Casting the label of ‘K-pop’ on an entire nation’s musical output overlooks the sheer variety of sounds and genres that South Korean artists explore in their music. K-pop is influenced by a variety of styles, including dance, pop, electronic, rock, hip-hop, R&B, and experimental. Since music is a universal language, the quality of a song should always take precedence over the language they are singing in, which is why this article aims to shed light on two songs by two artists that don’t fit into the rigid boxes of mainstream genre categories.
RM – Still Life and Yun
RM (real name Kim Nam-joon) is the leader of BTS, arguably the highest profile K-pop group, globally. Hyundai Research Institute concluded that as of 2019, they were generating over 5.56 trillion won per year (US$ 4.9 billion) for the South Korean economy. They’ve been credited with ‘paving the way’ for K-pop to be seen as a viable mainstream genre in the Western world and internationally. Their members currently serving their mandatory military enlistment have now shifted the spotlight from group activities to the member’s solo projects, such as RM’s solo album Indigo released in 2022. This album delicately and creatively conveys the ambiguities and capriciousness of human existence. ‘Yun’ pays homage to Yun Hyong-keun, his favourite painter.
In the verse, RM sings “I wanna be a human ‘fore I do some art,” inviting listeners to immerse themselves in all the complexity of human nature. ‘Yun’ sets the entire tone of RM’s album both sonically and lyrically with the opening phrase of the album, “F*** the trendsetter,” in the first track. By dabbling with more genres than people usually do in a single album, he broke with traditions and developed a unique style. ‘Still Life’ is a groovy and funky track with an upbeat, featuring Anderson.Paak singing a slick catchy hook and RM showcasing his incredible rapping flow during the verses. The subject matter deals with something most celebrities are familiar with: being on display to the public eye as though they were pieces of art in a museum. The song’s broad spectrum and vitality are brought out by RM and Paak’s voices, which fit together like gloves. The song’s theme of taking charge of one’s life and looking forward with optimism was wonderfully complemented by the instrumentals. Both songs allude to RM’s passion for art as he reflects and encapsulates the human aspect of paintings in his music.
Dreamcatcher – BOCA and Jazz Bar
Dreamcatcher has adhered to their musical principles since making their debut in the beginning of 2017, having forged a signature sound and developed a dependable discography for fans to discover. Their growth has been slow and steady, but has paid off through having a more committed fanbase through ensuring a perception of dependability. ‘BOCA’, from the EP Dystopia: Lose Myself, takes Dreamcatcher’s usual rock sound into an unknown terrain and brings in more of a Moombahton tropical percussion vibe. The rhythmic pattern is accentuated by dramatic guitar flourishes and haunting strings underpinned by a memorable chord progression, which create a stunning contrast. The verses are well-crafted as the track starts out with a trap beat that soon transitions into Moombahton, but with more emphasis on the bass. The pace slows down slightly in the bridge but seamlessly transitions back into the final chorus. My favourite song of their entire discography is the romantic ballad ‘Jazz Bar’, from their album Dystopia: The Tree of Language, which is characterised by R&B-style beats, jazzy piano and guitar, and sultry vocals.
It’s a hypnotic, yet groovy song with one of the group’s best vocal performances to date.
Both artists forge their own sonic identities, adopting more widely used musical ideas and making them their own. Being a cohesive unit is the key to why RM (as part of BTS) and Dreamcatcher have captured the devotion of their fan bases and deserve more recognition from music listeners in general. But more importantly, they should be recognised in their own right as artists and individuals that are constantly striving to explore a variety of genres going beyond the monolithic definition of K-pop, and each of them has something unique to bring to the table sonically and artistically – these examples merely scratch the surface of the innovations brewing in the world of K-pop.
Illustrations by MahaCreative, iconsy and Riddhima’s Images via Canva.com