2017 in retrospect: the best k-pop albums

Navigating through the K-pop landscape has been difficult for someone like me, with a background in music more focused on the album as the primary vehicle for a group to collect and release their work. It doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t how K-pop works — albums are centered tightly around one or two singles, with the rest being often passable but ultimately forgettable filler. Although pop music in general has operated this way for just about as long as pop groups have been around, K-pop seems to take this approach to gross extremes. Idol groups will release something — a single, an EP (often termed “mini-album”), whatever — and then go into radio silence for a couple months or more before making their “comeback”, usually preceded by weeks of hype and teaser images or video clips. The comeback itself is usually a single and accompanying high-quality music video release, sometimes with the singer/group debuting a new “concept” (aesthetic direction) that they will be parading around for the foreseeable future.

(If this all seems calculating and faintly manipulative, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The K-pop subculture is full of stuff like this.)

Because of the highly controlled, cyclic path that your standard K-pop artist will take, album releases, while anticipated, are often less of a big deal than the singles which perpetuate the cycle. The albums themselves tend to have several common elements, as well — a K-pop album/mini-album will rarely be longer than about 35 minutes. They also tend to be blatantly front-loaded. The lead single is often the first or second track, and most of the other “strong” songs on a given album are in the album’s first half. The second half is usually reserved for more obviously filler tracks; listening to a K-pop album front-to-back is typically a very uneven experience. Also, especially with idol groups, there will usually be one or two party-ready bangers, with at least one slow ballad thrown in as well.

What this means is that K-pop albums, more often than not, lack the kind of depth that I enjoy finding in more album-oriented, holistic releases found in other genres. They tend to be extremely formulaic in their arrangement and general disbursement of content. There are rarely the themes or motifs in K-pop that help to define many of my all-time favorite albums, for example. K-pop simply feels (and is meant to be) more disposable and more playlist-oriented, and it shows in its approach to the album format, among other things.

That said, there are always exceptions. Many of this year’s releases were able to overcome the generally album-agnostic approach that typifies the genre, and I actually came across plenty of K-pop releases this year that were able to satisfy my desire for something more than the superficial front put on by many K-pop acts. Although several of the following albums are just pure pop goodness that hit my pleasure buttons, plenty more cracked the code and are wonderful, stand-alone releases that are enjoyable for more meaningful reasons. Although I’m sure no best-of list could satisfy any single diehard K-pop fan (and this one certainly won’t, as I can think of many albums that were being praised in K-pop circles that simply didn’t click with me), these are my 15 favorite K-pop albums from 2017. Enjoy!

[As a quick aside — if you’re not familiar with much K-pop, it is a heavily viral scene. Its massive popularity is due in no small part to YouTube, and South Korean labels and recording companies seem to be very unconcerned with fans uploading songs and albums to YouTube because they’re, well, smart and recognize the revenue such laxness brings them in other ways. Thus, literally all of the below albums can be found on YouTube in their entirety, if your interest is piqued to that degree ;)]

HONORABLE MENTIONS
Red Velvet – The Red Summer
EXO – The War
Monsta X – The Code

Look — I love each of these three albums, and it pains me to leave them off this list (especially The War). But when it comes down to it, the issue with each of them is the same — they don’t forge any new ground, and they don’t stand out above the rest of the albums I’m about to list. If you’re new to K-pop, though, I would heartily recommend any one of these albums as a great entry point — they each do what they do well enough, and it’s usually better to work your way up to the best, rather than starting there. None of these albums disappoint, and it only gets better from here.

15. BTOB – Brother Act.

15 - BTOBGetting into K-pop was a process for me, not something that happened immediately. One of the highest barriers to entry for me was the fact that it just tends to sound so produced, so planned, so controlled and sterile. For a long time, I couldn’t see the group in my mind’s eye when I listened to most K-pop, only the team of producers, managers, and suits that constructed the music, sitting behind the studio glass and watching a bunch of faceless guys or girls sing and dance while they smiled to themselves, thinking of all the money they’re going to be making off of said group’s hard work.

To an extent, I still see this, but now it’s out of choice so that I don’t forget that side of it, because it’s definitely a part of the industry that’s easy to lose sight of when you start to really like the music. And I don’t want to discount the fact that there is a lot of artistry at work in the music being produced — we’ll get to some of those albums later, but Brother Act. certainly isn’t one of them. For all intents and purposes it is a quintessentially K-pop boyband release, producers and businessmen and all, but it excels in ways that just make it more enjoyable than the rest. It’s also more varied in its sound than a lot of other similar releases; while it has its share of the predictable, it also gets sonically experimental (for K-pop) from time to time — the drum’n’bass-infused “Guitar (Stroke of Love)” is a nice break from K-pop’s usual four-to-the-floor rhythms, and “Nanana” has some of the best vocal harmonizing I heard all year. It’s a fun album, to be sure, and proof that within the confines of standard pop are the tools to make stuff that can still stand out.

14. TWICE – Twicetagram

14 - twiceIt’s actually harder than you might think to find a K-pop album that’s truly bad — according to my RateYourMusic account I’ve listened to some 150+ albums and there are very few that I’ve rated lower than a 2/5. And this makes sense to me — I usually remember the truly awful stuff I listen to, but no K-pop comes to mind when I think about it. It’s often trite, and formulaic, and girl groups tend to get the worst of it — they all tend to sound very similar, fronted by interchangeable, anonymous girls who conform to the “cute/sexy girl” stereotype. As a whole, these groups usually have little personality, or anything that defines them.

It pains me to say that TWICE actually don’t really stand out from the rest in any real, meaningful way, besides the fact that they just do what everyone else does a bit better. “Likey” is the obvious takeaway from this album, but there are plenty of other pop gems sprinkled throughout — the bass line on the chorus of “Rollin'” is one of the album’s highlights, and every upbeat track here is pretty much a straight-up good time (the chants on “FFW” are hard proof that the producers responsible for this album know exactly what it takes to make some of the best earworms in all of pop). TWICE may suffer from being “another girl group” in a genre that is oversaturated with the same concepts, the same voices, the same tempos and production tricks that cause so many outsiders to write it off, but every generation has to have their queens — and TWICE can fit that role better than any other girl group on the scene right now.

13. EXID – Eclipse

13 - exidEXID are a group that has yet to release something I don’t like. They’re not as big as a lot of other girl groups, their style tends to be more subtle, and while no less pop-oriented than any other given K-pop group, the fact that “Boy” is the opening track for this EP says something about their desire to be enjoyed for more than just the usual reasons. Eclipse is a patchwork of unorthodox sounds — the heavily modulated vocals in “Boy” and “Velvet”, the horns in “Night Rather Than Day”, singer LE’s throaty, raspy voice…it’s easy to think sometimes that this shouldn’t be as cohesive as it is, and yet the result is this engrossing, nocturnal pop music that deserves way more than the 20 minutes this EP lends it.

Oh, and “How Why” has one of the best synth hooks I heard all year when that chorus crashes down. Crank that song up and lose yourself in the album’s one moment of dance-y, hands-in-the-air, sing-along break-up catharsis.

12. Mamamoo – Purple

12 - mamamooOne reason I think I tend to prefer boy groups to girl groups in K-pop is that vocally they’re just more interesting, and varied; if you pick a girl group at random, the chances are very high that the singers are going to have very interchangeable voices, not just between themselves but between other girl groups. They all tend to meld together into a bubblegummy mess that, while it doesn’t prevent them from making some really great pop music, usually prevents the group as a whole from being recognizable outside of a few key songs.

Mamamoo expressly does not have this problem; their two standout singers, Solar and Whee-In, are deep and massive pools of rich vocal expression. They both remind me, in some ways, of Adele — not so much in how they sound, but in the way that they subvert the expected pop conventions and bring so much more power to their songs, that with other voices would be instead accomplished behind a mixing board. Purple continues the trends found in earlier Mamamoo releases, with their more jazzy, live-instrument approach. It’s playful and forceful music all at once, centered around the heavily dance-pop “Finally” and sarcastic “Age Gag”. As with every Mamamoo release, though, the outstanding vocals are what make the music worth listening to — pipes this good come along very rarely for female-fronted K-pop groups, so take notice.

11. pH-1 – The Island Kid

11 - ph-1Much as I love the genre, K-pop can be tiring to listen to on the best of days — its saving grace is that I don’t know the language, so at the very least I’m not subjected to probably-repetitive lyrics about love and longing and how beautiful that one girl is. I stumbled across pH-1 entirely by accident, so going into listening to The Island Kid I knew literally nothing about him. Ironically, the thing that drew me into his music was an English lyric on the opening song, “Christ”: “I hope that God can really use me / Of all the talents of his choosing / He signed me up for this music / And I hope that I can really use it / For the kingdom / For the glory”. This is so antithetical to typical K-pop subject matter that when I first heard this I was so taken aback that I wasn’t really sure I had heard it right at all.

I don’t mind shallow lyrics, necessarily — the fact that I consider TWICE’s “Likey” my favorite K-pop song from 2017 should be proof enough of that. But hearing a proclamation of faith in a K-pop song is not something I can say I’ve ever heard before, and I don’t know if it even exists anywhere else. As a Christian I always love hearing this kind of stuff in unexpected places, and although most of this album isn’t all as lyrically surprising as “Christ”, pH-1 makes up for it in other ways, with nice guest spots and slick rapping. Mostly R&B-oriented, The Island Kid goes down as smooth as more accomplished K-pop artists that take the same approach, and at just over 20 minutes it’s a wonderful, bite-sized bit of fresh air that’s perfect for those times when I’m feeling the staleness start to set in.

10. Zico – Television

10 - zicoLike I mentioned yesterday, Zico isn’t the most immediately charismatic rap artist on the scene. He doesn’t have a great voice, nor the sense of flow or rhythm that more capable artists do. But there’s just such an authenticity to his work and it bleeds through every song on here. The appropriately-titled “Behind The Scenes” details Zico’s creative process; the unusually catchy “Artist” features a double-take turn of phrase in “Life is short, art is long”; “ANTI” has already been discussed; and “She’s A Baby”, despite reinforcing the fact that Zico is not a singer, delves into downtempo, experimental territory, and ends up being one of the most interesting tracks on the album (if not necessarily one of my favorites).

In Television, you can hear Zico’s relative inexperience. Despite being a member of Block B since 2011 and having released a solo album in 2015, he sounds out of his depth more often than not, and it speaks volumes that since his debut album he’s surrounded himself with guest spots on almost every track — but it’s obvious to me that he’s pushing himself and trying things that are genuinely fascinating. The comparison to G-Dragon I made yesterday is more than a superficial one — he has the same imaginative force that drove GD to the top, and because he’s on a smaller label he’s not bound by the limitations many other solo artists face, so he’s able to try out his ideas. There’s a deep artistry and sense of excitement in his work, and I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes from here. For now, Television is a weird and completely unrefined release, but it’s bursting with creativity and that’s sadly something that can be difficult to find in K-pop.

9. ODD EYE CIRCLE – Max & Match

9 - odd eye circleLOONA’s prolonged, 18-month reveal until their 2018 debut has been an ambitious experiment, to say the least. Every 1-2 months over the last year or so, Blockberry Creative has debuted one member of the 12-member group, along with a music video and short EP for each girl. There have also been two sub-units that have released music (one being the oh-so-creatively-named LOONA 1/3, the other is ODD EYE CIRCLE), and if what’s been released so far is anything to go by, we’ve got a lot to look forward to with LOONA’s actual, official debut.

Max & Match is a collection of spacey, mid-tempo synthpop that doesn’t do anything too far outside the prescribed norms, and yet still manages to feel special. The girls of OEC all have phenomenal voices (listen to Jinsoul on “Chaotic”, holy crap), and the production is stellar — it’s a very warm listen, full of hooks (those “Ooooh”s on “Girl Front”) and dreamy vocal layering (“LOONATIC”). There’s not a weak song on the whole thing and as far as pure pop goes, no girl group did it better this year.

8. Bobby – Love and Fall

8 - bobbyWhen you listen to K-pop, you have to put up with a certain amount of preening — you eventually get used to it, but this was another hurdle I encountered when I first started exploring the genre. Image is everything in K-pop, and while I usually love K-pop videos (the worst K-pop MV is still probably better than most of the “best” Western music videos), the singers tend to be fairly expressionless, which I’m told is a cultural thing. It’s to Bobby’s credit, then, that even though he embodies that trendy thug look pretty completely (although let’s be honest, he kinda pulls it off), in the music video for “Runaway” we get to see him actually expressing emotion in a way that makes sense with the song. I mean, in a lot of contexts this is like praising a 12 year old for coloring inside the lines, but if you’re unfamiliar with K-pop you don’t know how common the “blank sexy look” is in its MVs, and how utterly annoying it can be to see it yet again.

But that’s tangential to the topic at hand. Love and Fall itself is somewhat standard fare for this kind of approach — R&B/hip hop fusion about expressing love in the suavest way possible — but man does Bobby have a good voice, and his versatility puts pretty much every other male K-pop star to shame. He doesn’t have the smoothest vocals in K-pop (that award probably goes to Jonghyun), but really that’s what makes this album so magnetic. “Tendae”, for instance, has Bobby putting one of his catchiest and smoothest choruses next to raspy rapping and “Up” has him doing vocal gymnastics alongside Mino in the album’s heaviest cut. The sum total of Love and Fall is a bulletproof collection of pop gems, and his immediately recognizable voice places him floors above his peers.

7. Taeyeon – My Voice

7 - taeyeonTaeyeon has a long history in K-pop; as one of the members of Girls’ Generation, she was at the forefront of the Korean Wave that broke upon Western shores in a big way around the turn of the decade, and so played (however minor) a part in my own discovery of the stuff. She has a fairly deep library of solo releases — singles, EPs, collaborations and the like — but from that which I’ve listened to, pretty much the only thing that ever caught my ear was “Why”, a pretty standard housey pop song with this beautiful moment where the music cuts out and all that’s left is Taeyeon’s silky voice trilling the word “…youuu” in this moment of smile-inducing aural perfection. My Voice is Taeyeon’s first actual full-length album released in her many years of solo work, and I put off listening to it for a long time this year because of my lukewarm experience with her other stuff.

Well, we all make mistakes, I guess.

It’s an appropriately-titled album, putting Taeyeon’s powerful vocals at the center and building lovely pop vignettes around it. It’s a stylistic patchwork; upbeat dance-pop (“Cover Up”) sits across from trappy art-pop (“I Got Love”), while a horn-infused kiss-off (“I’m OK”) parades in the background. There are acoustic guitars (“Fire”) and pianos (“Love In Color”). Every song brings something different to the table, but it’s Taeyeon’s voice that ties everything together into a rich tapestry. Not everyone would be able to make these songs work in the context of a greater whole, but I suppose if anyone could, it’s Taeyeon.

6. KARD – You & Me

6 - kardKARD are a bit of an outlier. Their success has come mainly internationally — they are wildly popular in places like South America but decidedly overshadowed back home. Their debut single “Oh NaNa” was perhaps one of the best debuts by a K-pop group ever (in this fan’s humble opinion), but their follow-ups “Don’t Recall” and “Rumour” both felt like blatant retreads, trying to recapture the magic of that first single. I’ve seen them panned by many a K-pop fan for refusing to climb out of the tropical house hole they dug themselves into with these songs, and their first mini-album Hola Hola certainly didn’t bring anything new to the table. Even though I enjoyed that release, I can’t in good conscience claim that it was anything other than “safe”. So when I saw that they had released a second mini-album this year, I approached it with considerable trepidation.

You & Me ditches the tropical house sound they built their fame on almost entirely for something much darker, much more emotional, and substantially more cohesive. While KARD’s status as an idol group with both male and female members probably accounts for their relative unpopularity in South Korea (labels just don’t know how to market such groups well), it also allows them a great deal of freedom to explore concepts and themes in their work that other groups simply can’t, and this ends up being You & Me‘s greatest asset. There’s a tension that permeates this album that’s absent in other K-pop releases, thanks in large part to the male/female dichotomy.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the two very different renditions of “Trust Me”, one featuring only J.Seph and Jiwoo, the other with BM and Somin. The songs feature similar lyrics but completely different musical approaches. Both are emotionally charged to the bursting point, the lovers in each trying to overcome a lack of trust between them in their own individual ways. These are pivotal moments on an album full of peaks — the lead single “You In Me”, for example, falls back slightly on the tropical elements but turns off the lights completely, and accompanies a haunting music video that gives an unexpected spin to the lyrics “I’m calling out to you / But you don’t answer”.

You & Me is one of my favorite albums of the year. It’s a sharp and needed turn off of the path they were headed down, and breathes new life into a group that were fast on their way to becoming one-hit-wonders. More than that, though, it’s a dive into little-explored territory in K-pop, investigating the dark corners of relationships that most K-pop singers never get far enough to examine themselves. It feels more serious and foreboding than most of the stuff that comes out of the scene, and it’s an exciting new direction for a group that has a lot of potential to make waves…if they’re ever given the opportunity.

5. IU – Palette

5 - iuPalette was, on my first listen, an incredibly boring and forgettable release. I don’t remember what exactly I was expecting, but I think I was hoping for something poppier, more striking somehow. I shelved it and basically forgot about it until close to the end of the year; in between I did a lot more exploring, listened to a lot more K-pop specifically, and was getting close to reaching a saturation point. I eventually found my way back to Palette through the less-bombastic avenues of more R&B-based artists, and when I finally listened to it again it was with new eyes, new ears, and a completely different mindset.

The thing about this album is that it’s quiet. Although certainly a pop album at heart, the bulk of the songs on here are ballads featuring little more than IU and a piano or acoustic guitar. Even the more fleshed out tracks — “Palette” and “Jam Jam”, for example — sound like stripped-down versions of something that was once much larger and more imposing. On this release, IU trimmed away every unnecessary piece, leaving only the essentials. It’s an incredibly emotional album at nearly every turn, even moreso if you read translations of the lyrics — the imagery in the closing track, “Dear Name”, provides an elegant example: “I know your name that has silently been forgotten / I won’t stop, I’ll shout out several times / Even if you’re so far that I can’t believe it / Let’s go, to the place at the tip of dawn”. The album is rife with stuff like this, and even if you choose not to read the translations, IU’s vocal delivery is typically enough to convey the ideas.

It’s just such an achingly pretty album, especially when you place it against most of the other stuff on this list. It may even require that very context to get the most out of it, I don’t know. There’s plenty of emotion to be found in K-pop, but the problem is that most of it feels manufactured. Straight-up, it doesn’t feel that way here. It may be — who knows? — but if it is it’s so hidden within IU’s gorgeous voice and the stunning arrangements that I don’t care. I’ll happily get sucked into this world of heart-on-sleeve balladeering again and again until the end of time.

4. BTS – Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’

4 - btsIt drives my wife nuts that I tend to prefer to listen to my music in album format — playlists are typically not my go-to method for filtering my music, so when I started to get into K-pop one of the things that I think she probably really appreciated was my willingness to create and listen through playlists. The entire genre is tailored this way, as I already alluded to in my introduction. So it should suggest something hopefully significant about Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’ that I can’t cherry-pick songs from this one. If I want to listen to anything off of it, I need to listen to the whole thing. It’s just that good.

BTS have become internationally recognized in the space of the last year; anyone with their ear to the ground of American pop music has probably heard or read those three letters in sequence at at least one point in the past few months. They were hyped up beyond belief for their performance at the 2017 AMAs (and boy, did they deliver), collaborated with Steve Aoki, and hit the Billboard Top 200 with the release of this album. It remains to be seen how much they’ll be able to capitalize on the momentum, but for the time being, it’s good to be a BTS fan.

There’s no one thing that makes Love Yourself such an appealing album, because it simply does everything well — the production values are through the roof on this thing, for example, especially on the more subtle elements of songs like “DNA” or “dimple”, with background sounds and vocal samples that add heat to already-fire pop diamonds. This album also has a wonderfully democratic approach — each of the group’s seven members gets equal mic time (look at the even distribution of colors on this color-coded lyric sheet for “GoGo”), and I feel like BTS does a better job in general of channeling their individual personalities through their music than a lot of other like-minded boybands do. Perhaps most immediately, though, this album is just one scorcher after another. It burns its choruses, its hooks, its beats into your brain in a way that almost no other album on this list does. It begs to be re-listened to, danced to, cranked up with the windows down. It’s hopelessly “now” in the best way possible, and something I will be obstinately unashamed of blasting the second someone asks me why I listen to “that Korean music”.

3. offonoff – boy.

3 - offonoffAny discussion of K-pop tends to focus on its star acts — individuals or groups who are groomed from a young age to perform and create music and be the face of South Korea to the rest of the world. This is not to discount these artists’ abilities or output (hopefully the content of this list makes that painfully obvious), but sometimes it can be easy to forget that, just like any music scene, not every artist is in the limelight. The duo who go under the moniker offonoff are on the perimeters of the scene, producing smokey ambient R&B and getting comparatively little attention; their single “gold” only has 950,000 views on YouTube since it was released in July — which seems like a big number until you realize that BTS’ “DNA” reached 100 million views in less than a month, and that record has since been broken by TWICE. Now granted, BTS and TWICE are some of the most popular K-pop groups out there right now, but if popularity is a sliding scale, then offonoff is certainly on the low end.

It’s not terribly hard to see why — their music isn’t danceable or infectious in the same way as most other K-pop. It thrives in haze and blurred vision and understatement. It’s informed by hip hop culture but not bound by it. While “gold” is full of the swagger and braggadocio one comes to expect from this type of music, songs like “homeless door” reveal something deeper and more introspective (“I just want to have even your heart / I want to know everything”); and the slow-motion closer “Overthinking” chronicles a night walk for the singer to clear his head of his thoughts, with the result being only that he crowds it with more, before the song dissolves into a three-minute wall of ambient synths. The whole album espouses this incredibly chill, eyes-half-open demeanor full of atmosphere, and just goes to show that when the lights aren’t shining on them, talented artists can still make beautiful music out of the darkness and dust.

2. Jonghyun – 소품집: 이야기 Op.2

2 - jonghyunHindsight’s a killer, and three weeks can change everything. I first listened through this album just over a month ago, at the end of November, and I was blown away by it — Jonghyun’s liquid smooth voice is probably the most sublime in all of K-pop, at least of what I’ve heard, and the downtempo R&B that makes up most of this album was a welcome respite for me in much the same way that Palette was — calm, relaxing, and deeply emotive. It was a record to get absolutely lost in and overwhelmed by.

Then, on December 18th, I logged into reddit to find, at the top of my feed, the heartbreaking news of Jonghyun’s suicide. Having just discovered this guy’s music, I was overcome by shock and more than a little grief. Although his impact on my life at that point was minimal compared to many other K-pop fans (as he was also a member of SHINee, one of the first Korean boybands to gain international fame almost 10 years ago), his music had left such an impression on me that it felt more personal than most other celebrity deaths ever have to me.

Re-listening to Op.2 now, I see it in a completely new light. It’s no less magnificent, but everything is now tinted with a premonitory glow. The lyrics, something I never bothered to look up my first time around, so blatantly predict Jonghyun’s suicide that it’s almost sickeningly comical. From “Let Me Out”:

Someone please hold me, I’m exhausted from this world
Someone please wipe me, I’m drenched with tears
Someone please notice my struggles first
Please acknowledge the poor me
Please help me

Or from “Lonely”:

Baby I’m so lonely, so lonely
I feel like I’m alone
When I see you so tired, I worry
that I’m baggage to you, that I’m too much

It goes on and on, it’s plastered all over the album. The entire thing now carries a haunting quality; it’s impossible to listen to without separating its contents from the circumstances that led to Jonghyun’s death. It ends up being one of the most beautifully sad albums I think I’ve ever listened to. Selfishly, I’m upset at Jonghyun’s passing as much because he took his own life before he ever got to experience happiness as I am because I’ll never get to hear new music from him, and then only weeks after I discovered him in the first place. Op.2 is a monolithic record for both its sound and for the outpouring of self contained within, and it’s something I never want to forget, nor is it something I can let pass by without deep reflection. K-pop simply doesn’t get much better than this; it just sucks that it cost so much for me to realize it.

1. G-Dragon – Kwon Ji Yong

1 - g-dragonTwo years ago, my then-fiancee and I were planning our wedding. Being that we were doing everything we could to save money, instead of hiring a DJ we decided to take care of the music ourselves, which involved creating our own playlist for the reception. At my best man’s request, I put a few K-pop songs on the playlist, not realizing that doing so would end up getting my wife so hooked on the stuff that I would eventually spiral down the K-pop hole after her. We still haven’t found our way out.

BIGBANG was Rachael’s first obsession. Over the next year and a half I was regaled with random factoids about each of the different members of the group, from things as mundane as their individual heights to intricate analyses of what would become of each of them as they each enlisted into the Korean military in the coming years to fulfill South Korea’s mandatory conscription program. I got to know their music pretty intimately as it played in the car when we drove places together, or when Rachael did chores around the apartment. G-Dragon was Rachael’s bias (favorite member of the group, for you non-K-pop nerds), and she began to explore his solo stuff as well, which I didn’t really like as much — but that didn’t stop the music from playing. This all culminated in the release of Kwon Ji Yong and, subsequently, getting to see G-Dragon live over the summer. Through this release and that concert experience, my appreciation for GD as an artist has skyrocketed. There’s no question in my mind that this is the best K-pop release of the year, and one of the best albums released all year regardless of genre.

The album represents a stylistic shift for GD, grittier and more personal than anything he’s released before. It shows GD breaking from his shell, making the music that best represents him, more than possibly anything that’s come before (save maybe for “Crooked”), exemplified not least by the album’s title, which is GD’s actual name. There are a bunch of lyrical references that those not familiar with GD or K-pop culture would probably miss (i.e. “Rest in piece (minus one)” from the opening track is a reference to PeaceMinusOne, GD’s fashion brand; the “Get your crayon, crayon” lyric in “BULLSHIT” is a reference to an older GD song, etc.), but even ignoring these, there’s a sense of restraint in GD’s earlier work that is just absent here.

It feels more personal than anything he’s ever done — the opening song “Middle Fingers Up” is a tirade against people who want to use his fame for their personal gain, while “Super Star” is a starkly intimate confession from one of the biggest, most well-known K-pop stars in all of South Korea: “I need somebody, I ain’t got nobody…hello??” The album’s apex, though, is the closing song, “Divina Commedia”, in which GD shows just how far removed he is from normal society — “While others grew, I listed stocks”, he sings, “That’s why I’m a little short.” Coming from a society that is steeped in superficiality and vanity, this album is the equivalent of ripping off a plastered-on mask. GD is at the peak of the world, and yet feels as inadequate as the next guy. In any other society this isn’t a particularly profound statement, but in K-pop, it’s almost revelatory.

GD’s self-revelation and honest assessment of himself stands as one of my favorite musical statements of the year, but my enjoyment of this album isn’t limited to that dimension of it. To me, it represents something far more important and personal — a deep connection I have with my wife. Rachael and I are fairly independent people with our own interests, so when those interests happen to intersect, it’s fantastic. I learned a genuine love of K-pop from her, and this has come to be one my favorite bonds that we share. Looking back, I can say without any doubt that it was Kwon Ji Yong that cemented that connection for me. Few things over the past year have been as important to me as that.

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About crakthesky

Mid-20s and vocal about my subculture.
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