We open Seoulbeats’ annual Mid-year Review with a look at the debuts of 2021. In the absence of new groups from the Big 3 and Produce series-link artists, there has not been many high profile debuts so far this year. Amidst what appears to be slim pickings and mediocre concepts, though, Celina and Qing find themselves with some debuts that boast all-rounded music and choreography, enabling the fledgling artists to make an impressive showcase of skills.

Celina: 2020 was a hectic time to debut, and I am not sure if 2021 is any better. As some other parts of the world are beginning to open up, others are still on lockdown. However, music is one of those few outlets that people still have during these difficult times. 

Honestly, I was not incredibly wowed by any new group but still had a hard time picking my top 3. I think there were a lot of similarities with the debuts, so I kept going back and forth with some of them. 

There are two crossovers between us, but our remaining picks are incredibly different from each other. I am a sucker for mid-tempo hip-hop songs, and Ciipher hit all those marks with me with their song, “I Like You.” I enjoyed the playful concept and the easy choreography. The song stayed on my mind after listening to it, and compared to everyone else’s debuts, it really stood out to me. It did not have an overall deeper concept like some of the groups, but that is what I liked about it, since it is easy on the mind.

Qing, what do you look for in a debut, and how did Mirae make your list?

Qing: The concepts of the debuting groups so far are a mixed bag, and it’s reflected in the variations on my list. Much like you, though, the strength of a new group’s concept is not the only deciding factor when I assess a debut. But it goes a long way in setting the direction for a group’s artistic trajectory. 

A good concept doesn’t have to be wildly original, but it should give the viewer a clear idea of what’s unique about the group at present, and also hint at what more they can offer. At the same time, it shouldn’t be too limiting. 

Of my three picks, Mirae does this best. From their group name, which means “future” in Korean, to “Killa”‘s futuristic, sci-fi aesthetic and sound, we immediately have a clear picture of what to expect from this group. 

Yet they sit at third place because their music and choreography weren’t as strong as that of Pixy and TO1. The production value of the song and dance are crucial because they determine the delivery, which is my fourth criteria for a debut. 

I love the funky, upbeat style of “Killa” that deviates from the more common hard-hitting hip-hop sounds of many boy groups. But compared to the effervescent main refrain, the verses are weaker, and don’t allow Mirae to showcase their vocals fully. In the same vein, the choreography wasn’t strong and diverse enough to let us see the extent to which Mirae can deliver.

Celina: Pixy stood out for me while simultaneously reminding me of Dreamcatcher. However, while they have similar dark concepts, their music is different, with Dreamcatcher tending to use more rock-based choruses. 

Ultimately, I liked that “Wings” helps introduce their name while also setting up a fantasy world. I don’t normally find pixies frightening, so I like the different spin on the imaginary creature. With pixies, they could have gone with a more romantic concept, but they went with a more eerie storyline instead. From their MV, we get a sense that Pixy will be including fantasy in their concepts, and their music will likely tie back into their name. While that could be limiting, I am curious to see how they carry through with the theme.

The MV had great visuals with the use of special effects, lighting, and choreography. Altogether, it helps set the dark yet strong concept for the female group. The dance routine has a great moment when the members lift their hands to form wings, and I think that helped cement them for my top three. 

At the end of the day, I didn’t like their song as much as the others, but still enjoyed their debut. What did you like about Pixy’s debut that landed them in your top spot?

Qing: I definitely got Dreamcatcher vibes from them too. Pixy don’t have a strong sonic identity like Dreamcatcher, but their empowering concept with an eerie edge immediately stands out from the uninspired girl crush takes of other debuting groups.

The concept is actually really simple, focusing solely on the image of wings and the symbolism of flying. It’s an apt metaphor for where Pixy stand at the start of their musical career. They’re ready to soar and shine, but at the same time, this liberating moment comes with a roiling undercurrent of uncertainty about the challenges that lurk ahead. The MV’s unsettling special effects, its use of red lighting and shadows, and the simultaneously ethereal and creepy presence of butterflies externalise this fear. 

This alluring concept is backed up by conscious production choices in the music, such as the screaming and ominous, harsh echoes of the flute-like synths that create unease. But juxtaposed against this is the girls’ assured rapping and their vocals that ring with bell-like clarity; especially impressive are Dajeong‘s verse near the beginning and Ella and Dia‘s pre-choruses. The confidence and momentum of their delivery support the visual and lyrical motif of flying.

Like you, Celina, I was captivated by how the motif of wings was worked into the choreography. The dance features many hallmarks of good choreography: memorable point moves, fluid formations, and a willingness to play around with height and speed, such as by alternating hard-hitting and sweeping movements in the rap verses with a deliberate slowdown in the post-chorus to highlight the signature wings gesture.

Based on music alone, I wouldn’t rate “Wings” as highly, as its trap elements are over-used in the K-pop scene; TO1 definitely pulls ahead song-wise. But the musical choices are purposeful, and click together with the stunning choreography and MV. They form a package that vividly brings the concept to life and showcases the group’s skills. 

Speaking of TO1, was it their music that sealed their place at the top of your list?

Celina: Yes! I listened to the song before I watched the MV, and I was hooked. The hook, “I’m a son of a beast,” is clever. At first, I thought I was hearing a curse word, which I know is the point, and I did a double take. Plus, the little grunt following the tagline makes it so catchy!    

With regards to the MV, I’ve seen a lot of car themes, but I like that they’re not just standing around the car with wads of cash. They’re workers in a body shop so it makes for more interesting scenes. Doing grunt work like the mechanics and paint shows all the effort being put into making racing cars instead of just driving them. It’s a simplistic concept but it works for the style of the song, and it’s decent for their debut. 

On top of the song, what really helps put everything together is the choreography. TO1 are a huge group and they make great use of their space. I especially like the beginning when they’re crowded around each other, creating the illusion of a smaller group, and start spreading out to show all the members. There are also other intricate dance routines that I had to rewind and watch again just to see how they did it. Overall, I was impressed by their choreography as well as their delivery of it. 

Great voices, amazing dance routine, and the song is bop! All around a great debut for me. What did you like about them? 

Qing: Gosh, I must be so used to racing cars in MVs that my eyes glazed over, because I didn’t notice TO1 were working in that body shop. As it stands, though, the MV and concept give nothing to shout about, aside from a distinct colour palette of yellow and teal. But I’m with you on the verdict that the other aspects more than make up for it.

Like Mirae, TO1 have gone for a funk-laced sound, but the production favours a cleaner sound, and places the vocals front and centre without needlessly distorting them, as some companies are wont to do (yes, I’m glaring at you, Big Hit Music). We blessedly have a proper melody instead of a sorry instrumental breakdown for a chorus, and together with the robust verses, these choices ensure that the song’s momentum never flags.

I was also drawn by the choreographer’s great use of space and smaller units of members. The dance makes use of different heights, often forming an interesting gradient, like in the verse after the first chorus (1:06 of the choreography video), where four of the members join hands to form a tilted square. The chorus also alternates swift, jutting movements with slower ones that introduce a touch of sensuality.

The great song and choreography enable TO1 to nail their delivery, which is no doubt boosted by their stage experiences from their promotions as TOO and on Road to Kingdom. They’ve put in the strongest performance of my top 3, and I’m looking forward to more performance-heavy offerings from them. (I highly recommend checking out their cover of Twice‘s “I Can’t Stop Me”; it’s a joy to watch.)

On the note of strong performances, I have a few honourable mentions. But before I jump into them, Celina, are there any groups you’d like to give a shout-out for?

Celina: Yes, special shout-out to Purple Kiss for their femme fatale concept. Overall, I just wasn’t crazy about the song but they put out a great MV.  Also an honorable mention to Blitzers who also had a great concept for their MV, and awesome choreography. 

Qing: Purple Kiss came in a close fourth place on my list for their strong vocal delivery, but the song, concept, and choreography didn’t stand out. The poison concept was a wasted opportunity; it could have been incorporated into the MV and choreography much better like Pixy’s “Wings” did. Majors, Shinsadong Tiger-backed Tri.be, and Hot Issue showed similar promise vocally, but they were also held back by these other aspects.

It has been an odd experience reviewing the 2021 debuts; nothing stood out especially, but I had a surprisingly hard time trimming down my longlist. Perhaps the pandemic is forcing companies to be more prudent with their conceptualisation, but the hints of skill that nonetheless come through bode well for future comebacks.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5][6]. Images via ALLART Entertainment, Happy Tribe Entertainment, Stone Music Entertainment.)