20160702_seoulbeats_kconusanyLet’s be honest. Although KCON NY 2016 Presented by Toyota is ostensibly a festival to celebrate all things Hallyu, we all know why most people flocked to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey for the second year in a row.

KCON NY was all about the music.

Although the folks at KCON put on a decent-sized convention this year featuring everything from Korean beauty products to travel information, one particular thing loomed above all else – K-pop.

As the crowds took in some of the panels and workshops, music from everybody’s faves was always booming from the Toyota club tent and the concert later that night was never far from anyone’s mind. Fans walked around all day in their Seventeen shirts and Ailee hats. Popular girl group Mamamoo made a surprise appearance on the convention stage to much excitement, even though they wouldn’t be performing until the next night. P1 and P2 standing sections had long queues before the day was even half-over. The bright sun and the heat definitely didn’t deter anyone from making sure they got a good spot in the pit.

Finally, seven o’clock rolled around and the venue began letting in ticket-holders. This being my first KCON, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect. The only acts I was really familiar with were Crush, he of the sexy slow jams, and Seventeen, the cute and bubbly rookies who’ve been making a lot of waves. Also on the line-up were soloist Ailee, who was MC’ing, versatile boy group BtoB, and veteran rap act Dynamic Duo.

160702_Seoulbeats_KconNY_Seventeen_Red CarpetAfter a spunky performance by a local elementary school dance group, the lights went down in the Prudential Center and the approximately 10,000 fans waiting for the show went crazy. All the anticipation of the day had led to that moment and the excitement was thick in the air. The first surprise of the night was that BTS‘ leader Rap Monster was on hand to co-MC with Ailee (full disclosure: RM is my ultimate K-pop bias, so you know I was in heaven). When his name was announced and he strolled out on stage, the screams were very loud, to put it mildly. Believe me, the fervor that KCON had for BTS was felt throughout both days, even though the headliners weren’t set to perform until the following night.

Ailee and RM were charismatic and comfortable together, after having MC’ed before at KCON Abu Dhabi earlier this year. They spoke in combined English and Korean and subtitles showed up on the big screens that flanked the stage. The addition of the subtitles was helpful, but definitely drew attention to the cheesy, canned lines that were written for them to say.

Luckily, there wasn’t much time to dwell on that because it was time for opening act Seventeen. Based on the T-shirts and homemade signs I’d seen earlier that day, it seemed like the majority of the crowd was there for them. The cheers let me know that my assumption was correct. They opened with “Shining Diamond” and then launched into their newest title track “Pretty U”, complete with an on-stage couch prop. I’ll admit, “Pretty U” is not my favorite song of theirs, but at least the choreography is engaging and active. The kids in Seventeen have a ton of energy and they obviously love to perform, especially in front of a crowd as lively as the one in the Prudential Center that night.

For a rookie group that’s barely a year old, they were certainly impressive. Some of the members knew fluent English and the ones that didn’t didn’t let it stop them during their talk after “Pretty U”. Next, they worked the whole stage during the upbeat song “Chuck” and despite the fact that they’re such a large group (and they were missing a member!), they’re a cohesive unit that seem to mesh well together. Their dance formations were a bit sloppy from my vantage point, but that’s the only critique I had.

The biggest cheers went to rapper and former Show Me the Money contestant Vernon, followed by leader/rapper S. Coups and pint-sized singer/songwriter Woozi. I understand why S. Coups is the leader — his stage presence was the best. Others that stood out were Seungkwan and Hoshi. It was obvious to me that these kids love the camera and the spotlight. Also, I never noticed this before, but “Mansae” and “Adore U” both have easy and distinctive arm movements in the choreography that really aid in audience participation. When Seventeen asked the audience to dance along, we did.

After a four-song set that felt entirely too short, Seventeen left the stage and it was time for R&B crooner Crush. After a pre-recorded ment, Crush appeared on stage in full vintage Tommy Hilfiger regalia and immediately launched into “Sometimes”. He was pitchy at first, something I attribute to nerves, but he gained his footing after a quick talk. Crush didn’t bother with a lot of chatter – most likely because his English isn’t great – but there was something very charming about him as he shyly and haltingly said his prepared lines. The audience seemed to warm up to him almost immediately.

His next song was “Oasis” and everyone was singing and dancing along. One welcome distraction was a concertgoer near the stage with a big, light-up Crush sign. I’m sure Crush saw it because everyone saw it. Kudos to that fan for bringing A+ signage and probably getting noticed by senpai. Then Crush wowed the crowd — or maybe just me? — by rapping along to Zico‘s part in the Block B rapper’s absence. His (regrettably) last song was “Hug Me” which is arguably his most well-known hit.

Ailee began her set by grooving to her newest single “Mind Your Own Business”. A technical difficulty caused the backing track to cut out abruptly, which was the second big surprise of the night. However, Ailee, looking mostly unruffled and amused, didn’t stop the performance. She continued singing the chorus a capella, which made the crowd go nuts. She proved that her voice is the real deal and she also used the technical glitch as an opportunity to get the crowd involved, encouraging us to sing along with her. When the technical issue was resolved, she told us to all pretend that it hadn’t happened, but the audience was having none of it. They cheered even louder as she began “Mind Your Own Business” over again and the heightened enthusiasm spilled over into the rest of her set.

I didn’t know any of her songs before KCON, but Ailee definitely won me over. I have a feeling she won over a lot of people at the show as well, especially when the native New Jerseyite broke down and confided that her family was in the audience and how appreciative she was of all the love we were giving her. When she first started out, she explained, she never expected to be able to play in big concerts like KCON. The crowd was eating out of her hand at this point, with good reason. Her modesty and emotion felt so genuine and she came across as extremely likable.

It helped that her songs were catchy and got stuck in my head almost immediately. My favorite from her set was probably the ending song, “U & I”. It’s a brassy jam with soaring vocals and Ailee sang and danced and smiled from ear to ear like she was having the time of her life. It was a great way to wrap up her performance. She definitely was the star and sweetheart of KCON Day 1.

Next, Rap Mon returned to the stage to introduce Born To Beat, better known as BtoB. I’ll admit, I was cringing then because the English lines they gave RM to say were truly terrible. I can’t even remember what it was but it was a very convoluted way to basically say that BtoB was a group of great singers. As a digital butterfly fluttered across the jumbo screens, BtoB began their set with the ballad “Remember That”. I’ll admit, I was a little surprised by the amount of screams BtoB received because I hadn’t seen many signs or shirts in support of them during the convention. It was evident from the beginning, though, that rapper/vocalist Il-hoon was a fan favorite, as was vocalist and variety star Sung-jae. It was also pretty evident that they were, in fact, great singers. Eun-kwang was belting those high notes and his voice filled the arena.

During their talk, their infamously quirky personalities also shined through. Peniel was the designated English speaker and, although soft-spoken, he represented his group well. Sung-jae had a memorable moment as he spoke in broken English and made the crowd laugh with his monotone delivery. My attention was drawn most to Min-hyuk, one of the rappers, and Chang-sub, a vocalist. Both had great presence and seemed the most comfortable on stage.

However, as much as I appreciated their vocals, as a person who’s never been able to get into BtoB, I finally realized why. Although they’re a charming bunch of guys, their music and group image was confusing for me. Motown-esque choreography and powder-pink suits contributed to a soulful, throwback vibe, but the group also had three decent rappers. When they did their fast paced song “Beep Beep”, it was almost jarring considering what had come before. But for all of the confusion I felt, the audience at KCON clearly loved them.

The third and fourth surprises of the night came next in quick succession. First, actors Yim Si-wan and Park Bo-young came out for an admittedly stiff and awkward introduction. I wondered what they were doing there and what purpose it served, but it was all over pretty quickly and painlessly. Then Seventeen returned to the stage for a medley of K-pop classics. They did a lively take on Super Junior‘s “Sorry Sorry” that got the biggest reception from the crowd, especially when they ran down the stage to get closer to the crowd. The screams were insane.

Afterwards, Ailee and Rap Mon appeared again to announce the closing act of the show. In my favorite MC moment of the night, Ailee asked RM about New York rappers and he rattled off a list, including his all-time favorite Nas. Then, Ailee imitated his low voice and it got a good laugh from the crowd. Like I said earlier, she was truly a delight. Although it was obvious that most of the crowd wasn’t there for Dynamic Duo, there was still a lot of love as Gaeko and Choiza appeared on the stage. They didn’t have get giddy reception that Seventeen received, but their presence demanded respect and they got it from the audience.

The duo started off their four-song set with “Baaam”, a crowd-pleaser that’s easy to sing along to, even if you’ve never heard it before. The two veteran rappers moved around the stage confidently and were joined by a DJ on the very end of the walkout stage, which gave their set more of an intimate, club feel despite the fact that they were in a huge venue. A funny moment came when they tried to get the audience to do a call and response, but the response ended up getting lost in translation and the audience just yelled back at them. Eventually they laughed and gave up. Then Crush returned to help finish out their set with the electro-club banger “Friday”. It was a great way to end the show. Everybody was on their feet and jumping to the beat. Their performance reminded me that I have yet to delve deep into their discography and I need to rectify that.

As someone who had no idea what to expect from KCON NY, I was left feeling very pleased that I’d gotten a chance to experience it. Although I didn’t know many of the artists in-depth to start, it didn’t matter. Every single act was there to entertain the hyped audience and they all made the most of their short sets. That, however, brings me to my biggest complaint – the show felt very short. It started late, around 7:45 p.m., and ran for a little less than two hours. Crush got three songs, while every other act got four, plus Seventeen’s special stage. I felt like some of the acts could’ve gotten one more song, at the very least. If not, another special stage would’ve been ideal. Night 1 felt very rushed to me.

Going into the show, I was also interested to see what kind of reception the Day 1 line-up would get. There wasn’t a truly big-name headliner and I doubt I was the only wondering if there would be enough interest to warrant two nights of concerts. To be fair, Day 1 didn’t have the turn-out of Day 2. There were lots of empty seats in the arena and the pits were only half full. For the fans that were there, though, it surely wasn’t a question once the show got going. These acts brought their A game to the Prudential Center and I have a feeling that everybody in the audience left feeling (mostly) satisfied. I, for one, was left wanting more.

By that measuring stick, Day 1 of KCON NY 2016 was a definite success.

(Youtube, photos courtesy of CJ E&M and Seoulbeats)