It’s not something unusual to see trends in one culture’s music spread to that of another, and K-pop is no different. While K-pop undoubtedly has its own distinct sound, many artists have developed a sound that blends elements of American music with trademarks present in the Korean style of music. Today, many K-pop artists who have an American background have developed a love for the sensual, soft yet catchy style of R&B, a genre of music that originated in the United States around the 1940s. They mix the slow beats with electronic sounds that K-pop uses liberally, creating a wonderful new kind of music that stands out in a sea of cookie-cutter fast dance tracks. If you have yet to notice some of these artists, take note of the list below and check out some of their songs if you’re into R&B!
Jay Park, ex-2PM member and now a solo artist, is perhaps the most famous example of a Korean artist who has brought American R&B into their music. During his 2PM days, Jay stood out as the charismatic leader of the group, but the music that JYP produced for them sounded just like normal K-pop. After Jay ceased activities with his group around the end of 2009, he began to pursue a solo career in R&B and b-boying, which was what he was originally interested in to begin with.
Jay’s solo work has been well-received in South Korea, and if you take the time to sit down and listen to some of it, his R&B/b-boying background is present in almost every single one of his songs. One of my favorites by him is “I Got Your Back,” which definitely sounds like it used to be an American R&B hit simply translated into Korean. With the recent release of his mixtape, Jay has solidified himself as an artist who has managed to successfully integrate elements of R&B into his Korean material, which makes him a breath of fresh air in a genre of music that tends to seem very mainstream about ninety percent of the time.
Yoon Mi-rae is another well-known Korean-American artist who has received attention for her fierce rapping skills (seriously, this girl is at the top of her game) and versatile style, as she has taken on both ballads and upbeat R&B songs along with her raps. Yoon Mi-rae was born and raised in Texas, before forming her own group, which was known as Uptown, when she was only sixteen years old. She eventually left her group and began her solo career in 2001, recording eight albums (including mini-albums) that helped her rise to popularity in the hip hop world, marrying Tiger JK, arguably one of the most famous hip hop artists in South Korea, and even raising her son, Jordan.
Yoon Mi-rae’s voice is perfect for slow R&B ballads, such as “Honeymoon,” a track from her self-titled 2007 album that has a jazzy feel to it. Many of her songs, even the ones when she mostly just raps, have a familiar feel to them, especially in the vocals, that remind me of American female R&B artists such as Alicia Keys and Shontelle. While she appeals less to the K-pop crowd than Jay Park does because she focuses mostly on making her music different from mainstream Korean music, Yoon Mi-rae truly embodies the blending of American rapping and R&B styles with the energy of Korean music.
When talking about R&B roots in K-pop, it’s impossible not to bring up Brian Joo, a Korean-American R&B artist who has a large international fanbase. He had his beginnings in K-pop as a member of Fly to the Sky, but eventually separated from Hwanhee in order to pursue his own interests. Brian eventually released his own work, which was obviously heavily influenced by American R&B. In tracks such as “My Girl,” he used a catchy chorus and autotune that sounded like it could have belonged in any R&B hit in the United States to grab the attention of listeners, but paired the song with choreography typical of K-pop. Brian’s most recent album, Reborn Part 1, was released in January to excited fans. Tracks such as “Let This Die” appealed strongly to R&B fans, especially with the presence of Flowsik in the English version of the song, a well-known Korean-American rapper.
Flowsik is also a member of Aziatix, a somewhat hidden gem in Asian-American R&B. Aziatix is a three-member group, comprising of Flowsik, Eddie Shin, and Nicky Lee. Unlike the other artists mentioned in this article, Aziatix caters only to English-speaking fans, so while they don’t do promotions in South Korea at all, they have a respectable international fanbase. One of their most well-known tracks, “Nothing Compares to You,” is distinctly R&B. However, Eddie’s smooth vocals and Flowsik’s gruff rapping lent the song a memorable touch.
The wonderful thing about R&B is how flexible it is — artists can choose to blend strong aspects of it into their music, or just touch up one of their songs with a hint of R&B. It allows fans to listen to music that is a little more sensual and a little less bubblegum pop, while still maintaining all the appeal that K-pop has. In fact, if you ask me, the best K-pop always has a bit of R&B hidden in it somewhere. As more and more groups, including ones with no American background whatsoever, such as Beast and Big Bang, explore the art of blending western R&B sounds with K-pop, we can look forward to having richer, smoother tracks to listen to as K-pop fans.
(Sidus HQ, Jungle Entertainment, Jellyfish Entertainment, ASTAR, Inc.)