The Best and Worst of K-Pop: September 2019

We made it before Halloween! Barely, but it still counts. We’ll get started right away on sorting through the October debuts and comebacks. I’m guessing we’ll be done around February.

WORST

“Dumb Litty” by KARD

S: Despite picking worst songs each month, there actually isn’t much out there that Amanda and I actively hate. Sure, stuff is annoying, and there are plenty of K-pop songs that just aren’t for us, but there’s very little we would label as unquestionably terrible. For most of the year, there was only song we both actually couldn’t stand: “Bomb Bomb.” Now, I can officially say there are two songs I hate from 2019, and both are courtesy of KARD.

I’ve never been that into KARD, but their music has always been inoffensive. Well, it’s officially started to offend me. Cacophonous and stupid with little in terms of an effective hook, what can I say about “Dumb Litty?” Well, I’m not surprised it was produced by BM. No offense to him personally, but this is the kind of song that gets made by someone whose stage name is medical shorthand for literal shit. 

A: Since KARD debuted in 2017, they’ve basically released the same trop house song over and over again. They’re fun, they’re catchy, but it was time to change directions. Unfortunately, they went the wrong direction. “BOMB BOMB’ and “Dumb Litty” are essentially the same song, but the chill trop house vibes of their previous hits were exchanged for anything but chill. These loud, excruciating songs can’t even be saved by a shirtless BM. Turns out, experimenting with a different sound was a dumb move for KARD. 

“BByong” by Saturday

S: The biggest problem with “BByong” is it is not catchy enough. There was a very slim chance that I was going to like this song, but it could have been an effective earworm. The truth is, I pretty much forget what it sounds like as soon as it’s over, and I don’t enjoy the listening experience that much while it’s playing. Plus, I find the saxophone in the back a little obtrusive. It doesn’t complement the vocals. Instead, it feels like it’s competing with them, and unfortunately for Saturday, the sax wins.

A: Oh yeah, this song happened, and after listening to it again for this list, I’m glad I forgot it. It’s annoying from the very beginning, and it doesn’t get any better. A chipper chorus consisting of young women repeating “steal my heart” really doesn’t have a chance of appealing to me. This song is also a case study for sax gone wrong. A simple saxophone line can add a nice hook and a flirtatious attitude to a pop song, but too much saxophone can even overpower a Korean girl group. 

“Side Kick” by K-Tigers Zero

S: Call me old fashioned, but I like a chorus with words. The EDM instrumental on this thing is just too much. The members feel overpowered when they rap or sing, and for large chunks of the song, there are just not vocals. I get that K-Tigers Zero features members who excel at Taekwondo and is probably going to be more choreography focused. “Side Kick” probably works well as a live performance, but it is a pretty terrible listening experience. 

A: A co-ed taekwondo K-pop group with a song called “Side Kick”—sounds fun, right? Unfortunately, this concept got drowned out by loud, abrasive noise that not even a group of blackbelts could fight off.

“Who Dat B” by Jessi

S: Jessi has never been a favorite of mine. I appreciate her take-no-shit attitude and bold personality, but most of her music just doesn’t click for me. I was excited to see what she would do under P-Nation, and the results are, well, a little boring. “Who Dat B” really isn’t memorable (outside of a mention of how good Jessi’s ass is looking that really jumped out at me—I’m not sure what to make of that). I find myself tuning out relatively quickly, and if there’s anything Jessi usually excels at, it’s grabbing people’s attention. Here’s hoping HyunA and Hyojong’s upcoming releases show all that P-Nation has to offer.

A: Brash female rappers dominate my playlists, and Jessi is probably the brashest Korean rapper to gain an international audience. I mean, she brags about how she keeps it real while wearing a tube top with the word “FAKE” emblazoned across her chest—easily my favorite moment of the month. But beyond her tongue-in-cheek lyrics and wardrobe choice, this song didn’t do much for me. Though the beat is catchy and cool, the excessive autotune left me cold. Having said that, this is by far my favorite song of Jessi’s. Perhaps we can expect great things from her now that she’s at P-Nation. I can’t be the only one who wants to see her team up with Hyuna.

“Daredevil” by Zico
ft. Jvcki Wai and YUMDDA

S: Sometimes, it just takes one tiny thing to take a good song and make it a hard pass. Maybe the chorus is a tad obnoxious, maybe it sounds a little too much like a pirate shanty, or maybe a featured artist says she’s “too blessed’ approximately 6,000 times. In the case of “Daredevil,” that last one earned it a place on the worst list. The song starts off strong, and most of Jvcki Wai’s verse is great. But once you reach the end, the repetition just grinds everything to a halt. The song continues from there, and I guess, the rest is fine, but to be honest, the momentum’s been killed, and I’ve totally checked out by that point. 

A:  Can a song be on both the best and worst list? There’s a lot to love with this song. Zico takes an offbeat approach to bragging about his new company and his success. It’s a funny video with a cute instrumental, but his flow and lyrical prowess are no joke. But like many rap songs, this has a features problem. Nobody who follows can match Zico’s skill. Jvcki Wai’s wacky style and distinct voice make her a rapper to watch out for, but nobody is that blessed. Maybe YUMDDA makes great solo music, but his part just seemed a little mumbly, and he cannot compete with the coolness of Zico and Jvcki. A couple sub-par features shouldn’t deter anyone from checking out Zico’s mini-album Thinking, Part 1. Though maybe not his best work, he continues to push himself, explore new sounds and prove he’s one of the best rappers of his generation.

HONORABLE MENTIONS 

“1 Minute 1 Second” by W Project 4

“Fear” by Seventeen

BEST

“Feel Special” by Twice

S: What?! Twice on the best list?! That is extremely off-brand for Academic Exiles. But it’s time for a confession: I’ve liked both of Twice’s Korean comebacks this year. Shocking, I know. “Fancy” was catchy and fun, but it was held back by just how high-pitched the chorus was. “Feel Special” brings it down an octave and delivers a fun bop that even an established boy-group stan like me can’t deny. The group’s cooler sound and more mature concepts are really working. Plus, the girls have faced some setbacks this year, and it’s nice to see them come back looking and sounding great. 

A: As I’ve said before, I’m not really a fan of high-pitched cute songs performed by young women smiling and dancing in tiny, tight outfits. That doesn’t mean the music is necessarily bad, but it’s definitely not for me. Finally, Twice cut back on the helium and updated their look to make a song that I could enjoy from beginning to end. “Feel Special” is still cute, endearing and true to the Twice brand—they just went for a slightly more grown-up look and sound.

Like a lot of K-pop music, the power of this song is fully realized with the music video. We’ve had enough fairy tales and songs about men saving women from the depths of depression. Twice switches up that tired narrative to show each member being lifted up by female friends, role models and a Tzuyu doll. Even I’m not so cynical to hate something this sweet.

“Lit” by Oneus

S: Oneus are rookies to watch out for. They debuted strong with “Valkyrie” in January, and I thoroughly enjoyed their first comeback, “Twilight.” My one complaint was that those two songs felt pretty similar and didn’t allow the boys to show much range. With “Lit,” the group goes in a completely different direction, and it pays off. The mix of traditional Korean instrumentation with modern hip-hop production is not necessarily innovative, but it does give the song a distinct flavor. Most importantly, it shows a different side to Oneus, and I’m even more excited to see what they’ll do next. 

A: Oneus is easily my favorite group to debut in 2019, and “Lit” is the first single that has let them just have fun. But what really makes this song exciting is how Korean it is. Sure, several K-Pop hits mix hip hop and traditional Korean instruments, but this is a full-blown Korean festival. The lyrics describe Chuseok, or the Harvest Moon Festival, and contain zero English. The video also includes the group dancing in hanbok-inspired outfits in a setting that resembles palaces and hanoks. It’s a perfect dance hit for autumn that boldly refuses to pander to Western audiences—something that K-Pop needs a lot more of.

“Workaholic” by BOL4

S: I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to populate our best and honorable mention lists with more subdued, almost indie-esque offerings. This month, there’s a little more bombast present, which honestly feels more authentic to what we listen to. We’re always on the lookout for the next great banger, so maybe the more mellow stuff just stands out among all the noise. Representing the subdued side of K-pop this month, “Workaholic” is a great example of what BOL4 does best. You get Ahn Jiyoung’s unique vocals paired with a quicky instrumental. What’s not to like?

A: This song achieved an all-kill, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s low key but catchy, letting Jiyoung put her quirky vocals on full display. “Relatable” is a term that’s thrown around too often, but it’s absolutely true for this song, particularly in how it represents the intense Korean work culture. Everyone’s been fed up, underappreciated and ready to pick up a bat and swing blindly at our co-workers—or at least wanted to take a break from our mundane lives to party til dawn. At the core, this fun song is kinda dark, showing how many people are stuck in destructive cycles of unfulfilling work and late nights drinking. However, at least we get a few fun minutes with BOL4 before the alarm goes off and it’s back to our routines.

“Chicken Noodle Soup” by J-Hope
ft. Becky G

S: Some things shouldn’t work. A K-pop remake of Webstar and Young B’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” is one of those things. This didn’t stop J-Hope for releasing his take on the song, and somehow, I don’t hate it. In fact, I like it … I like it a lot. Previously, I was vaguely aware of the phrase “chicken noodle soup with a soda on the side” and an accompanying dance, but I don’t have that much nostalgia for the original “Chicken Noodle Soup.” J-Hope and Becky G’s version takes a trilingual approach that celebrates the different places we come from and what brings us all together: silly dances. It’s a fun tribute to J-Hope’s roots as a dancer, and there’s something undeniably charming about the track and its music video. 

A: In 2069, when plastic and AI have somehow wiped out half of mankind, the remaining residents of Earth will look back on the previous decades and consider this song as epitomizing late-2010s pop culture. The Tik-Tok challenge, the nostalgia, the dance fad, the tri-lingual singing and rapping—it’s just so 2019. Quite frankly, I didn’t need this dance to come back and take over the latest in annoying social media platforms. I especially didn’t need J-Hope to work on this cash-grab project when he was supposed to be on break like his BTS bandmates. 

But even if I could do without it, I can’t help but smile when I see the video. At the end of the day, J-Hope is great at dancing, rapping and entertaining. If anyone could pull this off, it would be him. I haven’t really followed Becky G’s career, but here, she’s the soda to his chicken noodle soup. What a joyful surprise to kick-off fall.

“Quit” by FT Island

S: Some things always work, and FT Island ballads are one of those things. With the truly disgusting revelations about Choi Jong Hoon coming to light this year, 2019 could have spelled disaster for the band. But thanks in part to Minhwan’s stint on Mr. House Husband and Hongki’s always on-point reactions to the scumbaggery of his former bandmate, the four remaining members proved they have what it takes to persevere. “Quit” may not reinvent the wheel, but it delivers exactly what I want from the band: strings and piano mixed with rock elements and Hongki’s soaring vocals. It’s emotive and powerful, and the song served as the perfect send off for the singer as he entered his mandatory military service. I’m not crying; you’re crying.   

A: I don’t know what this song is about, and I don’t know what sort of drama is playing out in the music video. All I know is Hongki is belting, and that’s all that matters. One of the members of FT Island might be out after being a disgusting person, but the band stuck to their formula, delivering yet another dramatic ballad that everyone will want to sing aloud in a karaoke booth, even if you don’t know any Korean.

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