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.
For your Sunday viewing pleasure, Ailee covering Kim Wan Sun’s "리듬 속의 그 춤을" (The Dance in That Rhythm) for last month’s all-star episode of Immortal Song 2, a tribute to the grandfather of Korean rock, Shin Jung-hyeon, who wrote and produced the song. (It was previously performed in a very different manner by Huh Gak on the show’s Kim Wan Sun episode in 2011.) On one hand, Ailee’s version is the complete opposite of the original, substituting soul and dubstep for new wave and metal, respectively, and booming melisma for the teenage Kim’s thin vocals (and consequently erasing the original’s taut nervous tension, but leaving a different kind of push to the edge in its place). On the other hand, it’s a completely logical modernization - because of course the 2012 version would have a dance break instead of a guitar solo, and make the connection with "Rhythm Nation" (which was released two years after “The Dance in That Rhythm”, so don’t get any funny ideas).
Kim’s smooth and sinewy dance was nothing like Korea had ever seen at that point. Calling her “Korea’s Madonna” (as her fans like to do) might be an overstatement, but like Madonna, Kim defined how female sexuality is to be packaged and sold through mass media for a good decade.
But Kim’s importance goes much farther beyond being a sexy pop star. Her career is a prototype of a mainstream K-pop star today. The process of training Kim, as well as the career paths that Kim took, served as a model for the K-pop stars that will go on to sweep the world.
Epik High, “Don’t Hate Me”. There are quite a few potential storylines to a comeback. In the case of Block B, for instance, who recently returned after a few months’ unofficial hiatus following their Thailand scandal, their comeback was meant to announce their new maturity via the maturing of their sound. Epik High’s return, on the other hand, is meant to illustrate not the continuation of an arc but the beginning of an entirely new one.
After three years away, during which members Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz went to the army and frontman Tablo went through nothing short of hell as a group called Tajinyo set out to defame him, the group gradually reassembled under YG, who Tablo had signed with to release his Tajinyo-era album Fever’s End. Tablo has said he considered leaving the group around his scandal, but didn’t want the other members to receive flack for it. So their return as a group is a big deal, and the dramatic move away from their old, chill sound ("Fan", "Love Love Love") seals the idea of a fresh start. It’s no coincidence either that the move takes them to pop-punk.
It’s easy to read the shift cynically: conscious hip-hop trio moves from series of small labels (Woollim pre-Infinite, their own label Map the Soul) to one of the Big Three and loses their soul. But even as YG’s been moving in a more rock-oriented direction over the past year or two, Tablo has repeatedly named “Don’t Hate Me” as the song he most relates to on the new album, and presumably that includes the sound, not just the message. (In another tell, when confronted recently with the “Biggie or Tupac, Jay-Z or Nas” question his answer was "Nirvana".)
The obvious parallel, of course, is Lil Wayne’s Rebirth project and all its attendant commentary. What does it mean when a hip-hop artist decides to do rock, especially when he/they pick some of the least critically respected genres of rock? How does this fit back into their overall body of work? (Not that Epik High hasn’t done rock before - see "Run" - but it was in a way that fit more with their old sound, not in a way that became the sound.)
I think the video is a big clue: the 30-year old men of Epik High as bored teenagers working in a boring supermarket that then gets shaken up by a bunch of kids dressed as movie villains when the song comes in. Pop-punk is shorthand for teenage rebellion, and the idea of recapturing one’s youth figures significantly here - the group has said the sound of this album was influenced by the 90’s, when all of the members would have been teenagers themselves. But even though “everybody hates me” is typical of the oversimplified “me against the world” attitude of teenage pop-punk, in Tablo’s case it’s also, uh, sort of justified.
Perhaps pop-punk can also be a place where rebellion happens, more cause than effect. With “Don’t Hate Me”, Epik High aren’t just wishing they were young again - they want a more metaphorical rejuvenation, a release from three years of pressure and complications. Rather than a regression, it symbolizes a renewal.
Secret, “Poison”. “Poison” completes a trio of triads. For Secret, it’s a continuation of the throwback R&B style of "Magic" and "Madonna", proving that despite brief forays into swing and surf rock, they’ve still got it. In the year of girl groups going adult, it’s the sassy counterpart to the melancholy of “Alone” and the ferocity of “Volume Up”. And the perfectly noir MV continues a setof videos in which the female protagonist kills a bunch of men for the good of all. Of course, it’s perfectly satisfying on its own.
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 thevariousguises 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.