by bombarding audience with prerelease contents as if there were no tomorrow. …
For their new single “Now”, Trouble Maker once again teamed up with “Trouble Maker” producers Shinsadong Tiger, Rado and LE to recreate the magic. As the song tells a story about an unstable love, the music video also portrays a couple at risk with its vivid colour, unique camera angels and Trouble Maker’s signature choreography. …
Trouble Maker is back and they won’t condone banality.
BTS, “팔도강산”. The title is an expression that means “the scenery of the eight provinces of Korea”, but in English this song is commonly called “Satoori Rap” - satoori meaning “provincial accent”. Three of Bangtan’s rappers trade off in this song in the dialects of their native regions: Suga from Daegu (North Gyeongsang dialect, stereotyped as sounding macho and tough), J-Hope from Gwangju (Jeolla dialect, stereotyped as sounding chatty and bubbly), and Rap Monster from Seoul (whose dialect forms “the basis of the standard language of both North and South Korea”). If you’re not familiar with Korean it may do well to skim the charts on this Wikipedia page to get an idea of the array of standard verb endings, as that’s where much of the diversification of Korean dialects takes place. You may also want to check the video’s subs against pop!gasa’s, which have a few footnotes (such as the one about "Is that the guy?").
"Satoori Rap" is lots of fun. Bangtan is a young group - their full Korean name translates to "Bulletproof Boy Scouts" - and the three rappers chomp into the retro-styled beat with relish, and even relief at being able to use non-standard language. If you’ve ever fretted over the line between adaptation and appropriation, this song is a good example of the former: it uses rap as an artistic form in order to express a concept that’s unique to the culture that’s making it, making use of existing cultural signifiers rather than trying on or imitating another culture’s.
In fact, satoori itself has lately been the subject of appropriation. For instance, the opening stanzas of B.A.P’s "No Mercy" are all in Gyeongsang dialect, though Bang Yongguk is from Incheon (near Seoul); Rap Monster alludes to Seoul guys putting on a Gyeongsang accent to sound manly in his verse. It’d be interesting if Gyeongsang satoori starts being used as the language of rap, in a parallel to AAVE - considering the two have similar low status relative to the standard accent when spoken, though obviously AAVE has racial and class associations that are not as strong or even present with Gyeongsang satoori.
The way the song is arranged reinforces the dominance of “standard”/standardized language, by having the two regional accents banter back and forth and then the Seoul speaker coming on to give the last word, the clowns followed by the voice of authority. The overall message is one of national unity, ultimately arguing against the regionalism it’s all about: “Why keep fighting, in the end, it’s all the same Korean…We can all communicate from Munsan to Marado.” (Bangtan have a weirdly self-conscious nationalistic streak: their variety show, Rookie King,opens with a parody of national anthem sign-on reels, and a punishment on one episode of the show required Rap Monster to sing "Dokdo is Korean Land" in drag.) Still, the song’s main source of joy is in its celebration of diversity, and, as if realizing this, the after-school-special moral gets the heck out of the way for the gleefully shouted dialect of the chorus.
Note: This essay dates back to just after “Nalina” came out in January 2012 and has not been updated past the events of mid-2012 except in a cursory way. But in light of "Very Good", and everything I want to say about “Very Good”, I wanted to finally put it up.
The boy band Block B was created by rapper Cho PD under the banner of the “Creating Korea’s Eminem Project”. His idea was to create a group that could bridge the gap between indie/underground artists and the industry’s idol mainstream, particularly in terms of artistic value: “The industry has yet to see an artist who has correctly utilized the strongest point about rap, which is delivering messages to the listeners.” (source)
There were many ways he could have gone about this. His approach was to create a group that does all the tasks a mainstream idol would be expected to (idols often refer to it as “schedule”, without an article, and it means the television and radio circuits, fan signings, etc.), while at the same time embodying a certain rockist idea of artistic authenticity, with American hip-hop substituted for rock as the music of authenticity and placed in opposition to mainstream idol pop music. But rockism only goes so far as to suggest that some music is more valuable than others; for the actual ways in which authenticity is manifested (or perceived to be manifested) in art, it’s more useful to turn to the auteur theory of 1950’s film criticism. Under this model, authenticity is manifested through:
the demonstration of technical skill (implying raw talent);
the authorship of one’s work (in this case, producing and writing); and
a consistency in theme and/or tone throughout one’s body of work (revealing the auteur’s personal vision).
After some new rules introduced in August 2012, every Korean music video uploaded onto YouTube or broadcast in Korea needs to have a rating shown at the start of the music video in a corner.
The ratings are assigned according to content, though as we would see later, the criteria by which the music videos are judged are pretty muddled. One thing that is certain though is the ruling for music videos rated “19″ are slapped with age restrictions for online viewing, as well as only being allowed to be broadcast on television after 10pm in Korea.
Despite the initial controversy surrounding the rating, we now have companies that openly encourage the rating (if only for the news worthiness), and now we have reached the point where a company (Star Empire) does not bother to dispute the ratings and just rolls with it, despite the potential for reduced commercial success.
I’m reaching old age in my K-pop listening, but it doesn’t help that the pace has been accelerating over the past year, as YouTube and the promise of an international audience (even pre-“Gangnam Style”!) drive more and more no-name entertainment agencies to seek a piece of the pie. (The folly, of course, is in their assumption that it can happen for everyone, which is not the same thing as the confidence that it can happen for anyone.) And even the big ones are looking to score more: EXO’s body is barely cold (though not yet buried) and there’s already rumours of SM Entertainment debuting a new boy group later this year.
All this is to say that as newly debuting groups have needed increasingly to turn to high-concept gimmicks to stand out, I’ve been increasingly needing those gimmicks to make me pay attention, too. So here are the two debuts this year so far that have caught my eye.
The above song is "Beatles" (yes, really) by GI (which, relevant to the above, is short for Global Icon), whose concept is a hard, aggressive, and, well, masculine sound and image (sample headline: "GI: Voluminous body? We’re real men who want to build shoulders like Julien Kang”). While I was initially impressed with their B.A.P-like readiness and aggression, my affection for the song has cooled over time. However, I’m still interested in seeing how they develop as a group. For better or for worse, I can see this turning into a Piggy Dolls-like situation where a group’s shocking high-concept debut image gets worn away over time, so it’ll be interesting to see how they attempt to sustain it - if they last longer than the end of the year, that is.
The second debut concept I’ve found interesting is for a boy group, History, whose video for "Dreamer" is below:
History comes from LOEN Entertainment, the same label as IU (whose voice is in the MV, but not her face - that’s Son Dambi). “Dreamer” is the kind of oddly structured song that often comes to maturing or offbeat girl groups (Brown Eyed Girls, who are both, come immediately to mind), and it has an appropriately nostalgic appeal when combined with the Busby Berkeley sets and outfits. Unlike with GI, however, this “musical theatre” concept doesn’t seem inherent to the group itself, and I can see History transitioning into a more generic image with greater ease. (Of course, I can’t help but wonder if that has to do with the gender divide as well. But rereading this, I’ve noticed that I’ve compared GI to a successful boy group and History to a successful girl group, so who knows.)
As I wrote last year, favourite = I wanted to listen to it, I enjoyed having it stuck in my head, and I thought about it enough to have something to say about it. (For some of these, I’ve copied or paraphrased what I’ve previously written about them; there are only so many thoughts one can have beyond “this is really good”.)
This is not a comprehensive list of everything that came out this year, nor is it a list of everything that was Objectively Good in K-pop this year; otherwise, we’d be here all month. Honestly, it’s partly just so I can say I have one of these. But it’s mostly because these are all songs I loved to listen to, and I want you to love them, too.
Alternate titles: Manpain 2012 (except two of these songs are not from 2012), Calling Double Side Kick On Their Shit, Calling Sweetune On Their Shit (if we’re being honest). Made for fun, mostly, and because what I really want is a megamix/mashup of these songs but this is the closest I’m going to get. Arranged according to flow, not chronologically. The two non-2012 songs are included for illustration: “BTD” because “Janus” is equal parts “BTD”, "Paradise", and “This Is War”; and “Heartbeat” because 2PM basically invented this shit.
Bonus fun fact: Though Sistar’s “Alone” would make a great addition to this playlist (if it weren’t about manly tears), the song on Alone that Double Side Kick was responsible for was "Lead Me".
Tracklist and composer/producer: 1. 2PM, “Heartbeat” (JYP) 2. ZE:A, “Love Is Gone” (Double Side Kick) 3. B1A4, “This Time Is Over” (Chance, one-half of Double Side Kick) 4. MBLAQ, “This Is War” (Double Side Kick) 5. Boyfriend, “Janus” (Sweetune) 6. Infinite, “BTD” (Sweetune)
If I’m missing anything, Double Side Kick or otherwise, let me know and I’ll add it in!