Each year, more and more rookie groups and artists join the Korean music scene. With so many new faces in the first half of 2017, our panel found it tough to pick their favourites for the Mid-Year Review of 2017’s debuts. Even with the exclusion of sub-unit and solo debuts of already-active idols, there was quite the array artists to choose from, including debuting rappers, big company girl groups, and smaller agency debuts that managed to capture our attention. Check out Camiele, Janine and Lo‘s discussion of the first half of the year’s new faces, and don’t forget to leave your top picks in the comment section!

Camiele Janine Lauren
1 DPR Live DPR Live Top Secret
2 Duetto Pristin Pristin
3 SAAY Black6ix Dreamcatcher
4 XXX Dreamcatcher Blanc7
5 Blanc7 Blanc7 DPR Live

Cy:  Slim ass pickins for debuts this time around. But let’s be honest, as K-pop continues to expand and gets older, newer groups start to lose their appeal, particularly for those who’ve been into the music for more than a couple years. As the genre gets older, so do the fans who listen to it. There will always be young fans coming to the genre. I think that’s mostly why the debuts that are noticeable don’t exactly impress because, quite frankly, we’re not the intended audience. “Pop” music will never change. What is considered “popular” or “on-trend” always fluctuates, but honestly kids are going to like kid music, and companies are going to mostly bank on what kids are interested in.

That being said, all three of us have a couple commonalities, one of which certainly falls closer into the “pop” side of K-pop. Firstly, what drew you all to Blanc7?

Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to groups and artists, I’m all about the vocals. And this group has it in spades, which is less surprising once you realize four of the seven members had already debuted in different groups (Jean Paul was in BTL, and Teno, Sinwoo, and Taichi were in Mcrown) and collectively they have a lot more entertainment and worldly experiences than “straight from the trainee room” debuts (Spax’s list of accomplishments as a dancer and choreographer are RIDICULOUS, and he’s already served his mandatory military service, not to mention Jean Paul, Teno, Sinwoo, D.L, K-KID, and Taichi have all graduated with college with at least one degree).

The level of maturity in this group is apparent not only in the choice of music, which includes light classical elements, but also in how their entire image is set up: French name, leader of the group also has a ridiculously unnecessary French name, their overall visual appeal is of the elder statesman–gentlemanly garb, suits tailored within an inch of their lives. Their overall aesthetic is that of a group that sits in a Victorian gentlemen’s club, smoking pipes and sipping brandy from snifters. And still, with all of that, they have an incredible vocal awareness. Their harmonies are tightly controlled, and their individual voices are comparable to a lot of second- and third-generation idol groups.

Janine: A few boy groups came out this year that were aiming to make a strong impression (I’m thinking of A.C.E. and MVP) but the styling and concept were not as slick as Blanc7. Their video for “Yeah” is stylish. I think I responded to how confident they seemed. There wasn’t any ambiguity about what they were doing and they were very assured in the way they presented themselves. I liked the production elements in “Yeah”; there were a lot of different sounds happening but it wasn’t disorganised. That little rising synth beat drop moment was tastefully executed. It reminded me of a party but a fancy party where nobody vomits.

The assumption of French names as a way to seem sophisticated is a thing that irks every decolonial bone in my philosophical body but I will let it ride because their fashion game slays.

Lo: You’re both dead on the money, of course. They’re crisp, confident, stylish. The song is well-produced; sleek and mature in a scene where that’s not the game at all. What really spoke to me, though, was the MV. I am all over their aesthetic: the soft lights, the soft camera filter. and the crazy-ass light show. Seriously, the lighting director could not have gotten paid enough. It felt very heady and otherworldly; like a portal into some strange,classy universe.  The thing that really held me back from loving Blanc7 as opposed to liking them is that they give off a serious “too cool for school” vibe. Janine, you mentioned the pretentious french names, but everything I like about them– the vocals, the slickness, the aesthetics, the suits– feels like if they go much harder into them; they’ll alienate their audience by being too cool to be seen with us average joes.

Cy: You know what? I think that’s sort of what I like about them. Like they’re already above the pettiness. I mean, everybody already calls their bias groups royalty, when they’ve just come fresh out of the trainee practice room. These sirs have already done the job of training, for the group and really in their personal lives. Exuding that confidence and maturity rather appeals to me… HaHa.

Meanwhile, we also all had DPR Live: Janine and I had him number one, while you seemed to reluctantly add him in at number five, Lo. I know why I love him so much, but I’ll let one of you speak first. What about DPR Live had us all putting him on our lists?

Lo: Honestly, the reason I put DPR Live on last, both on my list and chronologically, is because I am so over this. I am a pop nerd. I love pop music, I love melodies and harmonies and horns, but what I love most is energy. As much as I like his wordplay, the instant I hit play on “Know Me”, the production just turned me off. I am so over sludgy, thudding production that sounds monochromatic, never really rising or falling. I am done with zoned-out delivery given with the intensity of buying insurance. DPR Live is good, and good in this vein, but I have to focus so hard to absorb the music, and I prefer acts that make me listen.

Cy: And see, I don’t get that from him at all. I suppose if you have a particular sound you stick to or focus on, something like this isn’t your finger of brandy. Which is fair. The production for DPR Live’s music is a huge part of what turned me on about him. Never mind his style, lyricism, and use of metaphor on this album were top-notch, the composition throughout provided a push-and-pull effect: rapping that’s aggressive with music that’s dreamier, that doesn’t have a central focus, that washes over you. As for music that “makes you listen,” obviously that’s subjective.

The type of sound that entices you and makes you want to listen is going to differ from somebody else. I was hungry for more of this album, wanted to learn about the how and why of its creation. While you were turned off by it, I couldn’t turn away from it. I was invested in every intricacy of the music, including DPR Live’s style.

If you’ve decided already that this isn’t your taste simply because of what you perceive as overdone, no matter where the music goes, you’re not inclined to follow. Same could be said about the oversaturation of pop music that makes liberal use of the whiny synthesizer and same dry thumpa-thumpa or saccharine-sweet composition, the decent but in the end typical/unimaginative vocals, etc. That’s what I hear in most pop music, why most of it bores the hell out of me. DPR Live tops my list because I heard and understood the depth in the music and the lyricism and because of the debuts this year, his didn’t sound exactly the same as every other pop group and debut from the last five years.

Janine: I think I straddle these two extremes. I can appreciate the commercial appeal and escapism of more traditional pop and I love hearing different production techniques that are being used in hip-hop. I chose DPR Live as my top debut because I enjoyed the variety of sounds that he pulled from for his beats; I thought he showed a range of moods while maintaining consistency across the album, and every track was, colloquially speaking, a bop.

The crossover appeal of the album was also a huge plus for me: I can comfortably play these songs around friends that aren’t initiate into the world of K-pop and it holds up. The production style is very current and I can understand how some of the contemporary adlib trends may be annoying. Hearing background whoops and that shouty flow can grate on the nerves if it’s not your taste but I think he stays away from it for the most part.

Overall I think it was a successful record; showing his artistic trajectory and placing him within the musical landscape. I thought he tried his hand at different moods and showed up well. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the big name features on some of the tracks. I could still feel his presence on songs with DEAN, Loco, and Jay Park. That’s not a small thing for a debut artist to achieve. I was impressed. I thought it was strong.

Lo, tell me what you liked about Pristin

Lo: Hey, it’s not just me. “Wee Woo” is a fun, energetic pop song that will lodge in the brain all day. It’s far better constructed then it appears on first listen; the rap, the ” you’re my superhero” section, the chorus, and the verses are all very distinct, and if you listen out of order, they don’t sound like they all came from the same song. However, the thicker bass line provides a solid foundation that keeps “Wee Woo” cohesive, and the groove on it is incredible. Plus, “Wee Woo” is the very rare song that delves deep into the alto ranges, instead of clinging to Pristin’s upper registers like every other cute girl group. As an alto myself, I love having a K-pop song I can actually sing along too.

The other big factor in my ranking Pristin so high is  their potential to change K-pop. There is a very real glass ceiling in music, and Pristin could make some serious cracks. Hi! Pristin was almost completely self-composed, and while it wasn’t a musical revelation, I’ve heard much worse from professional songwriters. Give them some time and experience, and they could be revolutionary.

Janine: One of the factors to deciding my list was definitely who was achieving mainstream success. Pristin did really well with “Wee Woo” and showed a lot of promise for their debut. The song is quality — I cannot get enough of hearing alto voices in upbeat tracks; I think it lends depth and dimension to songs. It’s catchy in a way that isn’t irritating which is a feat considering there are periodic ambulance noises in the background.

I thought the album was a fine effort and knowing that the members had a hand in composing the songs gives them admirable creative credits. All in all I thought they came out swinging and showed a lot of promise for the future.

Cy: Janine and Lo, both of your lists are pretty similar, but you differ in terms of Black6ix and Top Secret. Meanwhile, my list mostly doesn’t sync up with either one of yours… haha. Care to talk about the acts where you guys differ?

Janine: I really liked “Please” — Black6ix’s first single.  The arrangement was pretty standard for a piano led, mid tempo song but executed well. The EDM influences are present but not overwhelming or too noisy. The stand out element on the track is the vocals; there are strong harmonies and solo moments.

I liked the feel of the video despite the styling which I thought was at odds with the romantic message of the song. The choreography was tight for both “Please” and “Universe”, the B-side to the single. They dropped off the social media radar after promotions for “Please” ended but I thought the members did a relatively good job of posting spontaneous content. I like all their stage names; it takes a lot of confidence to call yourself The King and I’m here for it.

Lo: For me, Top Secret has everything I want in a group: they have energy, tight choreo, and a disco influenced track with killer groove. “She” is magnetic, it just draws me in and makes me dance every time I hear it. The MV was just as fun; really luxuriating in the 70s neon and pastel suits. Those things should be hideous — and they are– but when paired with such a catchy song and precise, well-executed choreography, it comes together to make something magical.

Cy: Then I suppose that leaves my three. Firstly, Duetto. I know it may seem odd, but I was actually not prepared to hear a classically trained duo singing in both Korean and Italian this year. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a little left of center. And it’s not just that they’re an opera duo. It’s how technically outstanding they are. Coming from a company like Starship, it’s not something I’d expect, and they blew me away. I’ve always loved operas, and adore tenor voices like nobody’s business. So this ranked so high because what company even has the balls to release straight operatic perfection? A member of BtoB (Sungjae, I believe) is a trained opera tenor; however, he sings in an idol group. You won’t hear them belting out “Il Mondo”.

Next, SAAY. Okay… so basically anything Clubeskimo promotes I’m going to listen to, and every member of Clubeskimo blew this girl up on their Insta. So I obviously had to find out who she is. Now, we all know there are tons of R&B singers coming out of the wood works in SK nowadays. All of them trying to be the next R&B queen. However, HOW-FREAKING-EVER! NONE of them has the sheer soul that SAAY has: perfect improvisation, perfect control, perfect pitch. And her TONE! I mean, to put it in real-world terms, she’s got them hallelujah, Sister Michelle in the Jubilee Choir at New Mt. Zion Baptist Church vocals! She’s only started releasing stuff on her Soundcloud this year, so I can’t wait to see what she releases further down the road.

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I mentioned that XXX and Blanc7 were interchangeable. Ultimately what put this duo ahead of Blanc7 was the fact that I actually got to talk to Ximya (the rapper and lyricist) and FRNK (the DJ and producer). These men have such an alarming understanding and knowledge of hip-hop and music that it blew me away. I wasn’t completely sold on their music at first. ADORED their MVs, but their music… I was on the fence. But dissecting their process, getting insight into their mindset, their philosophies and inspirations, I could understand the depths of what they were doing. FRNK is such an out-of-control musician and student of music. Ximya is a damn scholar on hip-hop history. Though his tastes and mine may not gel completely in terms of what he likes, we both have a kindred love of the genre. And they both have a desire to learn more, do more, and expand their craft. Side note: They did technically debut a couple years ago, but they were a trio back then. This is their first year promoting music as a duo (with a slightly different name).

Any final thoughts?

Janine: I thought that the beginning half of the year did not have a debut that swept us all away in terms of commercial appeal. I thought there were some solid efforts made creatively speaking but you had to do some digging to find new people about whom to be excited. It took a lot of effort not to end that sentence with a dangling preposition.

I think the people who debuted did a decent job but I wasn’t on tender hooks about anybody. I enjoyed a lot of the music and am definitely relistening to some of them but also I haven’t made an intense emotional connection with any of the groups or solo artists so far. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year to see whether any of the upcoming debuts will stir my soul to stan but so far the acts have been good, not that great.

Cy: For me, I’m never truly interested in “commercial appeal.” I gravitate toward whatever I think sounds good. That’s it. The acts I chose in one way or another impressed me: whether it be vocally, musically, stylistically, or just the way they interpret their craft using the knowledge they have. While I wasn’t 100 percent sold on my 4 and 5 picks, something about them stuck out among a lot of ho-hum. I’m in it for the long haul with DPR Live and SAAY, for sure. Duetto… I adore the fact that among all the typical releases we had an operatic duo with voices larger than life. I’m not sure how long they’ll last, but I support them. That being said, I am hoping that someone really does come to sweep me off my feet the way at least DPR Live and SAAY have. The first half of the year wasn’t the most impressive, but there’s enough potential from what I’m hearing outside the box to keep me hopeful and optimistic that there’s so much more to come in 2017.

(Youtube [1],[2],[3],[4],[5] Images via Jackpot Entertainment, Dream Perfect Regime.)