In nature, spring is a time of transition. Flowers bloom from recently frozen ground; trees shift from stark brown to lush green. Fittingly, this edition of Unsung Artists highlights releases from groups and soloists in transition. Whether coming from idols and artists making their debut, disbanding, or simply embracing a new style or career trajectory, these comebacks illustrate the many ways evolution can manifest in music.
Tan – “Du Du Du”
Formed on yet another K-pop survival show (MBC’s Wild Idol), seven-member temporary boy group Tan nevertheless make a good first impression with their debut title track “Du Du Du.” The song is unusually sultry for a debut, but Tan is full of experienced idols, including members making their second or even third debut through Tan. Their maturity serves them well in “Du Du Du,” with each member bringing impressive confidence and a unique persona to their parts.
The song itself is simple yet impactful. It opens with an acapella-style rhythmic refrain that introduces the titular “Du Du Du” before dropping into a delightfully deep bass line. Cleverly, the track continues to weave in the acapella effect as part of its percussion, giving the song a unique sonic stamp. “Du Du Du” could be criticized for remaining quite empty throughout, never reaching an explosive climax, but its restraint is ultimately its charm.
Where “Du Du Du” does fall short is in its MV. It is essentially a collection of all of K-pop’s favorite visual tropes with zero through-line tying anything together. Masquerade masks, bathtubs, blowing tendrils of fabric, conspicuous greenery, an inexplicable set in space: “Du Du Du” has everything except cohesion. Despite the unimpressive chaos of its MV, “Du Du Du” is still a promising debut and raises excitement for what Tan will do next.
Jay Park ft. IU – “Ganadara”
In recent years, Jay Park has been synonymous with his indie hip hop labels AOMG and H1GHR Music, known for their humane, hands-off management style. That’s why it was something of a shock that he stepped down as CEO of both companies in December 2021 (though he’ll still be involved in an advising role), only to turn around and found new company More Vision in March 2022. While it’s not clear what direction he’s hoping to take the new label in, Jay Park is certainly in transition and he seems to be aiming for something radically different.
To kick off this new phase in his career, Jay Park has released “Ganadara” a light-hearted duet with none other than the queen of K-pop herself, IU. The track’s flirty lyrics fit right into Jay Park’s solo repertoire, but the song’s soft nostalgia is more in IU’s wheelhouse, making “Ganadara” a pleasant melding of the two artist’s styles. The track’s witty MV frames Jay Park as the chump to IU’s goddess as he and his team struggle backstage to get IU to show up to the MV filming set. Everyone theatrically falls into despair when she appears to be ditching and there are some amusing high-jinks as the team tries to replace her in the MV with an animated version or life-size paper cutout. Ultimately, everything ends well as IU arrives and the whole MV set bursts into frenzied celebration.
Despite the effortless charm of “Ganadara,” the song is actually a cleverly calculated first step for Jay Park’s new era. For one thing, as mentioned in a recent episode of IU’s Palette in which Jay Park guested, “Ganadara” was recorded several years ago. He evidently held it in his vault until just the right time. Additionally, both the song’s lyrical content (For instance, “My Korean ain’t that good, even translators are no use”) and the MV’s playfulness seem designed to revive the underdog persona that worked so well when Jay Park was initially forging his solo career. Now no longer the CEO of well-established labels, he’s starting from scratch…never mind that he’s an extremely famous artist and successful businessman! As logically silly as Jay Park positioning himself as an underdog is, it’s a brilliant strategic move. Jay Park is clearly gearing up for a major evolution, and if what follows is anywhere near as compelling as “Ganadara,” it’s going to be exciting to witness.
Nu’est – “Again”
While one door opens, another closes. Many of the releases featured in this month’s Unsung Artists mark the start of something, but while the members of Nu’est will no doubt go on to begin exciting new endeavors, “Again” marks the end of Nu’est the group as we know it. Nu’est announced their disbandment in February to the dismay of their fandom and casual listeners alike. Nu’est captured nearly everyone’s hearts with their comeback story, debuting strong with “Face” in 2012 only to fade into obscurity, then bouncing back after four members participated in Produce 101 Season 2 including Wanna One member Minhyun. It was a delight to see the talented group finally get the success they richly deserved, and to lock down a sophisticated yet sentimental style. Nu’est and their music will be much missed.
At the very least, the group aren’t abruptly fading away. Instead, Nu’est get a proper send off with the disbandment compilation album Needle & Bubble and title track “Again.” A fittingly poignant ballad with excellent vocals, “Again” comes with a lushly ornate if somewhat formulaic MV featuring all the members existing wistfully in pretty rooms before meeting as one. As some fans have pointed out though, the MV can be read as a loose allegory for their career, as the four members who did not participate in Wanna One slip into black and white in the middle of the MV only for things to return to color once all five gather together once more. It’s poignant that the final storyline Nu’est is showcasing is of reunion when they are about to go their separate ways, at least for now. However, this is the sad yet hopeful tone “Again” strikes and it’s a lovely way for Nu’est to go out:
Then one day when I’m missing you
I embrace you of the spring we’ll meet again
Junsu – “Hana”
There’s no doubt that as a member of the original lineup of TVXQ, one third of very successful subsequent trio JYJ, and a notable soloist in his own right, Junsu is a major figure in Hallyu. However, he has existed mostly on the periphery of Hallyu’s mainstream for several years, largely devoting his time to musicals. In the last couple of years though, he has begun to return to the spotlight, most notably jumping back into television after a decade-long unspoken banishment likely thanks to a certain former entertainment company (cough cough SM Entertainment). Junsu’s renaissance continued with him establishing his own company, Palmtree Island, in late 2021, and going viral alongside Hyolyn for their cover of “Coming of Age Ceremony” earlier this year.
Junsu’s newest release capitalizes on his rising recognition among a new generation of K-pop fans while also satiating loyal longtime followers. “Hana” is an unapologetically theatrical track that highlights Junsu’s dexterous vocals and magnetic performance abilities. In the MV, Junsu alternately poses and energetically dances in vibrantly colored sets with a vaguely fantastical bent. Indeed, the MV’s dance sequences are its highlight as Junsu attacks very second-generation style choreography with seemingly boundless passion. It’s hard not to happily wonder during the climactic, frenzied choreography sequence where exactly he gets all this energy!
“Hana” is not the most polished release; the MV’s VFX is rugged, to put it kindly. However, the slightly rough-cut gem quality of “Hana” is part of its charm and allows Junsu’s innate star power to shine even brighter. “Let me bloom again” he sings in “Hana,” but it’s not a request. Rather, Junsu delivers the line like a defiant command and with this kind of charisma, it’s hard to think of anyone who would dare block his path now.
Oh My Girl – “Real Love”
Out of all the artists here, Oh My Girl’s moment of transition is the least obvious. However, “Real Love” marks an attempt to ever-so-slightly shift from the group’s signature naïve joyfulness to something more mature. It’s also worth noting that “Real Love” comes as Oh My Girl near their seventh debut anniversary, and as every K-pop fan knows, seven years usually means contract renewals. A bigger shake up could be not far ahead.
For now though, “Real Love” is a fascinating study in a transition partially made. The track’s slower, more elegant musical quality is a definite change for the previously fairy pop or bubblegum pop-centric group. While their overall discography is full of delight, this shift is not unwelcome. It’s nice to see Oh My Girl stretch their musical muscles a bit and their light yet warm vocal tones suit this genre.
On the other hand, the MV’s visuals fall firmly within Oh My Girl’s comfort zone. The hyper-CGI scenes in intensely pink landscapes call to mind “Nonstop,” while the outdoor vacation-style shots would fit right into “Dun Dun Dance.” What doesn’t necessarily match is these two styles together. The shift between a cute mountain picnic and a fantastical skyscape dotted with flying fish and hot air balloons is jarring. Likewise, the track’s elegant and even sultry sound clashes with its hyper-cutesy choreography which, while not featured in the MV, dominates live performances of “Real Love.”
“Real Love” also makes two crucial musical missteps at its start and conclusion. The track kicks off with its chorus, which with a chorus this non-explosive makes it hard to pick out for the rest of the track. “Real Love” also ends abruptly and unsatisfyingly. Ultimately, what is exceptional about “Real Love” is how charming it manages to be despite its numerous flaws. While there is certainly a point to be made about unfulfilled potential regarding “Real Love,” this song that describes the discovery of a more mature kind of love provides the opportunity to discover a new path forward for Oh My Girl that could allow them to evolve without losing their identity. They haven’t found the magic formula quite yet, but “Real Love” is a start.