K-Pop Roundup – November 2014

The previous month in K-pop saw veteran artists go solo, rookie groups continue their hot streak, interesting collaborations, and a ton of solid music. It wasn't the most innovative month for the industry, but a lot of great execution regardless.

AOA – “Like a Cat”

“Like a Cat” is AOA’s third comeback this year, but that doesn’t mean we should expect anything new from the group. After the success of “Miniskirt”, the act’s collaboration with hit-maker Brave Brothers, FNC Entertainment and the girls have gone with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” method and continued to put out essentially the same song as a title track three times this year. Fortunately, it’s a pretty good song. Brave Brothers has become a bit of a parody of himself, relying on the same musical tropes and production techniques in his songs, but you can never deny that the end result is successful. “Like a Cat” has a strong groove and an undeniably catchy melody. Like many of his other songs, including AOA’s “Miniskirt” and “Short Hair”, “Like a Cat” features a prominent wordless vocal hook in the chorus that, as lazy as it is compositionally, is just irresistible. He does change it up a little here, though, by utilizing processed guitars instead of the jazzy organ chords he normally uses to drive the song.

“Like a Cat” is another “sexy” concept for the girl group, and this time they’re being sexy while cat burgling. Many people have complained about the inundation of “sexy” concepts in K-pop this year, and while I don’t disagree, I can’t say I have much of a problem seeing Seoulhyun in tight leather crawling through laser sensors like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. Especially because throughout the video, the girls are self-aware of their sexiness, and use their looks to seduce and fool the guards in their heist. It’s not the most original concept for a video, and it’s not the most original song, but the AOA/Brave Brothers collaborations this year haven’t been about innovation. Rather, they just make simple, fun K-pop.


Lovelyz – “Candy Jelly Love”

After years of prepping and teasing, the new eight-member girl group from Woollim Entertainment has finally made its debut. Lovelyz generally stick to a cute and innocent look and sound throughout Girl’s Invasion, pairing their sweet, unassuming vocals with saccharine dance tracks and faux-emotional (fauxmotional?) ballads. For a debut, though, it shows a lot of promise, and although other K-pop writers have had a tepid reaction to the group, I can’t get enough of the title track, “Candy Jelly Love”.

The track opens with sparkling with layers of fizzy synth melodies before the drums come in half-time for the verse. Irregular phrasing in the vocal melodies here makes for an unusual and interesting verse, but then the drums pick up momentum, disco guitars come in, and then the real fun starts in the chorus with a chord modulation from C to D. The chorus is as effortlessly great as a disco-inflected synth-pop chorus can be. It’s easy and catchy, but features enough twists and turns to not feel too cliché.

The music video matches the song’s sugar-coated sound. The Lovelyz are in school girl uniforms (of course), eating candy. That’s about it in terms of plot, but they’re able to capture some great comedic moments, like Sujeong bowling down other members like bowling pins or Mijoo giving herself a Dali mustache. And with so much emphasis on short skirts and putting candy in their mouths, Lovelyz are able to get all the sexual innuendo they want while still coming off as a cutesy innocent act. “Candy Jelly Love” is not the most forward-thinking K-pop song—if anything, it sounds like a KARA or Girls’ Generation song from 2009 — but it’s great and I think that, minor scandals aside, Lovelyz are primed to be the next biggest girl group in K-pop.


Got7 – “Stop Stop It”

Got7, the new boy band from JYP, has been having a particularly strong debut year. While I wasn’t crazy about the outfits’ debut track “Girls, Girls, Girls”, the follow-up “A” was just the song to win me over. The boys have presented themselves as a fun, juvenile group with more emphasis on good looks and great dancing than great singing, and “Stop Stop It”, the title track from their first full-length album, is more of the same in that regard. The song itself is strong, with a relaxed R&B beat, jazzy chords, and a rhythmic vocoder hook of “haji hajima”, or “stop stop it”. It’s memorable and alludes to early 2000s boy bands without feeling too retro. But as we’ve seen from the group time and again, the real interesting stuff happens in the video.

“Stop Stop It” is essentially about being friendzoned, which has its problematic qualities, of course. But even the band members recognize that what they’re feeling isn’t valid, comparing themselves to “child in front of a shop window” who “can’t have it but I can’t let it go”. The video starts off with JB standing on the ledge of a roof. A girl he’s in love with comes out to meet him, cold, distant, and headphones in. As he tries to tell her to date him, she never changes her expression. Even after emotionally manipulative threats of suicide, she turns around and leaves. JB then sees another version of himself, falls off the roof, and gets transported to another version of reality where she is dating him. But, of course, he knows it’s not real and that she’s not who he’s in love with. That plot is interesting enough, but it will be hard to keep your eyes off the seven attractive boys dancing so perfectly. Even though it’s darker in tone and more somber in subject matter, Got7 still manage to make “Stop Stop It” fun and exciting.


Hi Suhyun – “I’m Different (feat. Bobby)”

Hi Suhyun is a new YG Family unit consisting of soul singer Lee Hi and adorkable princess Lee Suhyun from Akdong Musician. Both teenagers come from K-Pop Star (seasons one and two respectively), and they’re both small girls with big voices and big personalities, so the pairing seems obvious. Still, collaborations like this are always a bit of a gamble. Luckily though, “I’m Different” beautifully plays to both of the singers’ strengths to create something neither of them could have done on their own.

The lyrics find the girls advocating for themselves to the guy they like, “I’m different, I’m special”. But the music video makes it clear that he doesn’t feel the same way. Lee Hi and Suhyun are BFFs, but they’re also competing for the same guy’s affection, Bobby from iKon. This storyline is definitely Suhyun’s wheelhouse, already playing this kind of role in “200%” and “Play” earlier this year. The video flips between romantic daydreams and awkward reality. Towards the end, they see that Bobby has a girlfriend who is older and much less awkward than them. Sigh.

Even though Suhyun has proven that she can pull off this kind of character, both girls do a really great job and have many brilliant comedic moments. What really makes the song special, though, is how great of vocalists they are. Lee Hi has always been known for her big voice, but Suhyun holds her own here as well. Thinking about these two and a group like 15&, the teenagers that keep coming through K-Pop Star seem to be consistently more talented than many veteran K-pop artists.


Nicole – “MAMA”

In January of this year, Nicole left Kara to pursue a solo career and the result is, if nothing else, interesting. First of all, Nicole teams up with Sweetune for her debut solo album, the long-time Kara collaborator who the group left behind this year when Nicole and Ji-young departed in favor of Duble Sidekick for their latest mini-album Day & Night. It’s also hard not to interpret the title as a slight allusion to Kara’s comeback single this summer, “Mamma Mia”. But in contrast to Kara’s sweet and sunny image, Nicole takes herself and her music into darker, sexier territory.

“Mama” is about feeling guilty over your sexual desires. In the song, Nicole lives two lives, one with her boyfriend and her urges and one as her mother’s sweet and innocent child. It can definitely be taken as a metaphor for her own feelings leaving the group and her innocent image. But unlike her character, Nicole seems set on her new identity.

The song is straightforward enough: funky bass, retro organ chords and synth lines, simple melodies. But it’s so well-executed, and it plays to Nicole’s vocal strengths. She constantly sounds on edge. She’s not the best singer, but her breathy and frail timbre perfectly captures the virginal sexual desire expressed in the lyrics. The music video shows this too, cutting between sexy and confident dancing and regretful stares. She’s really one of K-pop’s best dancers, and her time in America training for this comeback has made her even better. “Mama” isn’t a game-changing single, but as her first statement as a solo artist, it does everything it needs to.


G-Dragon and Taeyang – “Good Boy”

Boy band Big Bang hasn’t put anything out since 2012’s Alive, but its members have definitely been busy with solo material. Most of that solo work has been pretty great, but it’s still exciting to get this mini-reunion between G-Dragon and Taeyang on their new track “Good Boy”.

Since being released on November 21st, this song has been a massive hit, hitting No. 1 on many Korean charts and even cracking the top 20 Hip-hop/R&B songs on the US iTunes chart. It’s racked up almost 11 million views on YouTube. But I’m not entirely sure why.

G-Dragon is a great producer and has made a ton of great trap-pop songs. “Good Boy” is a mediocre one at best. It’s very simple, the production is basic, the hook is acceptable. There’s just nothing special about this song other than it coming from G-Dragon and Taeyang. They both sound great, of course—and look great too—but I’m just not convinced the same way I was with G-Dragon’s “Go” or Taeyang’s “Eyes, Lips, Nose”.

The music video is filled with fluorescent colors and black lights, showing the two dancing around a warehouse with some girls. Again, nothing too special or sexy to justify all the attention. But I think what this shows more than anything is that we really need a full Big Bang comeback. There’s clearly an audience ready to eat up anything they give us, and I’m sure that having all five of them together would create a much stronger product than “Good Boy”.