With the Fourth of July fireworks behind us, the second half of 2016 is underway. The Korean music industry’s hottest season is already in motion with artists dropping one track after another, each determined to release the song of the summer. But before moving forward to the seasonal whirlwind, let’s look back at the newcomers who joined the K-pop hunger games in the first half of the year.
After 2015 stormed in with a variety of industry-shaking debuts from major entertainment agencies — JYP Entertainment introduced both TWICE and DAY6 last year while YG Entertainment brought us iKON — this year’s been pretty stable with more established K-pop musicians building intense momentum, but at the cost of many newer acts falling to the wayside. Aside for a few stand out idol groups who are competing with 2015’s onslaught of rookies, many of the most impressive debuts of this year (so far!) have come from members of popular girl groups and boy bands who are following 2015’s trend of seeking some time in the solo spotlight.
The Apink member and actress went off on her own for the first time in earnest with “Hopefully Sky,” which devoured the springtime competition thanks to its uplifting meaning. After years of releasing musical collaborations and making a name for herself as the most prominent member of the first K-pop girl group to have a North American tour since 2012, Eunji let her heartwarming vocals soar with the nostalgic song about a daughter’s relationship with her father. The song, which she co-composed, took the No. 1 spot on Korean music charts and kicked off a career for Eunji as a soloist.
KNK piqued attention quickly following their debut in March with stellar vocals and intense performances, making them of the few new boy bands to make an impact this year. Between their powerful debut with the pounding “Knock” and releasing some phenomenal covers of TVXQ songs, KNK has lived up to their name, which roughly translates as “to be great” in Korean. The quintet’s latest single, “Back Again,” garnered them nearly 2 million views on YouTube and their first album, Awake, peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard World Album chart. While small in size compared to some of the nine-plus idol groups debuting from other companies, KNK’s first few months have certainly raised expectations.
The saccharine vocalist rose above the competition with “Fly” feat. Fabolous in May, the first single since she exited Korea’s top girl group in 2014. Going from K-pop’s royal court as a member of Girls’ Generation to being a soloist may have been daunting, but Jessica pulled it off: the EP With Love, J was a declaration of her freedom as an individual artist and charted well on both the Heatseekers and World Album charts (Nos. 6 and 4, respectively).
Bringing retro-tinged dance pop to the forefront of K-pop, Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany also went solo around the same time as her former group member. Tiffany defined her own passion pop style with the single “I Just Wanna Dance” and the sultry follow-up “Heartbreak Hotel.” Influenced by the most popular divas of the past few decades, the Cali girl’s I Just Wanna Dance is one of the most cohesive K-pop debut albums of the first half of 2016.
Trying to keep an eye on I.O.I is going to be a bit difficult: the girl group is an amalgam of trainees from a variety of Korean entertainment companies who were put together through the television competition show Produce 101. The catch? They will only be together for a year before I.O.I disbands and the members return to their own agencies full time. And if I.O.I isn’t enough, some of the members are already serving double duty and are also working overtime: Kim Sejeong and Kang Mina also debuted with Gugudan, Zhou Jieqiong and Im Nayoung are part of the pre-debut girl group Pledis Girlz, and Jung Chaeyeon joined the 2015 girl group DIA. Despite their limited lifespan I.O.I is wildly popular in South Korea and have released numerous chart-topping singles, including “Crush,” the psychotically addictive “Pick Me” and “Dream Girls,” some of which they are likely to perform at KCON LA later this month.
This rapper has been around for a few years as a member of the girl group Fiestar, but only after showing off her sexy intensity on the reality show Unpretty Rapstar 2 last year did Yezi make her true debut on the K-pop scene. Yezi released her debut solo single “Cider” at the beginning of the year and has solidified her place as a fierce rap princess. She’s part K-pop idol and part crazy dog who’s ready to bark at anything that doesn’t sit right with how she feels (for starters, she attacked the K-pop industry’s overt sexism). Yezi’s follow-up track “Sse Sse Sse” featured several of her former competitors in a show of true girl power and offered a good idea of what sort of songs we’ll see from the rapper in the future.
A little less mainstream than many of these acts is Sam Kim, the Seattle-raised crooner who was the runner-up on the star-search program K-pop Star 3 two years ago. His debut EP, I Am Sam, came out in April and formally provided Kim a place to explore his soulful style. A little more coffee house than pop, the sound belies the youth of the 18-year-old singer songwriter. Single “No Sense” switches things up in a neat way, with the smooth-voiced Crush featuring as a rapper. Let’s hope his warm vocals and jazz-funk style are here to stay for a while because the world needs more of Sam Kim.
Coming from SM Entertainment, the home of Girls’ Generation, TVXQ!, Super Junior, SHINee, f(x), EXO, and Red Velvet, it’s no surprise that this group has a lot of hype surrounding it. But it’s more exciting because every time you look at NCT there’s something new added to the mix. Like I.O.I, NCT is a project group but one dedicated to globally conquering the world, K-pop style. Each subunit will be focused on a different region of the globe. The first team, Korea and Chinese-focused NCT U, released the singles “The 7th Sense” and “Without You” in April, featuring two very different musical elements; the former was a R&B trap low-key banger while the latter was an upbeat rock ballad. “The 7th Sense” peaked at 35 on the Spotify Viral 50. The next group in the rotation, NCT 127, will release their Korea-focused debut album on July 10; they’ll likely be followed by other NCT units planned by SM to bring more K-pop into the world.