Hello everyone, and welcome back to another edition of Unsung Artists, where we spotlight some of the releases we weren’t able to cover over the last month — and July 2020 was a busy one! From soloists like Eric Nam, to sub-units such as Exo-SC, and groups such as Ateez and GFriend, from summer fun in Zico‘s “Summer Hate” to grief in Somi‘s “What You Waiting For“, July 2020 served up a wide range of themes, concepts and sounds.

In this edition, I’ve chosen releases that stood out not only because of the musicality and accompanying MV, but also because of their significance to the idols’/artists’ careers. Some of these artists have been struggling against their agencies due to lack of necessary support, others have come together for a rare, joyful collaboration that must not be missed, and yet others are going their separate ways. It’s always interesting to learn about the backstory behind a release, and here, I hope to bring you some worth noting.

Lee Hi, “Holo”

Consigned to the infamous dungeon while with her previous agency, YG Entertainment, Lee Hi has now moved to AOMG and begun a new chapter in her career. Thank God, for the lack of attention given to her release schedule at YG was nothing short of criminal. In “Holo”, her first single since “No One” in May 2019, Lee Hi brings her expressive voice and powerful musicality to a beautiful, soulful and emotive song.

In an interview with Forbes, Lee Hi clarified that the most important message of the song is “loving myself”. This is evident throughout the lyrics and the MV. While stressing on her intention to stop crying and start taking care of herself in the chorus, she also observes in one of the verses,

Is it that important to compare who’s better between others and me or me and others
After countless nights of suffering, I finally get it now

I’m too precious to just sit around and worry
Take a look inside of your heart without a cover
It’s okay to be yourself
It’s gotta stop

The MV features Lee Hi and a young girl, presumably her younger self, in natural make-up and simple, unstained, white dresses. The emphasis is clearly on purity of mind and soul. We know Lee Hi has had a difficult time with her career at YG, and the MV shows us that she has emerged at end of a dark tunnel, still able to love herself as she did when she was young. However, the end of the MV and song indicate that all is not right just yet (“One day it will stop”, meaning the loneliness hasn’t stopped yet) but we hope that it soon will be.

eaJ, “Pacman”

Day6’s Jae has been releasing solo music for free on his personal Soundcloud and YouTube accounts under the name “eaJ”, and if, like me until recently, you’re not aware of this, we need to correct that now. Usually on the sadder side, eaJ’s songs are mostly about a relationship gone bad. Although the listener doesn’t know who or what Jae is alluding to, the unusual format of the songs — with their short lengths (all under 2 mins), free availability, relatively uncomplicated soundscape, and simplistic MVs — give them a surprisingly intimate feel.

“Pacman” is a gorgeous, heart-wrenching rendition of a relationship in which one feels they are bring played with. It begins rather simply, and builds up to a powerful and moving climax. Strangely, unlike when with Day6, Jae’s enunciation isn’t very clear. This may have been a deliberate choice, intended to convey the dramatic lyrics — a task that Jae’s soaring vocals accomplish beautifully. I wouldn’t say that the listener feels his pain, but one does feel that Jae himself feels pain, and that the emotion is overbearing.

Oh it’s killing me how
Fear is holding me down
But I wanna hold you

Oh I might burn to the ground
But see me burn with a smile
If I die it’s with you

Jae wrote on Instagram that, “50 proof was my favorite. Pacman is everyone else’s”. Can’t deny the truth of this. Sadly, recent posts on Twitter suggest that JYP has not given Jae the support he needs with his solo endeavors, be it his work with Dive Studios, or as eaJ, or otherwise. For my own selfish need to hear more good music, and my newfound fondness for this artist, I hope JYP does better, soon.

1THE9, “Bad Guy”

Disbanding on August 8, soon after this article is published, is 1THE9, a nine member boygroup formed at the conclusion of the MBC survival show Under Nineteen. Neither Under Nineteen nor the debuting group managed to generate much buzz — which is truly unfortunate, for the group has some real, raw talent among its ranks (special shout out to Shin Yechan‘s vocals, Kim Taewoo‘s variety sense, and Yoo Yongha‘s visuals).

The latest comeback does everything right. Reminiscent of a time when boygroup dance pop was at its peak, its two-part chorus, and easy and addictive melody, will have you tapping your feet in seconds. Contrary to its title “Bad Guy”, the styling of the members is delicate, somewhat ethereal and fragile. It personifies the heart of the song’s persona as he waits for his love, who has turned to someone else, to return to him. Without question, this is 1THE9’s best release yet. It’s just a shame it had to come at the very end of their run.

What’s truly notable is the growth in the members’ skills. The unpolished rookies on Under Nineteen now look confidently into the camera, execute the choreography with precision and are (comparatively more) stable live singers. It’ll be interesting to see if the 1THE9 members can use this experience to push forward their careers as they return to their own agencies. Wishing them the best!

In the meantime, the group released one last mini, Good Bye 1THE9, with its title track, “Count“, on August 5. Do give it a listen!

Ssak3, “Beach Again”

Who would have expected a variety show project single to sweep the Charts in South Korea? Ssak3 (short for “ssaksseuri”, slang for — prophetically — “clean sweep”, is a project group comprising of variety superstar Yoo Jae-suk, and Hallyu legends Rain and Lee Hyori, formed for the MBC weekend variety show Hang Out With Yoo. The group has released three songs so far. Its mere composition should tell you this was meant to be a joke, yet the results have been anything but.

To be clear, songs like “Beach Again” are not to my taste, but I can understand the appeal, which lies in the fame and charisma of Ssak3’s individual members, in combination with the songs themselves. From the styling of the trio, to the soft melody and meandering instrumental that is extremely energetic, but (almost boringly) even in momentum without really building up to anything, “Beach Again” harkens back to an older style of pop (the ’90s). A song such as this would be cringe-worthy if performed seriously today.

However, the Ssak3 trio bring an indefinable, uncontained, joy to the loud, explosive track. There’s something immensely fun about watching these older, well-established personalities enjoy themselves in silly outfits, dancing on a beach. “Beach Again” doesn’t need to have a memorable, addictive hook, the fun lies instead in the nostalgia it evokes — particularly for those who don’t care for the rap infused, more aggressive pop style of many of today’s K-pop acts.

April, “Now or Never”

Like Ssak3’s release above, and also many others this month (e.g. Ravi‘s “Paradise (ft. Ha Sungwoon)“, April‘s latest, “Now or Never” is the quintessential summer release. Sand, sea, a bight, sunny day, and an explosion of color dominate the visual landscape of the MV, as the members cheerfully invite you along for a day on the beach. Given that many of us are confined to our homes because of the ongoing pandemic, such releases epitomize the summer fantasy.

The song itself is airy and upbeat, with the members relying heavily on a light, high tone to give the song added bounce. Despite its bubblegum pop leanings, “Now or Never” is thankfully not too…cutsey. What the song lacks however, is a truly memorable, stand out moment, and is in very real danger of being forgotten immediately after the first listen (unless one is already fond of the group). Sadly, it’s most intriguing moment comes at the very end, when the song abruptly slows down for the briefest of seconds, before coming to an end. Too little, too late.

This comeback is memorable however, for the external events surrounding the group. Prior to the release, Naeun was swept up in a bullying controversy after an online post accused her of being a bully back in school. The post was soon deleted however, and two days later, the poster posted an apology and clarified that everything stated earlier had been false. Naeun has been promoting the song with the group as per usual, and appears to be doing well. All’s well that ends well, it would seem.

(YouTube: [1] [2] [3] [4]. Lyrics via Lyricskpop,)