A Look at K-pop (Jan 2021-Jun 2021)

So I follow a lot of K-pop artists now. A lot. I passed my one year anniversary of falling into this abyssal music genre a few months ago, and I have really grown in my knowledge since my last K-pop article. I can name all 23 members of NCT from their faces, which I think might speak for itself in how deep I’ve gotten. That said, I still think that I have a lot to learn and that I need to check out a lot more artists and research a lot more about the industry before I can truly crown myself a K-pop expert. But I’m at the point that I figured I could write sizable articles about my opinions on what make K-pop fans such as myself hype the most: comebacks. That’s what this is, the start of a series where I talk about K-pop music comebacks from the previous six months. 

If you’re unfamiliar with how K-pop comebacks work, let me explain. The K-pop industry is, as you likely know, an idol industry. Companies well know that fans are willing to buy anything with their favorite idols in or on it. This means they tend to put out a lot of content, among that content of course being the music itself. It’s actually very common for K-pop artists to release new albums within less than a year of each other so that the consuming fans are more satisfied. To make this schedule not hell for producers and the idols themselves, most of the time the releases are what they call “mini albums”. So basically, the majority of K-pop releases are EPs, with a full length album every now and then. Sometimes, something called a “repackage” may happen, which is basically a rerelease of an album only a few months after a comeback with a few new songs added on and new concepts. The point of this being, again, easy consumerism. Speaking of concepts, K-pop albums are physically released with plenty of goodies (photocards, photobook, stickers, postcards, posters, and more), so that’s why the photoshoot concepts are so hyped up, since these collectable items will depict them. As a result, the concepts are continually teased a month or even two months before the release, and also why I will often briefly mention them in my discussions in these articles.

So before I get started, I encourage you to think about these articles as a collection of my current opinions rather than an all-encompassing analysis of the K-pop industry over a certain time period. You see, the problem with undertaking a series like this is that there really are, like, too many comebacks. All the time. So discussing every single one while also keeping my articles to a consumable length would be very hard, if not impossible to do with my 6 month time frame I have set. Also my K-pop attention currently does not pertain to every single popular/semi-popular group and soloist currently, nor do I have the energy to make it so. I would really love to evaluate Tail by Sunmi, Lilac by IU, or Encore by Got7, three popular artists who had releases in the first half of the year, but frankly I haven’t researched them well enough yet to get the same amount of context that I can provide for everything I have included in this article. Therefore, the way I’ve decided to do this is to go in more detail on comebacks from my favorite artists or anything I have a fairly strong opinion on, then have a brief honorable mentions section towards the end for anything I only found time to have a vague opinion on. So I apologize if you’re a K-pop fan reading this and your favorite group or soloist’s comeback from the first half of the year aren’t here, but please do understand that I won’t be able to write about every comeback, possibly even highly anticipated ones. Oh yeah, and I will only be evaluating title tracks and their music videos, because listening to the entirety of every album/EP that comes out is also something I don’t have energy for.

As a sidenote, I know it’s the end of August and there have been more comebacks since the end of June, but I will unfortunately have to save those for my next entry in this series. I was busy with my job and having depressive episodes this summer so that’s why this has come so late, but I have a timeframe and I intend to stick with it. It’s my article and I get to choose the rules! So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Jan 11: (G)I-DLE – HWAA 

January 11 happens to be my birthday, so this was a great present from one of my favorite girl groups. If the title confuses you, “HWAA” refers to the pronunciations of the Chinese characters 火 (flame) and 花 (flower). Both of these characters would be pronounced as 화 (hwa) in non-tonal Korean, which is also a Korean word that means “flame”. The song relates these references of a flame and a flower to the life of someone who burned away the winter of their struggles and bloomed afterwards, bringing spring along with them. 

The sort of wintery, sorrowful, yet peaceful concept that HWAA brings is a bit of a first for (G)I-DLE, since they usually go for more retro and/or sexy vibes. Seeing them try something like this was rather refreshing as a result. Not that their usual formula isn’t great, but it’s nice to see a different side of them and to realize that they can excel even in places they haven’t before. The song is calming yet powerful: The cold but beautiful violin intro contrasted with the transition at the end to fiery visuals makes for some delightful thematics. Yuqi and Minnie’s vocals really brought out the feel to me as well, they really have voices meant for songs like this.

Jan 26: DREAMCATCHER – Odd Eye

Let me start off by saying…welcome back Handong! She was finally able to return from her homeland of China after being trapped there visiting family due to the outbreak of COVID-19. It was my first time seeing her in a comeback since I started my K-pop journey, so it was great to see her in action again. She had returned in time for a very banger comeback indeed.

Dreamcatcher loves incorporating metal into their style, which I adore them for, and they of course did not let up any with going hard for Odd Eye. As opposed to a lot of their titles, however, this one took a minute to grow on me. They went for more of a funkier melody, which I definitely respect, but I didn’t immediately recognize the song as an insanely solid title track. But I later did, so no harm done, right? The styling for the MV and promotional shoots were hallowingly delightful. I absolutely loved the grungy but cute look they went for, it added a bit of variety to their overall horror aesthetic that they employ. The choreo is very smooth and satisfying, much like the song itself. I had originally preferred their previous title track, BOCA, but I soon realized I was a fool. Odd Eye rules and so do Dreamcatcher, listen to them!

Feb 22: SHINee – Don’t Call Me

SHINee’s back! Getting a comeback from them after a few years of silence due to the the members enlisting in their mandatory military service was a big deal for their fans, so it was very highly anticipated. I was glad to see that the boys delivered well, though not exactly in the way I was expecting. The message of Don’t Call Me is pretty simple: it’s an aggressive song asking a former lover to cease trying to contact and re-engage a relationship with the singer(s). The track a certified SHINee bop for sure, but it’s so weird and different at the same time. I like it though, the instrumentals give off an ominous, angry vibe yet it manages to do so in the good ol’ funky SHINee way.

What I didn’t really care for was the MV itself. It’s fine, but I’ve noticed that once in a while, SM Entertainment stylists nowadays seemingly go on drugs or something and you end up with the idols in some weird obscure fashion that people like me can’t comprehend ever looking appealing. This is one of those times. Taemin looked fine to me, but everyone else…hmm. I’m a simple human, I just think I just wanna know who put those feathers on Key’s head and said it looked cool. I’m no fashion artist though, so don’t take me too seriously here. As far as the rest of the visuals, the choreo was quite good but there wasn’t a lot going on with the concept, I just feel like they could have done a lot more clever things with the theme of phones and whatnot. Stuff’s still good though, don’t get me wrong! SHINee never disappoints.

Mar 1: ATEEZ – Fireworks (I’m the One) 

ATEEZ are my ult group that I love with all my heart, so I could really crack my knuckles and rant big time on their comebacks, but for the sake of fairness to the other entries in this article, I’ll keep it brief. I liked this title track a lot more initially than I did the ones from their previous comeback, INCEPTION and THANXX. While I grew to love those anyway, they didn’t bring me the same old ATEEZ style that I had quickly grown to adore in my early days of stanning them, so I was happy to see that Fireworks(I’m the One) brought that feeling back. 

The song is really catchy, so much so that I had the “bulnoriya, bulnoriya ay” part stuck in my head for like a week. And, Fireworks’ bridge is no joke; Jongho, Seonghwa, and especially San’s vocals really made it stand out to me. As far as the MV, the choreo is super fun and interesting to look at, which isn’t a first at all for me with these boys. And I thought it was clever how Mingi, who couldn’t make it for filming on account of taking time off for mental health reasons, could still have his rapping come through a radio shown on screen. The apocalyptic concept was an interesting choice, but it works with the fiery theme the song presents (and also probably their storyline, but I have trouble keeping up with those kinds of things in K-pop). I definitely do not think the song is ATEEZ’s best, but then again, I think if they ever release something more epic than WONDERLAND or Answer, the world might implode.

Mar 10: WayV – Kick Back

WayV is my favorite NCT unit, so I was quite hyped for this one. Kick Back did indeed bring everything I had learned to love about WayV’s style back around – the catchy beat, the godly technological instrumentals, the lovely, stable vocals – except for just about every time the chorus rolls around. This isn’t a huge problem that I think ruins the song or anything, but the pre-chorus builds and hypes up my expectations for the real banger part of the song to start only for it to lead to the first part of the chorus, which in my opinion, is a little underwhelming. The “we gotta kick kick kick kick kick back”s and whatnot are monotone to me in a way, if that makes sense. It’s a little hard to explain, but if you’ve heard the song you probably know what I’m talking about.

Like I said though, it’s not a big deal. Everything else is great! The styling was super neat this time around (except for Kun’s Supreme jacket maybe), and the choreo is fun as hell. Also, as I sort of mentioned, the prechorus is sooooo good. The vocals leading into Lucas rapping “秘密之境的异想 聚焦 tick-tock tick” is one of my favorite moments in their entire discography. Although I loved it to bits, I do have to rank Kick Back a little low on WayV titles, if only for the chorus issue I mentioned. But I can tell that they sought to bring a real fun and feel-good track this time around, and they did not fail in doing so.

Apr 30: ITZY – In the morning

Itzy is one of those groups that I’m surprised I like, only because I don’t think I’m super inclined to their style of music. But it always ropes me in one way or another, whether through their clever English phrase choices or overall catchiness. In the morning provided both for me; it’s a playful earworm in which Itzy tells you they’re gonna steal your heart like the mafia. Though the “m-m-m-mafia yeah we do it like the mafia” part in the chorus was called annoying by many, I thought it was funny at the worst, and much more so endearing to me. And honestly, I could never get mad at a song that contains lyrics that translate to “stop hesitating, time for the operation, stealing, stealing, stealing your heart like a caper movie, ready?” which I personally think is a metal as hell line.

On top of the song being entertaining, Itzy just plain looked cool donning femme fatale personas for the concept. Combined with the choreo and their body expressions (plenty of mischievous, seductive movements and finger guns), the girls present an MV that is both perky and badass. Watching it while keeping their previous titles in mind, they seem to like exploring a lot of different concepts while staying true to their identities, so this track leaves me excited to see what other fun stuff Itzy will try in the future. 

May 10: NCT Dream – Hot Sauce

Go on, buy their hot sauce. 

In all seriousness though, this comeback wins for best promotion of the first half of 2021 for me. They have their own hot sauce, their schedule was presented in the format of a nutritional label, the album was inside an aluminum package like processed food, and they have a little hot sauce mascot guy! It’s so cute! Plus, Hot Sauce has a pleasantly vibrant and colorful concept, not to mention an MV of the same nature that elevated my happiness levels just looking at all the funky places they were dancing in.

I feel like Hot Sauce is how hot sauce tastes except in sound form. It’s charmingly weird in the classic NCT style, but they added a little spice to their beat as well; the pattern of the bass in particular has me feeling the song’s “kick”. As with a lot of NCT songs, I can’t tell you why I like it because it’s just…so strange. But you listen to it a few times and then you can’t stop. They did try a lot of new things with Hot Sauce though, even for a K-pop group as experimental as NCT,  and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The quirky hip-hop style blended with guitarrón chords popping up in places sets it apart from a lot of Dream titles for me. Also, apparently the heavily edited intro vocals that also appear in the chorus are Spanish, but I would have never been able to recognize it as such. It’s very different, but it’s cool in it’s own way! Please don’t turn it off, I promise you’ll like it after a few listens. Maybe.

May 11: ONEUS – Black Mirror

You have to go a little beyond the surface of K-pop to find Oneus, but they truly are, in my opinion, a precious gem among boy groups, as demonstrated by Black Mirror. The song, choreo, and styling is all undoubtedly inspired by Michael Jackson, that much is apparent. But as they should, Oneus adds their own flavor to it to not make it a carbon copy of Jackson’s style, and it works really well. Black Mirror provides pure groovy beats and impressive, bold choreography that make for a spectacle of a performance.

One thing I really like about K-pop is the way that they make rapping work in so many different genres of music that groups try. Like, I wouldn’t normally expect to hear a funk-influenced song containing rapping, but that’s what Black Mirror is, and Ravn and Leedo really delivered for me this time around in that area. It’s really satisfying how well their rapping flows with the beat. Speaking of Ravn, his sparkly pinstripe suit? Awesome. They all looked snazzy, though. Everything about this was stylish, and it leaves me wanting Oneus to explore funk-inspired stuff more often. What a banger, honestly.

May 18: Taemin – Advice 

If I had to sum up my thoughts on this comeback, it would be “akjhkeahkjesfghkslghj”. The haunting piano intro, the striking visuals, the abrasive vocals, oh man, good stuff. I’m a huge fan of the ominous yet somehow angelic tone that Taemin often incorporates in his solo work, and this was no exception. I often hesitate to call things masterpieces, but this truly is one, in my opinion. Like, I’m really having trouble finding the words to write about this comeback.

I think what really made Advice hit me so hard is that this was Taemin’s last solo comeback before he enlisted in the military. I know he’ll be back before I know it, but having something like this for his sendoff is just so breathtaking. In the song, he tells himself to take his own advice and try to break free of the things that are trapping him, continuing the themes he presented in Criminal. The intro visuals of a battered and masked Taemin playing the piano followed by the transition into the heavily-hand centered choreography (with other imagery coming into play on occasion) really make the MV so soul-stirring and bewitching. He’s also very forceful and accusatory in his singing, contrasting the delicate instrumentals. Advice is one of the most musically interesting K-pop songs I’ve heard. I don’t know what else to say at this point except to listen to it, because I feel like I lack the descriptive skills to do it justice. 

May 21: BTS – Butter

BTS, you know I love you, that I think you’re all extremely talented and your fame is well deserved, but I can’t bring myself to enjoy Butter very much at all. I realize that making more marketable music for the West is the right move promotion-wise for BTS at this point in their careers, but I personally don’t like it very much. Lots of people went nuts over this comeback, and that’s fine, I get it, but I can’t help but think of my favorite BTS songs, like Tear or I Need U, and see how fluffy Butter is in comparison. Even as a basic feel-good pop song I don’t find it particularly interesting.

On the contrary, however, I thought the MV was great. They picked really good hairstyles for this one, Jungkook’s flowing blue locks being the most notable. It was nice and colorful with lots of great choreo, I heavily enjoyed the little dance break part with them switching around in the elevator. Also, they gave my boy Jin a lot of screentime, something he doesn’t get much of usually for whatever reason, so I do have to give it that. Although I may not have found Butter to be the best thing BTS has ever made, the fact remains that it broke a ton of records and has been a gateway into them gaining even more success, so I’m not going to harp on it too badly. It was a solid win for them!

June 11: Twice – Alcohol-Free

I’m not a huge fan of girl groups with cute concepts, but I have to make a notable exception for Twice, especially after dropping Alcohol-Free. The girls look so happy and care-free on their little summer outing that I couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across my face. It’s definitely one of my favorite title tracks from them that I have heard. With pleasant island beats and tropical guitar instrumentals, the song sounds like pure summer serotonin.

I really loved all the colorful imagery in tandem with the premise of the song. Twice happily sing about how, even though their alcohol level is at 0%, they’re drunk on the love of their partner. It’s an extremely adorable allegory, especially along with all the yummy drinks the girls sip and the summer outfits they sport in the MV. The chorus lyrics, by the way, are the most precious thing I’ve ever heard. “You’re my champagne, my wine, my tequila, margarita, mojito with lime, sweet mimosa, pina colada, I’m drunk in you”. It all just makes me want to go to the beach and have a margarita for hell’s sake.

Honorable Mentions

Baekhyun – Bambi: I really liked and should have invested more time into this one, especially since it was Baekhyun’s sendoff comeback before his enlistment. I adored the classy undertones as well as Baekhyun’s stellar vocals. They’re so pleasant and impressive with how quickly he changes the notes. Plus, he looked so sharp in that fedora and gloves.

SuperM – We DO: Probably the last SuperM release for a while sadly, due to Baekhyun and Taemin enlisting, but I think they successfully brought us one final bop for now. We DO uses some interesting brass-adjacent instrumentals to make the track feel extra poppy and bright. Very feel-good and fun, I like it!

SHINee – Atlantis: This was a repackage of Don’t Call Me, and honestly I didn’t think it packed as much of a punch. I liked the ocean aesthetic that they went for, but other than that it’s not a song that I really listen to willingly now. It’s good, just not really my favorite SHINee song. 

Day6 – You Make Me: The MV for this was so interesting, but it’s definitely meant to tell a story so I won’t spoil it for anyone who may see it. You Make Me’s chorus is a little grating for me, but Day6 makes up for it with the rest of the track, the instrumentals are very nice. Despite definitely being an emotional rock song, it’s a nice one to just zone out to.

Yuqi – Giant: This song meant a lot to me, but I didn’t want to spend an entire section on it since it was Yuqi’s solo debut and not really a comeback. Giant is a song about overcoming hardships as one grows up, and it has a beautiful 2D animated MV, depicting a girl facing different forms of darkness as you see her grow older. Yuqi is my (G)I-DLE bias and I find myself relating to the song a lot, so it really makes me happy she made something like this!

aespa – Next Level: A really weird combination of what seems like three different songs that don’t fit together well, in my opinion. I think what saves it for me is that each of the songs are like, good. And the “I’m on the next level” part is oddly addicting after a few listens. The more I play it the more I like it.

TXT – 0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You): This song feels like a deviation from TXT’s normal style, but I like it a lot. It feels angsty with some rock-like undertones, and although I wouldn’t call it rock, it’s a pretty neat style. It took me a while to warm up to TXT as a whole because their style is a little interesting, but I think if I had waited with them and started with this song I would have been listening to them more sooner. It’s a pleasantly emotional experience of a song.

Mamamoo- Where Are We Now: A cozy, refreshing break from the sexy concepts Mamamoo usually employs. It’s a lovely ballad set with the girls hanging out in the woods wondering…where they are now. Ballad’s are a little dicey with being successful, but I think Mamamoo executed it well! It’s very pretty and their vocals are beautiful as always.

EXO – Don’t fight the feeling: It was really nice to see members who had come back from enlistment for this comeback while others had to go, it helps keep me confident EXO don’t really plan to let anything stop them in their music career. Don’t fight the feeling  has a lot of the elements I’d expect an EXO song to contain, it’s a relatively chill bop but it still presents exquisite vocals as usual. Lovely stuff!

Seventeen – Ready to Love: Should have paid more attention to this one as well, but after seeing the MV once I felt a lot more underwhelmed after their previous comeback, Home Run (which was AWESOME). It’s a simple, melancholy love song, it’s focus for me being the somewhat slappy chorus instrumentals. I really like Seventeen, but honestly without those instrumentals the song would be lost to me, unfortunately. 

NCT Dream – Hello Future: A repackage of Hot Sauce, Hello Future is just kind of a soft boy song with lots of hippie colors and cute choreo. I enjoyed it a lot! The MV was endearing (especially the airport security check part) and the track is very bouncy and happy. My only complaint is Haechan’s ahoge. Yes he has an ahoge at one point, once again I don’t know what gets into SM stylists sometimes.

Final Thoughts

I’ve really had a blast paying attention to all these comebacks. While it can get overwhelming, it gives me something to be excited for fairly constantly, which I think is one of the best things being into K-pop has given me. During this pandemic especially, it helped me feel positive emotions even when things all seemed really bleak in the world. It’s all also just, very constantly quality overall, no matter what part of the year it is. I’ve only been a K-pop fan for under a year and a half now or so, but I still haven’t tired of checking all these new songs that are constantly coming out, because I know that when one group doesn’t impress me as much with their new comeback, another group exceeds my expectations. It’s very enjoyable and even suspenseful, wondering if I’ll like this comeback or not, if this one will be better than the last, etc.. 

So then, it goes without saying that I thought the first half of this year brought a lot of impressive and amazing comebacks, some of them even being historically significant in K-pop. I may have been a little late to the K-pop trend, but there really isn’t a bad time to start, I’m realizing. All the stuff I’ve seen in this first half-year alone has just been spectacular, not to mention everything from 2020 as well. I’m very excited to see all the groups I know and love continue to impress me in the years to come!

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