In a way, BtoB is one of K-pop’s most understated underdog victories. Debuting alongside a stacked line-up of 2012 boy groups like Vixx, BAP, and Exo who found instant success, BtoB struggled from the start to find their niche and grounding in the industry despite coming from the rather established Cube Entertainment.
Over the years, they maintained a consistent albeit gradual growth but never particularly stood out from the crowd, until they found an untapped gap in the industry that suited their impressive but otherwise still hidden strengths in vocals. The resultant ballad trilogy — with singles “Way Back Home“, “It’s Okay“, and “Remember That” — not only bagged BtoB’s first music show win, but was the turning point for the group. Coupled with the members’ strengths in variety and acting, the group eventually gained widespread recognition and respect from the South Korean public for their positive image, healing music, and talent.
To newer K-pop fans, BtoB’s speciality in vocals and ballads is so starkly different to most of their performance-centric peers, that their name has become synonymous with ballads. Recent releases from the group — from their latest title track “Outsider” to their stage of their b-side “Blue Moon” on Mnet‘s Kingdom — may thus even surprise some casual listeners that have may have otherwise shoebox BtoB into being “a ballad group”. Yet, a deeper dive into the group’s extensive discography, as any of their fans might tell you, reveal plenty of gems to uncover.
Before BtoB became known for their ballads, they released dance music as did most of their peers. Their early days produced iconic tracks like “Wow” and “Beep Beep“, but when coupled with some standout b-side tracks, it is clear that more than meets the eye (and ear). BtoB were already honing their own distinctive sound. “Lover Boy” from 2012’s Press Play already featured plenty of signature elements that remain in their sound even nine years later.
As one of the earliest instances of BtoB’s use of dominant piano melody lines guiding verses and distinct synthetic strings, “Lover Boy” is an upbeat love song with touches of camp and dramatic yet groovy flair. The track’s thudding rhythmic chorus forms a catchy hook, all as the song switches between rich vocals and confident raps seamlessly. While BtoB’s vocalists get plenty of the spotlight and praise, the group’s rappers have also always been impressive since their early days, with Minhyuk having his roots from the underground rap scene in South Korea. As rookies on an already strong song, the rappers adapt their delivery to include grit and emotion that make the already exciting “Lover Boy” more dynamic, and this blend of hip hop, rhythm and blues and pop is something that continues to feature prominently in BtoB’s music till today. In this sense, “Lover Boy” is quite ahead of its time.
In the tenor, soprano and high-note obsessed pop music scene, baritones and mezzo-sopranos sometimes end up standing out because of how underrepresented they are in pop music. Half of BtoB’s vocal line, Hyunsik and Sungjae, are baritones, but even BtoB’s tenors have weight and fullness to their voices that make them sound mature beyond their years. This makes their brighter, more juvenile tracks like “Ello Ello” an absolute treat to listen to. Nothing about the song’s melodic or chord progressions are groundbreaking by any means, and it’d be hard to argue that it was even trying to be so. “Ello Ello” simply sought out to be a burst of youthful, nostalgic energy, and it does a very good job at being so, with BtoB’s voices colouring the track distinctively and preventing it from becoming unrecognisable. The track is reminiscent of early One Direction-type 2000s and early 2010s boy band music in the best way possible, with the members’ raps and generous amounts of adlibs helping to retain a classic K-pop flavour to it.
BtoB continued to show their abilities at delivering wholesome and fun pop music with “Beautiful to Me”. Relying less on synths than in the celebratory and uplifting “Ello Ello”, “Beautiful to Me” approaches throwback and nostalgia in a back-to-basics way. Claps, unison cheers, singalong sections, and using more traditional band instruments like drums and guitars — this is the feel-good track you’d sway and sing at a campfire or concert. Once more utilising the members’ efficacious sense of musicality and unique voices to personalise and elevate the track, BtoB masterfully interprets the old school sensibilities of this track, and their entire discography, in a straightforward yet different way. “Beautiful to Me” is easy to listen to, easy to sing along, and easy to feel with your heart. It is a stand-out because of how strong its sense of melody is.
As BtoB progressed in their careers, they continued to explore possibilities and sounds in K-pop that can only be properly considered and executed with the calibre of their vocal abilities. The groovy “Just Tell Me” includes elements of funk and jazz through its instrumentation, acapella, and harmonies, building up to a powerful display of vocal finesse in its choruses. It is dramatic yet cheeky, and the members ease through the song’s belts with the necessary class and mischief. A track like “Just Tell Me” would not exist in most groups’ discographies, and it is a testament of Hyunsik‘s — who is responsible for many of the group’s ballad title tracks — versatility as a producer and understanding of BtoB’s capabilities. The introduction of funk and jazz sounds also became a way for the group to transition to a more grown-up yet timeless sound in their upbeat music, all as the group approach their 30s.
BtoB’s 2nd full album, the autumn-themed Brother Act remains their most successful yet thanks to the domestic success of title track “Missing You“. In line with its concept, the album includes mostly slower tracks that are ubiquitous and will be enjoyed by pretty much everyone. Yet, the mid-tempo track “Red Lie” may be able to convince even the most ardent slower-track hater. Beginning with a simple rap and a gorgeous guitar melody, the song reveals its pop influences as the beat kicks in along with the vocals. As per the signature pop song structure, the build-up at its pre-chorus hints at a possible grand drop at a chorus. But, instead of forcing in an instrumental beat drop, BtoB glide through the track incredibly catchy chorus with effortless smoothness that is impossible to hate, singing over what could have been a vocal-less instrumental portion. Understanding that the track’s strength is in its chorus, it is generous with its length. The skilful production also flaunts musically interesting and jarringly unexpected synths in the background that were included in a way that creates a surprisingly compelling, modern yet futuristic sound.
Even in a summer comeback, BtoB approached b-sides with a clear and grounded awareness of their colour and musical identity. Title track “Only One For Me” is a unique mid-tempo track that manages to be refreshing like a typical summer track while retaining the healing quality of BtoB’s biggest hits. B-side “Call Me” is similarly fresh and listenable, but takes on a more modern and trendy approach with its choice of synths in its production. Like a typical pop song, it relies on pauses and impactful drops at the chorus and second verse rap, but a genius choice of production chooses to make these drops fittingly gentle, pleasant, and a breeze to listen to. Together, both tracks make a pretty statement-making combination of BtoB’s artistry, even for a group that you would not normally associate with the boisterous, catchy hooks or the overused tropical house beats that often come with summer comebacks. Instead, BtoB paint their own portrait of what a perfect summer looks like with assuredness.
At the start of their careers, it did not seem certain that BtoB would survive the infamous seven-year curse for K-pop groups. Yet, even as the members began their military enlistments, the group has re-signed their contracts, making them one of the rare groups that stayed together under the same company after their contracts expired, displaying their commitment to continuing BtoB’s legacy. With the entire group due to complete military enlistment in the next few months just in time for their 10th anniversary, BtoB will become one of the first of active third generation K-pop boy groups to do so, beating the odds stacked against their favour. Amongst older K-pop fans that have had to see countless groups officially disband or left fans with empty promises of comebacks, BtoB’s nearly scandal-free and steady presence in the industry even as a now-veteran group is one that is comforting. Thus, instead of a single viral Brave Girls and EXID moment or incident that (deservingly) saved careers overnight, BtoB’s trustworthy and reliable reputation in K-pop today was something that was painstakingly earned over time.
This humility and their beliefs are reflected strongly in their music which has noticeably been a constant work of progress that keeps improving and becoming more refined with time. This is a group that has always known and understood their strengths. Their music has matured and sophisticated gracefully over the years as they got more comfortable with balancing the current music scene, while not forgoing their preferences and talent. Instead of refusing to change with the times or chasing trends too heavily, BtoB have always opted to focus on performing songs with unbeatable skills and creatively showcasing different aspects of BtoB that revolve around their old school, classic approach to music. After all, you can never go wrong with classic — it is timeless and never goes out of style. A discography like that could only be the work of care, dedication and an impressive work ethic, and it will be exciting to see where they go next — especially after that brilliant latest album.
Ultimately, BtoB’s music still will not appeal to everyone, but their appeal extends beyond just ballad lovers but also to those who favour an old-school approach to pop, which is harder to find than it seems. Thus, rather than being a ballad group, it would be more accurate to term BtoB as a vocal and rap group, because while nearly every K-pop group has both vocalists and rappers, seldom are they as skilled as BtoB. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better and more versatile and colourful display of vocal performances in a single K-pop discography, and BtoB have a lot to boast about.