The idol group can often feel like the end-all, be-all of K-pop. Many singers and rappers put in years of time with a group just for the chance to one day break out on their own. Many of K-pop’s top artists have gone this route, using the support of a major company and their group’s fan base to later back their personal endeavors.
But as some of the most popular groups of May 2019 like EXID, CLC and NU’EST have proven, even strong idol groups with talented individual members have to claw out a place for themselves in a fickle industry. And being a part of a popular idol group is no guarantee of individual success.
Some Unsung Artists for this past month are attempting to find their own voices, leaving behind the idol groups, reality programs or original sounds that defined them. Others are trying to forge their own paths as bands and as solo artists outside the typical idol look and sound. Check out these underrated artists’ quality releases from the past month.
Eric Nam, “Runaway”
As Lo pointed out in her recent Side B entry, Eric Nam is a solo indie singer-songwriter who’s also got idol skills. Unlike many popular male soloists, Eric didn’t start out in an idol group. Yet unlike many of his fellow indie artists, he’s quite adept at showing off his charms as an interviewer and on variety shows.
In between jetting around the world on his 2019 European tour, Eric dropped his latest song, the airy, refreshing single “Runaway,” which highlights some of that charm. The MV looks like it’s compiled from goofy home-movie footage that he and his romantic interest filmed together. This simply and effectively makes them look like sweet partners in crime.
Their dancing and cinematic scenes pretending to be vampires in cheap capes feel like you’re watching inside jokes between a couple. These moments also communicate how they feel different from everyone else around them but in-step with each other in their own world.
Katie, “Thinkin Bout You”
After winning K-pop Star 4 back in 2015, Katie’s career stalled in the YG basement, then was complicated by her shifting companies with SINXITY to his new company AXIS. She finally released her stunning debut single “Remember,” then frustratingly chose to delay her album again in order to partner with a label that could help her parlay her newfound buzz into Western promotional opportunities.
Almost a year after the release of “Remember,” Katie is finally ready to jump in with both feet with her new song, “Thinkin Bout You.” The hazy R&B track seems to vibrate behind Katie’s ethereal high-pitched vocals to create the ambiance of blurry, late-night lust that would unwisely compel you to confess your feelings.
“Because it’s 4 o’clock in the morning
And that’s about the time I start zoning
Thinkin bout all the ways that I want it
And it’s time that you know you know you know
That I can’t stop thinkin bout you”
The visuals are as fuzzy as Katie’s judgement, glitching between melancholy moments, literally steamy thermal shots and hopeful bursts of romantic sparkles, stars and raining rose petals.
Katie’s career is one to keep an eye on even only for what she represents. She now lives in Los Angeles and sings completely in English, but her first live performance after debuting was at Seoul Jazz Festival in May. She’s a Korean-American singer attempting to establish a Western R&B sound, yet she’s not abandoning her K-pop past and years spent developing her artistry in Korea. She’s attempting to exist in a liminal space in between when many artists before her have been forced to choose sides.
N.Flying, “Leave It”
Despite the departure of bassist Kwangjin at the end of 2018, FNC Entertainment band N.Flying bounced back from the scandal and nabbed their first-ever music show win with their surprise breakout hit “Rooftop” earlier this year. Now, this under-appreciated band is attempting to continue their momentum — and keep new fans around — by releasing a MV for “Leave It” off their album Fly High Project #3.
Though the MV is basic, it encapsulates the group’s sound, skills and individual charms. Seunghyub adds swagger with his signature rhythmic lyrical delivery, which Hweseung balances with sweet and powerful high notes. Drummer Jaehyun flops his hair around while winking and grinning at the camera, while Hun gives smoldering glances.
N.Flying finally got the attention they deserved with “Rooftop,” but now it’s a matter of keeping those fans around with a combination of skill, timing and luck.
Onewe, “Ring On My Ears”
The brother group to powerful rookies Oneus, Onewe is a five-member band that formed themselves back in 2015. Four years later, they are re-debuting after previously promoting as MAS 0094 and then later simply as MAS after switching labels.
Member Dongmyeong competed on the survival shows Produce 101 and later with his bandmates on The Unit, finishing 16th on the latter. His twin brother, Xion, is a member of Oneus, making the two groups quite literally brother groups.
The band released a trio of MVs to mark their re-debut, including the ballad “Reminisce About All” and the playful, hip-hop tinged “O&4.” But their self-composed title track “Ring on My Ears” shows these guys aren’t idol wannabes who couldn’t dance. This quintet can really rock, employing unique vocal effects, edgy drum fills and explosive guitar riffs. Though none of the three MVs has much visual interest, the members show they are able to emote even behind instruments and mic stands.
They’re entering a relatively crowded field as far as K-pop bands go, but with The Rose, Day6 and N.Flying reaching new levels of success while riding the overall Hallyu wave, there’s no better time for Oneus to try and make their mark.
After Sistar disbanded in 2017, Hyolyn struck out on her own and established her own music label, Bridʒ. From there, she didn’t deviate too much from Sistar’s image with the summery, sexy releases “Dally,” “See Sea” and “Bae.”
However, one year later, and Hyolyn’s beaming smile and sultry dance moves are nowhere to be found in her latest MV release. “Youknowbetter” marks an evolution for the powerhouse singer and dancer. The artifice of a MV set and backup dancers are stripped away, leaving Hyolyn bearing her heart.
First, she does a brief interview about her struggles over the past year, and then she gives a raw, emotional performance barefoot against a black backdrop. Hyolyn herself wrote the track’s intimate lyrics about letting go of a broken friendship. During the bridge, she sheds a tear, singing, “I needed a friend, I guess you didn’t,” before plunging into the song’s soaring final chorus.
While Hyolyn has to endure new struggles as an independent artist, such as navigating bullying accusations, she’s also been able to continue to grow as an artist and reveal new depths.
Who do you think was the biggest overlooked artist of May 2019? Sound off in the comments!