Co-Ed K-pop Group KARD on Their Newfound Popularity & Musical Style

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Courtesy of Lippin Group/KCON
K.A.R.D attend KCON 2017 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 20, 2017.

While boy bands and girl groups are commonplace in South Korea, K-pop has only seen a handful of co-ed idol acts. But when KARD, stylized as K.A.R.D, took the stage at the Staples Center during KCON 2017 LA last month, there was no denying the roars of approval from the west coast audience.

Consisting of two women, Jiwoo and Somin, and two men, J.Seph and B.M, KARD released their first EP Hola Hola in July, formally entering the Korean music market with local promotional appearances. But the quartet had already been receiving a warm response internationally thanks to a trio of singles released before their official K-pop debut. Each of the three songs -- "Oh NaNa" feat. Heo Youngji of KARA, "Don't Recall," and "Rumor" -- peaked within the top five of Billboard's World Digital Song Sales chart, thanks to the reggaeton and moombahton styling that resonated with international K-pop fans. The widespread response led to the group being able to tour throughout North and South America even prior to releasing their first album.

While the Americas are increasingly seeing more Korean acts visiting for performances, it’s all but unheard for a group that hasn’t formally entered the Korean market to visit the States, let alone Latin America. “We were able to be on tour in Brazil, visit four different cities in Brazil, and Mexico City as well,” LA-native B.M tells Billboard ahead of their KCON performance. “That in itself is a really successful thing for KARD to be able to go out to a country where we don’t know each other’s languages but to be able to connect through the music we’re doing I think is a super beautiful thing.”

Promoting outside of Asia prior to releasing their first album, their official “debut” in Korea, set KARD aside as one of several newer K-pop acts attempting to differentiate itself from the mass with an alternate route to the starting line. And one with a lot more experience, thanks to their numerous international activities, especially the Wild KARD tour. “Personally speaking, I think our way of debuting was really good,” says Somin, the group's primary vocalist, and the only member who doesn't rap on KARD's tracks. “Because we had more experience before our official debut release, I think we were able to show even better sides. And I think overall, it was such an effective method.”

With contemporary house and dancehall vibes pulled directly from Top 40 charts, KARD’s brand of K-pop is undeniably trendy. It diverges from the quirky electropop, hip hop, mellow EDM, and alt-R&B that have particularly dominated the country’s charts lately, which is is what KARD’s all about. According to J.Seph the group hopes to keep putting out music that is not “so commonplace or mainstream.” Instead, the foursome will strive to put out music and performances that are both appealing to the trends of the day but also unique. 

The new act has already been able to carve out a sonic niche for itself, one that is largely inspired by Latin dance music trends, but they won't let that limit their music. “We don’t just want to continue with the tropical genre, but we want to keep using a trendy sound,” says Jiwoo. “We will keep studying other genres in order to keep showing new sides to KARD.”

Along with an alternate debut and musical style that diverge slightly from K-pop’s norm, KARD stands out all that much more because of its gender dynamic. While many Korean acts shy away from any overtly sexual or romantic relationships since careers have floundered after a star’s love life went public, the quartet plays it up on stage, incorporating flirty choreography into their performances and often pairing the team up for sultry, but not overtly sexualized, couple’s dances.

Co-ed groups are not the trend in South Korea -- there have only been a handful of other pop acts to do so, though it’s fairly popular among non-idol groups like Urban Zakapa, MFBTY, and Clazziquai -- but KARD’s taken things in stride, though admit to having some concerns initially. J.Seph laughs as he recalls initially being worried about how the group would work in tight spaces. “But now that I think about it, I realize that people must always be uncomfortable when other groups change...like [in front of] male staff members and female staff members. So at first I thought of this only as a negative aspect but I don’t think so anymore.”

There’s not a lot of negativity in general when it comes to KARD. The members' affable, relatable, personalities come through their behind-the-scenes videos and during their performances, with the four playing around and bantering with one another and their fans. At KCON, they overflowed with charismatic exuberance as the audience sang along to each of their songs, but also exhibited the nerves of rookies with slight missteps, and Somin was overcome by emotion when B.M rallied up the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to her.

Already a fan-favorite, KARD’s KCON performance is hardly their last stateside show for this year: they kick off the second part of the Wild KARD tour next week in Minneapolis before stops in Washington D.C, New York City, Miami, and San Francisco throughout the rest of the month and October.