Of course, K-pop isn’t all about the groups. For one, some members of some groups leave to go solo. Some start solo and then join groups. And some, well, some stay solo. You get the idea. So, in this week’s installment of How to Collect Korean Pop Music, we look at the many solo and duo acts that dot the K-pop landscape. Much like the boy and girl groups, their sound runs the gamut from straightforward ballads to edgy hip-hop, and some soloists have become big successes around the world.
But if we’re being completely honest, we put this category up because we couldn’t squeeze every act we wanted to focus on. We initially planned a hip-hop course but decided we wanted to throw some of those acts onto the boy groups course. Conversely, we had some soloists in mind that aren’t exactly known for their contributions to soundtracks (which we’ll focus on next week). This may look like a hodge-podge, but we hope it makes a bit more sense than we initially planned.
Not to discount his achievements, but we haven’t focused on Psy much in this series for a reason: sales-wise he isn’t really that big a thing. “Gangnam Style” may have gone viral, turning him into a global superstar – that was the first YouTube video to hit a billion views – but, if you think about it, he’s got nothing on Rain. You know, him, from the Clear ads, amongst so many other things.
Rain’s six albums have all hit the top of the Korean charts. Almost all of his singles have done the same thing. He’s one of the few Korean artists who have become popular not just in their home country, but around the world, both for his music and his acting. (Speed Racer, anyone?) Most importantly, he’s one of the few Korean superstars who’s gotten away with going his own way: in 2007 he left JYP Entertainment to form his own company, J. Tune, later responsible for launching MBLAQ. That company would become part of JYP, but Rain recently announced starting yet another agency to handle his own affairs as well as looking for new stars. His popularity may have faded a bit after mandatory military service, but he’s still, well, exciting.
Rain’s success in the years before K-pop was a global cultural phenomenon has somewhat overshadowed other Korean acts who have seen success outside their home country. The first markets to be conquered are their neighbors, and BoA was the first to do so: taking advantage of relaxed trade rules between Japan and South Korea, her debut Japanese album Listen to My Heart was the first to top that country’s Oricon charts. You can argue she’s become more successful there than in her home country, especially after her pivot towards Japan from 2005.
If you listen to BoA now, you actually can’t help but hear shades of J-pop legend Utada Hikaru, but her music has always had a more urban slant. (This was, after all, during the years right after the heyday of K-pop groups such as S.E.S and Baby Vox.) She also perfectly captured the quirks (so to speak) of the Korean entertainment industry: S.M. Entertainment noticed her after accompanying her brother, who was auditioning as a dancer; she underwent that company’s rigorous training regime – which included lessons in English and Japanese; she also later sang in Mandarin – and was, ehrm, manufactured to become one of Korea’s best musical exports. That “manufactured” criticism was something she’s always embraced, though.
K.Will may not be that big a name to a K-pop newcomer from outside, but he’s a big success within his home country. After years of slugging it through JYP’s training system, he got his break – while helping produce Rain’s second album, 2003’s Rain 2. JYP’s head honcho, Park Jin-Young, took him under his wing, writing what would be his debut single, “Left Heart”. He would later gain a reputation as one of Korea’s best vocalists; smooth yet credible is how we would describe it.
K.Will is, however, perhaps better known for his work as a collaborator: he has appeared in songs with Epik High, Soyou and, more recently, Mamamoo. Perhaps more importantly, he helped a certain Lee Min-Ho to sing a song from the soundtrack for Boys Over Flowers, where he appears. On his own, though, he also tried to break into the Japanese and American markets, to varying success.
If you’ve come across K-pop and balked at its very manufactured nature, can we say you’re probably looking at the wrong places? The groups may have good vocalists, but their make-up will always be geared towards making an impact both for the eyes and the ears (to quote the rationale behind the name for the rookie group Twice). The good singers tend to work solo, or in the case of Davichi, in twos.
We’re including Davichi on the list mostly because Rainy really likes them, though. Formed in 2008, the duo of Lee Haeri and Kang Minkyung are known for being really good vocalists, coupled with some well-produced pop ballads. Their two albums and many EPs have seen considerable chart success, with their debut, Amaranth, getting them accolades at the Mnet Asian Music Awards and the Seoul Music Awards. You might say their songs are cheesy, but arguably that’s rooted in Korean sensibilities before westernized K-pop exploded. Not much tricks here.
If Rainy gets a pick, Niko gets one too – and inevitably it’s Hi Suhyun. It’s a bit of a cheat, this one, because we’re hitting two birds with one stone here. Hi Suhyun is a YG project group composed of soloist Lee Hi, who we’ve noted for her jazzy overtones, and Lee Suhyun, the female half of quirky pop project Akdong Musician. Both acts were products of the reality show K-Pop Star, and both chose to join YG, partly because of that group’s reputation as a nurturing label.
Hi Suhyun have successfully melded the sensibilities of both artists. Akdong Musician, who won K-Pop Star‘s second second, were known for their shrewd musical sensibility – siblings Suhyun and Chanhyuk write their own songs and have this pleasant, but not saccharine, sound. Hi, who came in second on the first season of the show, managed to break out from a fate as just another girl group member with a slightly Motown sound, and that powerful vocal. Also, the song is hella catchy; you’ll catch Niko singing the chorus from out of nowhere as some sort of coda.
Additional listening: There’s way too much ground to cover, so we will miss a lot of people, but anyway. Active since 2003, hip-hop duo Dynamic Duo have gained attention for their soulful takes. Relatively new female duo Wings have a sound more rooted in pop; their name came after they were discovered while recording guide vocals for the Korean version of Little Mix’s “Wings”. Singer-songwriter Juniel began her career in Japan before crossing over to her home country, and has become popular for her, well, pleasant, acoustic sound. Jung GiGo has a lot of collaborations around, but we’re particularly biased towards “Some”, his work with Sistar’s whisper-y Soyou. Finally, Seo In-guk began his career after winning another talent show, K-Pop Superstar, but became more popular as an actor, especially his role in the smash drama Reply 1997.
Extra credit: There are many ways to watch K-pop on a screen, and it can be overwhelming to a K-pop newbie. (Ask Niko.) So here’s a potted guide on how to watch your favorite Korean acts, and what to watch out for. The Korean system means acts appear everywhere – there’s a lot of videos to follow, and there are a lot of side projects and promos to explore, to. As always, the Internet’s rules apply: the deeper you go, the creepier it gets. [NB/SY]
[Next week: we look at OSTs, linking two big things in Korean pop culture.]