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.
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.
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.
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).
Madeleine Lee: One of Kim Yerim’s best qualities as a singer is the ease in her voice: any note seems comfortable for her, no matter how high, low, soft or loud it needs to be. It’s a shame, then, that there’s nothing for her to do in this song besides breathe the same two phrases over and over, while the most interesting part goes to a robot (played by Denny Do, Kim’s partner in indie folk duo Two Months). The hooks are at least good hooks, but there’s nothing here beyond them. It’s the difference between sounding like you could sing a song in your sleep, and sounding like you are. 
VIXX, “다칠 준비가 돼 있어 뮤직비디오 (On and On)”. If we’re calling “I Got A Boy” the K-pop “Bohemian Rhapsody”, can I petition for “On and On” to be called the K-pop “Thriller”? It’s not a perfect comparison: the confused music video isn’t nearly on the same level, and actually obscures how enjoyable the choreography is. But it’s got the same intense conceptual commitment, and the right combination of looming darkness in the verses and unstoppable force in the choruses. And, you know, it’s also a total jam.
I just realized I made a glaring oversight on my 2012 singles list by not including “Stop Girl”, and also by failing to mention hunky-oppa's hunked up, pitched-down versions of boy group songs - sometimes absurd commentaries on masculinity, sometimes sublimely rich - which were a highlight of the year. Consider this a correction on both fronts.
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.
It’s Gayo Daejun season, and SBS has been preparing their big showpiece for the past month, a producers’ showcase called The Color of K-Pop. Four major composers/producers - Sweetune, Shinsadong Tiger, Brave Brothers, and Kim Dohoon - have been assigned supergroups to write a song for, with proceeds from the singles going to charity. And these groups are super: the two boy groups each include members from 2AM, Teen Top, Infinite, Beast, and MBLAQ, while the two girl groups have members from Sistar, Secret, After School, KARA, and 4minute. The groups will perform these songs at SBS’s Gayo Daejun on December 29 in ostensibly a kind of battle or face-off, but mostly a celebration of the diversity of sounds in mainstream K-pop.
The songs are all very good, and make a solid introduction to each producer’s signature sound. Overall, what I was most struck by was how fresh all of them sound, even the most retread-y ones. They’re unaffected by current trends, with nary a dubstep wobble or shuffle (horse dance?) beat to be heard. It could be the new energy of the reconfigured groups, or the freedom this kind of project affords; and it’s worth noting that these four producers do the bulk of their work for smaller agencies, not the Big Three.
Here’s a quick overview of each song and its producer:
Kim Dohoon is perhaps the least well-known of the four Color of K-Pop producers, with perhaps the most diverse resume: he’s a go-to composer for both FNC Music, agency of idol bands FT Island, CN Blue, and AOA, and for Cube Entertainment, where he works primarily with G.NA and BTOB. His style seems to be having no style, instead immersing himself in whatever mode he’s working in, whether it’s New Jack Swing or hair metal power ballad. For “Mermaid Princess” he’s chosen a variation of Ace of Base-y reggae pop, balancing light melodies with well-chosen instrumentation. (Check that sax solo!) The structure is fairly straightforward, but the melodies are interesting enough that they bear repeated listens.
When Sweetune’s Han Jaeho and Kim Seungsoo put their collective mind to it, their songs are some of the best being made right now: each of the singles listed above is polished and unique, retaining their personal stamp but freely experimenting with different styles, from traditional Korean music to calypso. Unfortunately, they tend to phone it in with their other songs, and “Tearfully Beautiful” is the same unambitious, pleasantly glossy pop we get from most of their filler tracks and OST work. Dramatic Blue was drafted as the vocal group, and they all sound great together, but Sweetune’s focus, as usual, is mainly on melody, with little opportunity for the kind of vocal acrobatics some of these singers are capable of. Still, they can make a catchy song with their eyes closed, and this is perfectly sunny and sweet. It’s not challenging, but maybe that’s beside the point.
Brave Brothers is another producer with uneven output, not so much effort-wise as tonal. The plural in his name is apt: there’s the old guy who made hypnotic, completely subtlety-free dance tracks with U-KISS and Sistar, and then there’s the new guy who makes smooth, sad funk with Teen Top and, uh, Sistar. “That Person” is the work of the second guy, and fits comfortably alongside “To You” and “Alone”. Maybe a bit too comfortably, but I’ve talked about Brave Brothers’ tendency to reuse his ideas before, and anyway this is more homemade mashup than straight rewrite. It helps that he knows who he’s working with: both Hyuna and Sistar’s Hyorin are here doing exactly what they do best.
It appears they gave the “Dramatic” moniker to the wrong group, because Shinsadong Tiger is nothing if not the king of drama, riding a wave of minor key resolutions and moody acoustic instrumentation since his work on Beast’s 2011 album Fiction and Fact. (The outlier is his electro-disco work for T-ARA, but even "Lovey Dovey" is a shade darker than its previous incarnation as “Roly Poly”.) “Yesterday” is the most over-the-top yet: an anguished intro that smashes into a turbulent sea of electronics and upright piano before righting itself, eventually dropping into a stormy half-time breakdown that threatens to disintegrate completely before returning to the main melody. It’s kind of like the Ultimate Beast Single, but it’s heartening to know that total self-indulgence only makes S.Tiger’s work more interesting.