For K-pop artists, a lot rides on a comeback. Not only is it a chance to show growth to existing fans, it’s also an opportunity for artists to leave their mark on the ever-diverse K-pop music scene. With a field full of artists, shortened promotion cycles, and the rise of platforms like TikTok, the ways comebacks succeed are changing. For this years Mid Year Review, writers Chelsea and Eileen discuss how rookies and veterans made their comebacks stand out so far this year.

Note: This discussion concluded before the news of Fifty Fifty suing for contract termination from Attrakt broke out.

Chelsea: I can’t believe we’re already at the halfway point of comebacks this year. I feel like we’ve been spoiled in 2023 with a blend of big name group returns, surprising units, and the rise of several rookie groups. As always, narrowing down my list to only three comebacks was a challenge. So, before we kick off the discussion of our top picks, I’m curious about your criteria for what makes a stand-out comeback.

Eileen: It’s hard to believe that we’re already halfway through 2023 and like you, I also had a difficult time forming my top three list. Ultimately, I made my choices based on how well the title track, music video, and performance fit together and how they develop the artist’s musical identity. With this, I ended up placing Lee Chaeyeon in the third spot on my list.

While “Hush Rush” was an enjoyable debut overall, I found the execution of the vampire concept weak and not really complementary to her strengths. From her appearances on various competition programs as well as her time promoting IZ*ONE, Chaeyeon has become well-known for her dance talents in the K-pop world. And because of that, I was confused as to why WM Entertainment didn’t give her a song and choreography that would highlight her dancing abilities. The music video for “Hush Rush” also lacked any choreographic scenes. It kind of felt like there was a veil covering up Chaeyeon and her potential.

In contrast, “Knock” tears down that veil and spotlights her strong points much more effectively. Chaeyeon shines brightly with this energetic high teen piece, and her confidence on stage has noticeably increased. The dynamic camerawork in the music video is fun, engaging, and fantastic at showcasing the eye-catching choreography. I also loved the nods to the previous vampire theme with the blood-red drinks and wardrobe coffin.

Though I wouldn’t say Chaeyeon has found her sound yet, I think “Knock” is a big step towards it. And I’m excited to see what else she’ll explore in future releases.

How about you, Chelsea? What was your criteria like when choosing artists for your list?

Chelsea: Each year that I do this panel, my criteria changes. With the sheer number of fourth gen groups active this year, I turned my eyes more towards which comebacks marked a significant boost/exposure for the group more so than if the comeback was a personal favorite. I think there have been many trendy songs and well executed concepts so far this year, but I wanted to narrow my list down to the comebacks that really stuck – the songs I heard out in public or the sudden rise of attention one group was receiving. 

This is how TXT’s “Sugar Rush Ride” ended up on my list. As a long time MOA, I can say SRR is one of my least favorite title tracks, and Temptation was mid but interesting as an EP; however, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a big step forward for TXT. For a group that spent most of 2022 touring with only “Good Boy Gone Bad” released, a lot was hinging on this comeback. Thursday’s Child felt almost disruptive to the discography they were setting with the Freeze chapter which was so conceptually and musically strong, and I was worried about where they would go with Temptation. Would they stick with the tired bad boy theme? Go back to the emo grudge of the Freeze era? Go off into a completely new direction?

Thankfully, Temptation proved to be a fruitful comeback with an unanticipated maturity and sensuality that was new for them. The styling was distinctive (and sparkly); the concept of moving away from youth was solid; and even though I hate an empty chorus, the whistle hook of “Sugar Rush Ride” stuck. Public response was also huge, and in many ways this comeback put them on the map domestically– especially with young Korean fans. Seriously, with a market that is dominated by girl groups, TXT’s are the only boy group photocards I see in the stationary stores these days.  Hybe has found something that works, so I’m expecting more sexy comebacks in the future – but hopefully that undercurrent of angst doesn’t go away.

I see we do have overlap on our lists with BSS’s “Fighting.” What made that comeback stand out for you?

Eileen: Seventeen are no stranger to subunits. Even when excluding releases by the group’s established teams (hip-hop, vocal, and performance), the group often switches things up and has formed various units over the years. Out of all of them, though, BSS are the only ones to have officially debuted.

Their first single “Just Do It” came out five years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Back in 2018, Seventeen were young stars on the rise with the potential to reach even greater heights. Now, the group have firmly cemented their name in the K-pop world, and the BSS trio have also become known for their high energy amongst fans.

With that, their comeback feels celebratory in a way. Rather than reinvent the wheel, “Fighting” amplifies BSS’s bright image with a colorful tune and a proper music video this time. Lee Young-ji’s feature also brought a cool and powerful spark to the track. Her honest and relatable rap pairs nicely with the song’s witty and uplifting lyrics, making the song a perfect pick-me-up when we’re fatigued from our everyday lives.

Moreover, the members’ vibrant performance is a huge energy booster. Their lively facial expressions, engagement with the audience, comedic inclusions in the choreography, and infectious energy made each stage a joy to watch. The trio’s appearance at the Circle Chart Music Awards was especially memorable and the most fun I had watching a performance in a while.

What about BSS’s comeback caught your eye, and how did it end up on your list?

Chelsea: I also had the Circle Chart Music Awards performance in mind when making my selection! Something about watching idols properly get excited about watching other idols perform made the power of the sub-unit all the more entertaining. It made me realize the value of a fun concept. Like you said: they weren’t re-inventing the wheel, BSS were amplifying their bright sound in a way that was enjoyable for everyone from casual listeners to fellow idols. 

Admittedly, I don’t keep up as much with Seventeen units, but I have always enjoyed the variety of sounds in their comebacks. “Fighting” as a unit song took me back to Seventeen’s debut era with “Manse” – another track that boosts energy. But “Fighting” has an edge in both the confidence of the lyrics and the feature of Young-ji. I remember her fangirling over Hoshi on Nothing Prepared, so seeing her on the track really felt like a full-circle moment. 

Beyond all of the idol stuff that goes into the success of “Fighting,” I think above all it is a fun song. It’s an earworm, and in a landscape of heavier concepts, “Fighting” was just the comeback everyone needed. It didn’t take itself too seriously, but it was seriously enjoyable. 

And now comes the time for our top pics. I see we both chose relatively new girl groups – one of which only has one EP and runaway hit to their name, and another who put out their first album after a series of hit singles with great acclaim. I also was considering IVE for my number one spot, so I was glad to see them on your list. 

How did they take the crown for you?

Eileen: When an artist has a successful release, the pressure to maintain that momentum and do even better in the next comeback undoubtedly increases. These expectations, of course, become even higher for those with a track record like IVE’s. Putting out hit after hit after hit, it’s difficult to imagine how they can surpass themselves when their previous singles are already so good. And for a time, I was convinced that nothing would top “Love Dive” for a long while.

Then in comes “I Am.” The extravagant music video and dazzling song doesn’t just continue the group’s high-class chaebol concept but pushes it to the absolute limit. “I Am” is grander and more lavish than anything else in IVE’s discography.

The full chorus in particular is incredibly refreshing amid the anti-drop trend in the K-pop scene. It being sung in unison also reminds me a bit of some second generation idol groups, making the tune feel slightly nostalgic as well. On top of that, the buildup with the pre-chorus after the bridge was very striking and helped intensify the final chorus before ending on a high note.

Although I have my own complaints toward Starship Entertainment from being a fan of their other artists, I have to admit that the company is doing a stellar job with IVE’s elegant image and sound. The group is really making a notable impact on the industry, and it’s astonishing that they’ve only been active for a year and a half.

Speaking of impacts, I see your top pick is Fifty Fifty’s “Cupid” which has been helping the group quickly rise to stardom. What put the comeback in your number one spot?

Chelsea: Yes to the return of a full chorus! Even if IVE’s music isn’t my particular brand, you’re right that their sound does harken back to the girl groups I am more familiar with. For “I Am” the expectations were high, and I agree with you that they exceeded them – not only with the title itself, but with a full album that was a surprisingly great listen from a group that had only put out hit singles before. 

In a similar vein, Fifty Fifty ended up clutching my number one spot. I was a huge fan of their self titled EP late last year. Stellar vocals and a closer to R&B sound? Count me in. Even with that layer of expected quality, “Cupid” still feels like a runaway hit. Yes, it’s a great song that put the group on the map. However, it clutched my number one spot for how Attrakt has gone about getting Fifty Fifty their deserved moment in the spotlight. 

In the era of TikTok and personalized idol YouTube series, Fifty Fifty checked all the boxes for building a humble but loyal fan base through their first EP. With the release of “Cupid,” it seems like the company knew they had a hit on their hands, and they knew exactly how to make it go viral. The inclusion of the twin version (English version) made it an easy sound to use on TikTok, and people did. Idol TikTok dance challenges are nothing new, but Fifty Fifty didn’t go about it that way: they crafted a relatable, slightly nostalgic, track with a dreamy air that can play easily as background music while also getting stuck in your head. 

More than anything, “Cupid” has only built momentum over time; the track was released in February and is still everywhere now. It’s finding ways to reinvent itself that fall outside the original release, fanbase promotion, and simple MV, and that kind of success is something I think most K-pop companies can only dream of. Will it guarantee long-term success for the group? I don’t know. But I do know that “Cupid” will be one of the stand-out tracks of 2023 and isn’t going to stop being played anytime soon.

Altogether, 2023 has been an interesting year for both established artists and young rookies on the rise. Whether it’s by developing their musical color or capturing the hearts of the general public, our picks all left a memorable mark. It’ll be exciting to see what the rest of the year has in store for us.

(YouTube: [1] [2] [3] [4] . Images via: Stone Music, Pledis Entertainment, Big Hit Entertainment, Starship Entertainment, Attrakt.)