Even the fast-paced K-pop landscape has its slow periods, and the first six months of 2023 were that for debuts. Nevertheless, our writers Qing and Siena found plenty to be excited about in the newest generation of groups.
Qing: It has been an odd half-year for debuts. We only have about 15 debuting artists–two of which are virtual–and almost no solo artists.
Watching the MVs from virtual groups Plave and Mave (the rhyming is surely a coincidence), I found I couldn’t connect to them the way I feel for human artists, or even fictional animated characters. But that’s a strange paradox to think about later.
As always, I look out for three qualities in debuting groups. The concept should set the artist’s direction clearly, but keep it open. The debut should be memorable, to have some leverage in the waves of K-pop releases we get each year. And finally, the music and choreography should showcase the artist’s skills, because K-pop is, after all, heavily performance-based.
None of my picks this year hit the trifecta, but they put in a strong showing for at least two qualities. What makes a strong debut for you, Siena?
Siena: I think 2023 feels particularly scarce on debuts because of how stacked 2022 was. Contrasting slow and fast periods are normal, but it’ll be interesting to see if things pick up later this year. Still, there are many intriguing 2023 rookies so far. I’m with you on the fact that none of my picks knocked it out of the ballpark, but they all have me excited for what’s next.
Breaking down the factors that shaped my choices, we’re again aligned: strength of the debut song(s), interesting concept, and quality of presentation (MV, choreography, etc.) weigh heavily. However, the category that’s most important to me is charisma. For rookies, the style and sound of their debut is likely to evolve, or even do a complete 180, in the future. Performance skills will sharpen too, but stage presence is one of those things that, if you have it, usually only gets stronger. Looking at my favorite K-pop acts, even when their debut songs were not my cup of tea, their debut performances already have a special spark. So, I look for the spark!
That’s what landed Xikers at the top of my list. I like “Tricky House,” and accompanying EP House of Tricky: Doorbell Ringing, and am particularly fond of the embrace of creepy kitsch found in the “Tricky House” MV and album intro track. On the less positive side, the shadow of KQ Entertainment’s other boy group Ateez is strong over them, in part because Ateez’s production team led by Eden (and this time, joined by Ateez’s leader Hongjoong) helmed Xikers’ debut. It’s less apparent in the MV, because the horror-adjacent concept sets Xikers apart. But I am self-aware enough to realize that one reason I like Xiker’s debut EP so much is that I’m a big fan of Ateez’s discography, and these b-sides would fit right in! Xikers are going to need to carve their own path, but the energy they show in their stages, particularly through their impressive dancing, gives me confidence that they have what it takes to do just that.
Qing, you also have Xikers on your list. What put them at your third spot?
Qing: It’s not hard to find debuting artists with impressive stage presence that rivals that of veterans, but it’s rare to see an artist debut with a concept that truly surprises. “Tricky House” did just that by transmogrifying a well-known Korean folklore figure to make a statement about Xikers and their music.
The Korean title of “Tricky House” is “dokkaebi’s house“. Dokkaebis are magical spirits formed from everyday objects, and their clubs bring them riches. In the MV, the weary salaryman represents the everyday; Xikers are the dokkaebi–parts of their choreography reference the creature’s horns–and their music is the spiritual wealth they offer to jolt the salaryman out of his jaded state. It’s a subtle but deeply memorable message that Xikers’ music can instill meaning and a sense of adventure into disillusioned lives.
Unfortunately, as you noted, the music itself doesn’t measure up to this bold statement. It takes a path of hip-hop and trap that’s well-trodden, albeit with some moombahton elements. It jolts me, but not with a sense of novelty, and that’s why Xikers sit lower on my list.
8turn take on a similar sound, and have a unique aesthetic to boot. What about their debut appealed to you?
Siena: Firstly, I had no idea about the intricacy of Xikers’ concept, it makes me like them even more! 8turn indeed have a similarly high-octane, conceptually experimental aura, and initially I was worried adding them to my list would be repetitive. I also have specific hold-ups: I was underwhelmed by debut mini 8TurnRise, think their stage presence is good but not yet great, and was not a fan of a few visuals in the “Tic Tac” MV (namely the grill, tragically having a moment in K-pop, and the side-eye worthy hieroglyphs tableau).
Now, with all that Debbie Downer stuff said, the “Tic Tac” MV is one of the most memorable things I’ve seen in K-pop this year, and I’m not just talking about debuts. It’s absolutely unhinged, a mish-mash of neon lighting, cat-eared hats, nods to what my untrained eye thinks is traditional Korean architecture and fashion, bonkers but high-quality special effects, and a hint of a heist plot. There’s also a groovy psychedelic dance break in the final bridge.
It shouldn’t work, but at least for me, it really does! It’s wild without seeming unplanned, cool while still having a sense of humor, and most of all it’s a bold swing. In an industry that sometimes falls back on formula, I appreciate a risk, especially one this fun. “Tic Tac” made me excited to see more, and the teasers for 8Turn’s sophomore comeback (at the time of writing, just released) seem promising. So, sign me up for another dose of controlled chaos!
Swinging back, another reason picking 8Turn for my third spot was hard was because they had competition: TripleS. I’m intrigued by their concept, like their music, but wasn’t impressed by their live stages, which dampened my enthusiasm. Nevertheless, I’m delighted they made your list, and at the first spot at that. What made them your favorite debut of the year so far?
Qing: TripleS’ “Rising” is, in a word, rounded. Their sound and aesthetic track closely to the Y2K revival trends popularised by NewJeans and TXT. But the hint of a thematic message that keeps their concept open sets them apart from NewJeans’ comparative focus on visuals over story, and the narrative-heavy releases from TXT.
TripleS’ ‘too cool for school’ vibe is established from the opening scene: they don black hoodies and puffer jackets as they bob their heads along to the introductory beats, faces deadpan. But the MV gives a slight twist to this by contrasting them with a group of uniformed high schoolers who make fun of their dancing. The story of “Rising”, however lightly touched on, is about finding your people, and finding success on your own terms. I’m intrigued to see if TripleS will continue building on this theme.
I have to say, though, that the choreography doesn’t stick, which may be why their live stages missed the mark for you. But in the MV at least, TripleS deliver it with a sleek confidence that belies their rookie status, and the song’s vocal-forward production choices bolster the appeal of the release as a whole.
On the note of music production, it’s hard to miss the charms of BoyNextDoor, whom we’ve both placed at number two. What landed them on your list?
Siena: BoyNextDoor’s excellence is indeed hard to deny. Their debut is solid all-around: musically, performance-wise, and conceptually, though for me that last one really stands out.
BoyNextDoor have been frequently compared to NewJeans, likely because of their shared HYBE lineage and Y2K influences. In a good sense though, I think the similarity goes deeper than that. Both groups are infectiously joyful because of their embrace of bubblegum elements, but they avoid the off-putting artificiality that often accompanies that genre by mixing in unexpected elements. For NewJeans, that’s nostalgia and the uncanny, and for BoyNextDoor so far, it’s humor. I laughed out loud during their “One and Only” MV, and I love the playful staging of that track too. Of all the first-half 2023 debuts, BoyNextDoor seem to have the clearest vision of their concept, and that makes me extra anticipate their next steps.
Qing, what made BoyNextDoor your second pick as well?
Qing: BoyNextDoor’s “One and Only” was such a delight! I honestly don’t remember the last time I felt this much joy just watching a K-pop release. I loved the playful touches to the largely performance-based MV: Taesan parting a rack of jeans dramatically; Jaehyun dumping the members out of a door; and the group dancing to an audience of one… mannequin?
There’s a cool edge to BoyNextDoor’s sound and styling, but the abundance of mischief helps them to live up to their name. The choreography also hits the right notes in conveying this balance, with the creative use of a single prop (the door), a mix of formations, and moves that are energetic (but not overwhelmingly so). Even though TripleS top my list at the moment, the rookie whose next move I’m most looking forward to is BoyNextDoor.
Aside from our top picks, Siena, were there other groups that caught your eye?
Siena: I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on the emotional disconnect of AI groups (plus, if we’re evaluating them alongside their human counterparts, their dancing is wildly stiff, haha!), but I enjoyed the Mave “Pandora” MV, and would recommend it as an example of high-quality CG.
Besides Mave, my debut anticipations are in the future. I’m especially looking forward to Zero Base One (ZB1)‘s imminent debut. And while we generally don’t include debuting soloists or sub-units from established groups, I will say I was pleasantly surprised by Jimin’s solo debut and totally charmed by NCT DoJaeJung.
Qing, who are your honorable mentions?
Qing: The anger and honesty in Jimin’s Face surprised me, and I found myself returning for multiple listens.
Rookie-wise, The Wind piqued my interest with their fresh, efferverscent sound, and I’m looking forward to their first comeback. But the group I really want to give a shout-out to is BXB.
Perhaps because four members are formerly from TRCNG–and we know how great TS Entertainment were as a company–there’s a weight and grittiness to BXB’s delivery of “Fly Away” that makes it more compelling than many rookie releases. They also hark back to a sound that I miss–the expansive, angsty dance ballads of the early 2010s.
Despite the slim pickings so far this year, there is still much promise in the class of 2023, and I look forward to how our lists will evolve at the end of the year.