What’s in a crossover? There’s no golden metric that distinguishes small-time success from the long term. Korean artists have been making plenty of breakthroughs as far as streaming numbers, album sales and tour dates go. But the Billboard’Hot 100 chart is one of the toughest achievements to crack: So far, only 16 songs by K-pop artists have made Hot 100 history.
The South Korean industry has been chipping away at the chart for nearly a decade. Pioneered by the retro girl group Wonder Girls (and BoA on the Billboard 200), Hallyu artists have created space for themselves in the world’s biggest music market since 2009. Then there was Psy, whose viral phenomenon “Gangnam Style” briefly took over the entire country. Even if some stars have fallen off the chart, they are still unforgettable parts of the legacy of Hallyu Wave in the West.
Last year, K-pop made its true breakthrough on the Billboard 200: Ten albums by K-pop artists reached the albums chart in 2018. (Five of those albums were released by BTS members.) These efforts reached a tipping point in 2019, as blockbuster acts BTS and BLACKPINK scaled up the list into mainstream recognition.
These 16 tracks are divided between five K-pop artists: Wonder Girls, Psy, CL, BTS and BLACKPINK. Seven of the songs include high-profile features. Only one (“Daddy”) is a team-up between two Korean artists — CL and Psy just happened to be labelmates when they linked up. The other six collabs tapped Western guests, including Snoop Dogg, Dua Lipa and Halsey.
True to the sonically amorphous quality of K-pop, there is no throughline to the sound of these songs. The genres span old-school R&B, electro-pop and emo rap. But these tracks stitch together an ongoing narrative of Korean artists’ breakthroughs in the States. So, Billboard has decided to take a closer look at all of the songs by K-pop artists that have charted on the Hot 100.
1. Wonder Girls, “Nobody” (No. 76 on Oct. 31, 2009)
Wonder Girls first brought K-pop to the Hot 100 with “Nobody.” The quintet took their retro concept even further back into the ‘60s as Motown-meets-electro-pop. The original version of this song was actually released in 2008, earning them song of the year at the Mnet Asian Music Awards in Korea. Soon thereafter, they became the first K-pop group to really commit to American promotions, releasing an English-language version of the track almost a year later while hitting the road with the Jonas Brothers. “Nobody” ended up charting a few months later, foreshadowing the rise of K-pop in America.
2. Psy, “Gangnam Style” (No. 2 on Oct. 6, 2012)
There’s no talking about K-pop’s U.S. crossover without acknowledging “Gangnam Style.” This song was the perfect storm of absurd humor, eye-popping visuals and brain-burrowing hooks. For a brief moment, it was inescapable all across the world. In fact, “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to hit 1 billion views — and his milestone briefly broke the site’s view counter. If Psy had this kind of virality today, he’d likely be a shoe-in for the top of the chart.
3. Psy, “Gentleman” (No. 5 on May 4, 2013)
How do you follow a viral sensation that accidentally took over the world? Psy doubled down on the “Gangnam Style” formula with a different hook and bigger portions. “Gentleman” sounds like Benny Benassi by way of K-pop, and it is rife with the spoils of viral fame, like Candy Crush product placement. But he also sought to spread the wealth by spotlighting fellow Korean artists. He purchased the rights to Brown Eyed Girls’ “arrogant dance” from their hit “Abracadabra,” while casting Korean superstar Ga-In as his video girl du jour. Alas, the song didn’t manage to outperform his breakout hit on the Hot 100 — but its top 5 placement proved people were still hungry for another viral phenomenon.
4. Psy feat. Snoop Dogg, “Hangover” (No. 26 on June 28, 2014)
On a sonic level, “Hangover” is a cacophonous smattering of EDM and rap. Even for K-pop’s hyper-segmented song structures, this track sounded clunkily strewn together. But the music video is a joy given that Snoop Dogg and Psy genuinely shared a buddy-comedy chemistry. Despite the added star power, this song marked the Korean singer-rapper’s first drop out of the top 10.
5. Psy feat. CL, “Daddy” (No. 97 on Dec. 19, 2015)
By the time Psy released “Daddy,” the novelty of his crossover success was all but depleted. The Korean pop star’s comedic showmanship became the side most known to his global audience, and one of his catchiest tunes, “Daddy” is an electro-pop banger that parodies will.i.am’s “I Got It From My Mama.” CL’s feature functioned as somewhat of a baton pass, as the then-2NE1 member was gearing up for her solo debut in the U.S. Meanwhile, Psy bowed out of the Hot 100 after this song, effectively ending his U.S. promotions.
6. CL, “Lifted” (No. 94 on Oct. 22, 2016)
CL has the kind of skill set and personality perfectly suited to Western sensibilities. She is a deft rapper, an emotive vocalist and an aggressive performer. As the leader of girl group 2NE1, she built a career that crested Korea’s A-list. So, it made sense that her U.S. debut would find its way on the chart. This breezy track floats atop a light dembow riddim while spotlighting both her rapping and singing, and borrowing a well-traveled hook from Method Man and the Wu-Tang Clan. While it was a promising debut entry in the States, her promotions later mysteriously grinded to a halt.
7. BTS, “DNA” (No. 67 on Oct. 14, 2017)
This was the song that started it all for BTS. The septet had steadily built an American fanbase since their 2013 debut. But they didn’t hit mainstream radars until 2017, when they sold out the North American leg of their tour and won top social artist at the Billboard Music Awards. Their first Hot 100 appearance pretty much sealed the deal: “DNA” brought an exciting blend of lilting EDM, acoustic guitar and a whistle accompaniment to the forefront. But this was just the American public’s first taste of their sonic shapeshifting.
8. BTS feat. Steve Aoki and Desiigner, “MIC Drop” Remix (No. 28 on Dec. 16, 2017)
There’s a reason BTS brought this 2017 song back during their recent Saturday Night Live performance. Their ability to deliver hard-hitting hip hop works as an effective foil to their softer pop gems. This is a group with a multifaceted music identity, but they were born out of rap. The remix manages to amplify the aggression while allowing them to play around with their sound.
9. BTS, “Fake Love” (No. 10 on June 2, 2018)
“Fake Love” is emblematic of BTS’s penchant for melding high concepts with catchy hooks. The track is a darker-hued entry in the chiaroscuro of the Love Yourself series’ narrative arc. In fact, the topic of love is a jumping-off point for larger themes of identity. Their first foray into emo rap is the perfect accent to this angst-ridden descent into loneliness.
10. BLACKPINK, “DDU-DU DDU-DU” (No. 55 on June 30, 2018)
Emerging from the same company as Psy and CL, BLACKPINK excels at in-your-face maximalism — which is really all you need in the streaming age. The four-piece girl group is armed with wall-rattling bass, blaring synths and elaborate set designs. It makes sense that “DDU-DU DDU-DU” became the most-viewed music video from a K-pop group of all time. Their digital prowess even caught the eye of Goldenvoice’s heads, culminating in their historic billing as the first K-pop girl group to play Coachella.
11. BTS feat. Nicki Minaj, “IDOL” (No. 11 on Sept. 8, 2018)
This rumination on the duality of “idol” and “artist” is one of BTS’s most ambitious songs to date. As their most genre-agnostic single, “IDOL” incorporates elements of South African house music, traditional Korean instruments and trap. A digital version of the song revealed their highest-profile collab: Nicki Minaj, who knows a thing or two about kiss-offs in the name of self-love.
12. Dua Lipa feat. BLACKPINK, “Kiss and Make Up” (No. 93 on Nov. 3, 2018)
This is a rare case of a Western star embracing the Korean language on their own joint. In fact, Dua Lipa was the one to initiate the collaboration. This particular combination of artists makes a lot of sense: “Kiss and Make Up” is the meeting of assertive It Girls with large female fanbases.
13. Steve Aoki feat. BTS, “Waste It on Me” (No. 89 on Nov. 10, 2018)
BTS’s third team-up with Steve Aoki leaned into the latter’s electronic wheelhouse — but this is his track, after all. The EDM-infused pop song features vocals by members Jungkook, Jimin and RM , and is sung entirely in English. The music video, directed by Linkin Park’s Joe Hahn, showcased Asian talent, with a cast including Ken Jeong, Jamie Chung and Ross Butler.
14. BLACKPINK, “Kill This Love” (No. 41 on April 20, 2019)
All is fair in love and war — especially when you’re at war with your love. This is BLACKPINK at their most militant, and they have a drumline to show for it. The music video carries on their tradition of sensory overload as ornate solo sets mix with shots of their powerful choreography. “Kill This Love” catapulted their name recognition in the West as their promotions were underscored by record-breaking achievements. Not to mention, the Billboard cover girls landed just short of earning a Top 40 distinction.
15. BTS feat. Halsey, “Boy With Luv” (No. 8 on April 27, 2019)
BTS ventures further up the top 10 with their biggest Hot 100 hit to date. Joined by pop sensation Halsey, the world’s biggest boy band tells a love story through rose-colored glasses — if the pink-hued set design is any indication. On the surface, this is a frothy pop song with top 40 appeal. But in typical Bangtan style, they’ve left a bountiful trail of breadcrumbs for the fan theorists. The song features plenty of callbacks to their past work, especially their 2014 single, “Boy in Luv.” In the BTS Universe, even formulaic pop can have a deeper meaning.
16. BTS, “Make It Right” (No. 95 on April 27, 2019)
BTS was in for a surprise when they managed to chart a non-single this week. While fandoms often emphasize streaming the single, the Ed Sheeran-co-written “Make It Right” cameoing within the Hot 100’s lower stretches shows that Map of the Soul: Persona is being consumed as a whole. It also speaks to the fact that BTS has a much different breed of crossover fame than previous artists: They don’t have one huge hit that outshines their name. Instead, their climb up the charts has been defined by incrementalism — the product of a growing fanbase rather than an ephemeral virality. The K-pop supergroup has climbed so high, they can chart some extra tracks along the way.