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From BTS to iKON, K-pop idols break down musical barriers

Boy band BTS (Big Hit Music)
Boy band BTS (Big Hit Music)

There have long been distinct elements that make up the “K-pop idol sound” – namely highly-produced songs with catchy choruses sung by camera-ready group members performing their distinct roles. To the unfamiliar, K-pop music can appear to not much more than a product of the entertainment industry.

But K-pop idols are, in fact, versatile: They can sing, dance, rap, compose and produce.

A handful of K-pop singers have put their talents on full display in various platforms, such as the popular rap survival program “Show Me The Money.”

Before entering the music industry as part of boy band iKON, Bobby -- a then-idol trainee under YG Entertainment -- proved he had what it takes to be a hip-hop artist by winning the show’s third season, beating two underground rappers during the final. 


Bobby of iKON (YG Entertainment)
Bobby of iKON (YG Entertainment)

Not only was he praised for his outstanding performances, he also got the nod for creating a new image that idols could rap. He made a seismic change by influencing the flow and rhythms of Korean trap music through songs like “YGGR” and “Go.” He swept music charts with his trap-style tracks and led a major hip-hop trend in 2014.

Putting aside his identity as an idol, Mino of boy band Winner also made the transition from K-pop to West Coast G-funk -- breaking the stereotype some people hold that idols are not particularly talented.

He threw his glitzy hat into the ring for “Show Me The Money 4” in 2015, and beat the odds by finishing in second place. The song he performed during the semi-final, “Fear (feat. Tae-yang),” became the year’s best-selling single.

The rapper has since released three solo projects -- “XX,” “Take” and “To. Infinity” -- all of which show off his skills as a producer, rapper, composer and lyricist. Six years later, he made a grand return to the 10th season of the audition program as a judge and producer.

“Being on audition programs for idols is sticking one’s neck out, since they would have to compete with experts in those fields. It means high risk, but it could be an opportunity for these idols to show who they are by competing with (other skilled contestants) and winning,” pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyeon told The Korea Herald. 


Mino of Winner (YG Entertainment)
Mino of Winner (YG Entertainment)

Jeong added that many perceive idols as “well-made paintings“ drawn by somebody else. “But that doesn’t ring true,” he said.

People tend to question K-pop idols’ talent, when in fact they can dance, rap and even sing, Jung added.

K-pop juggernaut BTS was also judged by some jaded music listeners as “fake hip-hoppers” when they debuted in 2013 with high-top sneakers, bandanas, shades and snapbacks. But little did they know what the septet had in store for the industry.

The act’s rap trio -- Suga, RM and J-Hope -- have released mixtapes and showed that they can rap on top of frenzied beats.

RM released his first solo mixtape in 2015. He has also teamed up with A-listers, including South Korean hip-hop guru Tiger JK and Gaeko. J-Hope dropped his debut mixtape “Hope World” in 2018, and has more than two million followers on Spotify as a Korean solo artist. Suga has been broadening his horizon as Agust D -- an alias he uses as a soloist -- and recently produced “That That,” the titular song of Psy’s ninth EP.

Apart from choosing to establish themselves as hip-hop and R&B musicians through audition programs and mixtapes, some proved their dexterous talent through self-produced albums. 


Woozi of Seventeen (Pledis Entertainment)
Woozi of Seventeen (Pledis Entertainment)

Dubbed a self-produced group in the K-pop industry, boy band Seventeen is composed of three units, each focusing on different areas of expertise: vocal, performance and hip-hop. The 13 bandmates have been penning their own songs, and member Woozi is widely known to be the group’s main producer. Holding most of the credit for the band’s discography, Woozi has proven his musical talent through Seventeen’s songs.

Recently, “Hot” -- the title track of the 13-piece’s fourth EP, “Face the Sun,” released in May -- topped the iTunes Top Songs chart in 26 regions, including Singapore and Mexico.

Culture critic Jeong echoed his stance that self-made albums and tracks show that music made by K-pop idols is not different from that of other musicians.

“Some people doubt when idols say they produce their own songs, so self-produced albums can prove that K-pop idols can compose and write songs. And since this music does well on music charts in and out of the country, idols have proved their musical talents,” he said.



By Park Jun-hee (junheee@heraldcorp.com)
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