“드라마 Drama (feat. Kim Sung-Kyu)” is on Primary’s Pop EP (2017). As most people know, Primary (Choi Dong Hoon) is one of my favorite producers, working most often with musical acts on the Amoeba Culture label. With this release, however, he’s leaving his usual hip-hop environment to bring his groovy goodness to more pop-oriented fare. For “Drama,” he teams up with INFINITE‘s Sung Kyu. “Drama” blends Primary’s reliable rhythm-driven instrumentation with Sung Kyu’s melodious vocals that seem to have a bit more swing to them than with his work with INFINITE and his solo work. This is definitely working for me.
The What I’m Listening To series seeks to share deeper cuts and tracks that may be overlooked with the goal of expanding perceptions and enjoyment of K-pop music.
1theK. “[MV] Primary(프라이머리) _ Drama (Feat. Kim Sung-Kyu)(드라마 (Feat. 김성규)).” YouTube. 30 Aug 2017. https://youtu.be/Z3QKQvaCJa8 (17 Jun 2018).
J.K. “Update: INFINITE’s Sunggyu Reveals More Photos For “10 Stories” Comeback.” soompi. 13 Feb 2018. https://www.soompi.com/2018/02/13/watch-infinites-sunggyu-reveals-first-teaser-comeback/ (17 Jun 2018).
“Primary(4).” Discogs. https://www.discogs.com/artist/1681239-Primary-4 (17 Jun 2018).
I’ve slipped into the shining diamond life with Seventeen and their repackaged album, Love & Letter! The group’s strategy is to not only use the power of the numbers, but also their unique sub-units, divided into the vocal team, the hip-hop team and the performance team. The repackage provides some delightful versions of Seventeen’s songs.
Upbeat title tracks, “아주 Nice” and “Shining Diamond” make for good material for the performance team. I really like the use of the horns on “Nice” and the pop sound of “Shining Diamond.” On the repackage album, though, other tracks showcase the vocal and hip-hop teams, including rearranged versions of previous songs so cleverly done, I didn’t even recognize the originals. The hip-hop team version of “만.세[Mansae]” has a completely different beat than the original. The vocal team’s version slow jam-y of “아낀다[Adore U]” sounds nothing like the original, and that’s not a bad thing.
Once I processed (ok, I’m still processing) the news of Zion T.’s departure from Amoeba Culture to a sub-label at YG headed by Teddy, I’m also thinking about Amoeba Culture. This doesn’t seem to be an acrimonious split, and I was happy to see Amoeba Culture’s official statement, which acknowledges their previous relationship: “During that time Amoeba Culture and Zion. T had a relationship beyond simply being just an agency and an agency artist. We relied on each other, made good music, and spent happy moments together. Thus we feel sorry and regret” (soompi). At the same time, the label wishes him well: “Although we cannot be in the same place together, Amoeba Culture will always support Zion. T’s new challenge as he enters a new environment and unfamiliar field in order to fulfill his dreams” (soompi). I”m concerned about Amoeba Culture and their roster. I have loved Amoeba Culture artists, but with Zion T. leaving, I feel like Amoeba Culture needs more talent, which isn’t easy because talent doesn’t work on trees. I hope that it can continue to operate as an artist-led label.
I like a lot of K-pop groups (a LOT…of K-pop groups), but I have four bias groups (SS501, Shinhwa, SHINee and Super Junior), my favoritest favorites. I looked at my iTunes to see which songs by my bias groups I played the most. I was surprised!
It’s nice when major news outlets recognize that black K-pop fans are part of the general K-pop fandom. However, this piece trades in overused tropes about race and K-pop. Many of the black K-pop fans I know would not recognize themselves in this piece. However, they would recognize the repeated assumptions made about African Americans and K-pop.
Ever so often, I like to share what’s on heavy rotation on my iPod. It isn’t always the newest thing, or the most popular thing, but for some reason this is the stuff that I’m grooving to. I make no distinction between idol and non-idol K-pop, popular and obscure, mainstream and indie. It’s just what I like, and some info about it. Maybe you might like it too.
What Is It
Who Does It
“At That Time (그 때)” is from Supreme Team‘s 2010 album, Supremier, and features Brian Joo, vocalist from the legendary Korean R&B group, Fly To the Sky. The song introduces Brian by referring to his 2009 album, Manifold.
Why I Like It
This song represents a little change of pace from Supreme Team’s highly respected hip-hop fare. The tempo and tone of the song sounds matches the lyrics: it sounds like a throwback to more pop-inspired R&B, which goes to show that we all share the “back and the day” vibe. This is the kind of song that all generations could jam to, mixing Brian’s singing on the chorus with Supreme Team’s rapping on the verses. The combination illustrates the kind of frequent collaborations that occur in K-pop.
Epik High garners respect as a Korean hip-hop group in part because of their innovative use of lyrics. Because many of their songs are in English, they provide an opportunity to appreciate the complexity of their rhymes and their skill manipulation of language.
While many critics focus on the social and political message of rap, Mtume ya Salaam reminds us that rap is an art, and when done well, “possesses at least one–and usually more than one–attribute such as sincerity, originality, honesty, or creativity” (303). We should not focus on critique to the exclusion of the artistry found in hip hop. Looking at the lyrics of a rap song is comparable to appreciating poetry. Both make use of “simile, metaphor, and alliteration as well as creative expression, originality, and conveyance of emotion” (305).
With that in mind, Epik High songs frequently use creative metaphors and innovative verbal phrases to describe the skill of rapping or critique the industry in which the group participates. Frequently, Epik High positions itself as cerebral rappers, targeting the minds as well as the feet of their audience. That stance marks them as unique in the K-hip hop world.
Follow the Flow (ft. Myk, D-tox)
“Follow the Flow” comes from the 2005 Epik High album, Swan Songs. The track reinforces the intellectual appeal of the track through references to the mental powers of the audience. Lyrics such as “I just did flipped your lid and gave your brain a kiss” demonstrate that the group targets the way people think and suggests they want to leave the audience pondering their words. Because of this kind of originality, they diverge from other groups: “We travel on into unknown don’t follow the roadsign/We just try to form the rhymes that read yo’ mind.”
Epik High frequently also includes plays on words in their lyrics. “Like an empty hospital/I’m out of patience” uses the word “patience” both in its literal meaning (lacking the capacity to remain calm when waiting) and its related meaning to patient (someone who needs medical treatment) within the context of a hospital. “I’m a prohibition MC – I speakeasy” uses the context from the 1920 and 1930s to underscore lyrical skill. In the United States, the prohibition era created speakeasys, or illegal clubs, so when the song references a “prohibition MC,” it taps into the rogue nature of the rhyme.
“Follow the Flow” also uses literary references to celebrate originality. The song draws from Irish literature to establish his skill as an MC:
Yes I am…the rap game’s voice
Every cat’s main choice, the rap James Joyce
It’s a piece of cake, gimmie a break,
I kill MCs, then speak at they Finnegan’s Wake
I’m much mo’ than a cheap CD
Any student forced to read the Irish writer James Joyce would understand the resonance of the reference. Joyce represents one of the most challenging writers in the English language. His novels, such as Ulysses, are complicated and dense, but also innovative, thus contributing to his reputation as a classic writer. The song uses this literary giant to underscore his own lyrical prowess in the song. The MC is rap’s James Joyce, which suggests that his raps are equally deep and complicated.
Free Music (ft. Myk)
While “Follow the Flow” celebrates the skill of the MC, “Free Music,” from the 2009 album Map the Soul, is a critique of an overall lack of originality in rap. In the first verse, MYK contrasts the mental work he puts into his rhymes (“I jog my mind around the writer’s block/Till it’s out of breath and asthmatic”) with the preoccupation with fame he notices in the industry:
I’ve had it with the paper chase, need I mention?
The rap game is all show and lyrical dissension
Pretension, obsession for physical possession
MYK faults the commercialism and quest for money as the primary motivator for some rappers. This has a negative impact on the creativity and artistry of their production. It is all show and no substance. Tablo’s verse focuses more on his skill:
Temporary relief so I’m makin’ it last
Takin’ it fast, lacin’ buds in raps, tracin’ raps with facts
Steppin’ up the game but not reppin’ for fame
Spittin’ truth up on the booth, then we settin’ it in flames
Here, Tablo focuses on his own skill. He is all business in the recording booth, seeking to be the best for his own sake, not to gain attention and make money. His rap is more substantial, filled with “facts” and “truth.”
In both of these tracks, Epik High seek to distinguish themselves thought their thought-provoking and creative lyrics.
Super Junior‘s “Sorry Sorry” is, but “Sorry Sorry The Answer” is not. f(x)‘s “Nu Abo” is, but “Beautiful Goodbye” is not. TVXQ‘s “Mirotic” is, “Before U Go” is not, and who knows what’s going on with “Something.” Some want to equate popular K-pop music with dance music, but they may be surprised by the variety in the music produced by idols.
Because idols make up so much of popular K-pop, many equate their music with dance music. Park Si Soo refers to a National Assembly report that described 82% of the tracks on the Gaon Music Chart as “idol music.” According to Park, critics seem to equate “idol music” with dance music because K-pop is “dominated by hook-heavy dance music or ‘idol music.'”
Academics believe the popularity of “idol music” contributes to the homogenization of K-pop, causing all the music to sound the same. Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim examined the top 20 songs published by Melon Music, an online music service in Korea, from 1988 to 2012 and found “a sizeable presence of dance and hip-hop music in the early to mid-1990s.”
Both journalists and academics limit the kinds of music associated with K-pop idols and equate it with dance music. Dance music is music designed to make people dance, and the beat is crucial. Mark J. Butler argues that “rhythm. . . is the raison d’être of electronic dance music” (4). But that does not mean that all dance music sounds the same: “There is an astonishing array of rhythmic diversity beyond the beat. . . . fans, musicians and critics [claim] that all of the myriad genres of dance music have the same meter (4/4) which they tend to link, through implicit or explicit comparisons, to perceived notions of simplicity” (5).
All dance music is not the same. Super Junior’s “Bonamana” is not the same as House Rulez‘s “Reset,” even though both may be considered dance songs because they share the “four on the floor” rhythm. “Bonamana” is the type of dance song that Super Junior is known for, but it contains standard elements of popular song, including lyrics, verses and a chorus. “Reset” is quintessential electronic dance music (EDM): “Most of [EDM’s] genres contain no consistent verbal components [or lyrics]” and are “created by synthesizers and drum machines rather than ‘real’ instruments” (11).
A comparison of songs by idols reveal differences. BigBang‘s “Fantastic Baby” sounds different from Infinite’s “Hands Up,” but both are dance songs. This is the case even with songs by the same artist. While Super Junior songs may reflect the trademark “Super Junior funky style,” “Bonamana” sounds different from “SPY.” “Bonamana”‘s rhythm stands out, while “SPY” features thick orchestration where horns are central.
In addition, music produced by idols goes beyond dance music: “There are many critics who are reluctant to define idol music as a genre, citing a lack distinctive musical identity. They insist idol music is like a “spaghetti bowl” in which various music genres including dance, hip-hop, rap and R&B are all mixed up in one category” (Park).
While charts tell us about popularity based on sales, listening to the music on albums reveals far more variety. A consideration of SM Entertainment (SME) artists show a variety of musical styles. With the largest roster of idols, SME is often cited as a primary producer of “idol music”: “‘SM style music’ was gradually defined as electronic-based, fast-beat, and strong with memorable lyrics with repeating ‘hooks'” (Shin and Kim).
It’s clear that SM has its share of idols producing dance music. As the first paragraph shows, artists such as Super Junior, TVXQ, f(x) as well as SHINee and EXO have their share of dance tracks. However, these groups release albums with songs that go beyond dance music.
Super Junior has had great success with dance tracks like “Sorry Sorry,” “Bonamana,” “Mr. Simple,” and “SPY.” However, the group’s albums feature other kinds of songs. “Good Friends (어느새 우린)” is not a dance track. It feels more like a throwback track to the 1970s with its use of horns and organs. “Memories” is a song with a slower tempo. “Sorry Sorry The Answer” is an old-school R&B ballad that focuses on vocals:
The same can be said of TVXQ. We all know TVXQ for their dance tracks, such as “Mirotic” and “Humanoids.” But the group also has a reputation for more pop-inspired fare like “Hug,” rock-influenced songs like “Tri-Angle” and “Athena,” and slower songs like “I Swear” and “Honey Funny Bunny.”
If we take a look at deeper cuts on SHINee’s albums, we see there are different kinds of songs that go beyond the dance fare like “Lucifer” and “Dream Girl.” SHINee fans always look forward to R&B-inspired songs such as “Excuse Me Miss” and “Symptoms.” But they often have surprises as well, like the acoustic track “Honesty.”
These songs are not only included on albums, they are also featured in set lists when groups tour, suggesting that they are just as important as promotional dance tracks. The set-list for Super Junior’s Super Show 4 includes “Good Friends” and Super Junior’s Super Show 5‘s setlist features an acoustic medley that includes “Memories.” TVXQ includes “Tri-angle” and “Honey Funny Bunny” in its setlist. “Honesty” appears on the setlist for SHINee’s performances at SM Town Week.
Music made by idols runs the gamut. In fact, it is the reason why fans like it. Instead of making assumptions, just listen to the music.
“Electrifying Super Show.” Seoul Rhythms. 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Jan 2014.
“Super Junior(슈퍼주니어) _ SORRY, SORRY – ANSWER _ MusicVideo.” sment. YouTube. 10 Dec 2009. Web. 9 Jan 2014.
“SUPER JUNIOR 슈퍼주니어 _SPY_MUSIC VIDEO.” SMTOWN. YouTube. 12 Aug 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2014.
K-pop girl groups tend to be described as sexy, fierce or cute. Some suggest that images of fierceness encourage girls to be empowered, while images of cuteness take away their agency. However, responses by fans of f(x), a K-pop female group, suggest that fans prefer unique and diverse images of women.