After a relatively lackluster September, the K-pop industry was back in full swing this October. From veteran comebacks to solo debuts, there's a bunch of great music to get into here.
Seo Taiji and IU – “Sogyeokdong”
Five years since his last album, Seo Taiji -- affectionately referred to as the “President of Culture” among K-pop fans -- is finally back with his latest release, Quiet Night. For his lead single, the veteran artist released two versions of the same song, one sung by IU, and one by himself. The two different music videos show opposite perspectives of the same plot, a heartbreaking love story set against a violent backdrop. Sogyeokdong, the neighborhood in Seoul where Seo Taiji grew up, was focus of activity for the Defense Security Command in the early 1980s. The DSC at the time was a sort of secret police/counterintelligence branch of the military under dictator Chun Doo-hwan. With this tense political time as its setting, “Sogyeokdong” shows the story of two young kids meeting, falling in love, and being torn apart by military action.
IU’s version focuses on the young boy who meets a girl in a cab and falls in love with her. The two kids spend time together and then kiss in the rain. Forced into military training, the boy struggles to stay in touch with her. After an air raid siren goes off, he runs to her house, but it is too late. Her and her family have been taken away, or possibly even killed. Seo Taiji’s version tells the same story with more focus on the girl. It ends with Seo Taiji, presumably the adult version of the young boy, returning to the girl’s house, now deserted and covered in snow, and reminiscing on their time together.
Musically, the song is an airy synth-pop track. Over a heavily side-chained, pulsating beat, the singers deliver the tuneful melody in their distinct styles. IU has a way of always sounding young and innocent as well as precise and soulful at the same time. Seo Taiji’s performance gives the song more of a rock edge. The lush textures and saccharine vocal styles make “Sogyeokdong” an irresistible pop gem. That the music video is so heartbreaking only makes the song more powerful.
For the title track of her first mini-album, Ji-eun goes for a peppier and poppier sound than we’re used to hearing from her. The Secret main vocalist confidently boasts about her body and feeling good at her age. Not that 25 is particularly old, but in K-pop, Ji-eun’s 25 makes her a veteran artist, almost going over the hill. On “Pretty Age 25”, though, she reclaims her age, singing about how she feels comfortable and sexy in her body. She says that her skirt is getting shorter, “no matter what anyone says”. Leading into the chorus, she exclaims “It’s my time to shine”. A little cheesy, perhaps, but maybe it’s less of a cliché in Korean.
“Pretty Age 25” is produced by Duble Sidekick and sounds it, from the crisp R&B beat to the touches of jazzy saxophone strewn throughout. But Ji-eun predictably sounds great. She adds a charm to the otherwise undistinguished melody. Her confidence is also forced to carry the music video, which is filled with generic color schemes and choreography. Through the simple material, Ji-eun is able to make a hit and show that she can sound great in any style she takes on.
Really this should have been Crayon Pop’s first full-length album. That’s what Chrome Entertainment promised, at least. But then it delayed the album indefinitely to premiere a sub-unit. Naturally, I was disappointed, but the idea of having a sub-unit of twins ChoA and Way is pretty great, and Crayon Pop in any form is better than no Crayon Pop at all.
The title track from the mini-album Ok might as well just be a Crayon Pop song, though. Or maybe Orange Caramel is a more fit comparison, but either way it’s an overly saccharine Hi-NRG dance song filled with cute vocals, adorable imagery, and a biting wit. Which is all great, except that I’d hope that a sub-unit could show a different side of the singers than they get to show in the main group. On the rest of the mini-album, thankfully, ChoA and Way showcase their surprisingly impressive vocals on a pair of great ballads, but “Ok” really lacks a distinct personality.
Issues with what it should be aside, the song is great for what it is. It’s as catchy and as bubbly as a song can be, as loveable as it is horrifyingly annoying. Driving electric guitar eighth-notes give the production bit of J-pop flair while the sparkling synth brass makes it sound like a cheap karaoke track (in the best way, of course). Even if I would have preferred a Crayon Pop come back or a sub-unit song that sounded further away from the main group’s style, I can’t say that “Ok” hasn’t been stuck in my head for the entire month.
If Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” were actually a rap song in Korean performed by eight men, it would be “Born Hater”. Well, maybe that’s a stretch, but haters gonna hate (hate, hate). For the hip-hop trio’s comeback, they’ve enlisted a large crew of guest artists to complain about haters. Beenzino, Verbal Jint, Bobby, and Mino have their own verses next to Epik High’s Tablo and Mithra Jin, with B.I. adding a sung hook for the chorus. Likely due to the high amount of expletives, “Born Hater” wasn’t the title track for Epik High’s new album, Shoebox, but it’s much cooler than the single they did promote, “Happen Ending (ft. Joe Won Sun)”.
In what can only be read as a “fuck you” to the haters, the video is filmed in a vertical frame, the most obnoxious of all visual styles. In that sense, the video seems to accuse you of being the hater the guys are referring to. This is picked up by the performers as well; B.I. addresses the listener directly: “Y’all listening? If you’re pissed come do it yourself … Whatever I do, I’m better than you lazy asses not doing anything.” To add even more interest to the video, each performer takes on the role of a deadly sin. Mostly humorous (Verbal Jint’s Lust shows him looking at a porno mag), the visual cues create more layers of meaning. They dismiss the haters, but embody culturally recognized hate-able traits. Even the very first line, from Tablo, admits “I’m a born hater” before going on to call out other haters. All this in addition to the fact that these guys can really rap, and that DJ Tukutz's distorted bass beat has some serious ‘90s hip-hop vibes, and “Born Hater” is easily one of the stand-out K-pop tracks of the year.
While SM Entertainment continues to face issues and controversy (Jessica’s being ousted from Girls’ Generation, two members of EXO leaving their contracts, and other financial trouble), it keeps trying to make things work. Its latest effort is a solo release from Super Junior-M’s Zhou Mi. The result is surprisingly successful. Despite the project almost certainly being rushed and put together in just a few months, Zhou Mi comes across as confident and competent on his own. “Rewind” is not the most groundbreaking pop song, but it gets the job done and shows off how truly great Zhou Mi’s vocals are.
Stylistically, it feels similar to Rain’s comeback this year and Taemin’s solo debut. It’s sleek R&B with echoes of Michael Jackson and early Justin Timberlake. It’s also refreshingly simple. Instead of the over-the-top loud synths that so many male K-pop artists usually drag around, “Rewind” leaves a lot of room for the song to breathe and for us to appreciate Zhou Mi’s performance.
The song is about wanting to go back in time to fix a relationship, rewinding through all the bad parts to return to when it was good. The video splits its focus between showing this plot and just letting Zhou Mi look good dancing, which is really all we want to see, anyway. Some questionable outfits aside (tight leather jacket/pants combo?), the visuals are strong and Zhou Mi proves that he can easily sustain the leadership role through a whole track without the rest of Super Junior-M behind him.