BIGBANG is Fucking Back

All is great again in the world of K-Pop.


The best thing about BIGBANG and probably the reason why they’re everyone’s favorite gateway drug into the K-Hole of K-Pop fandom is how — like say Kanye or Beyonce in America — they’re always seemingly one or two steps ahead of everything happening in their music scene.

In American pop music, this kind of cachet is readily evident. While in K-Pop, this kind of cachet undoubtedly holds a lot of value, it’s not necessarily the preeminent pursuit of the labels and the artists.

As far as I can tell, in order to succeed at a high level in K-Pop, labels feel required to take on a gigantic investment in their prospective talent (or so they say). If we are to take the labels accounting at face value (and perhaps we should not), most labels end up spending tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands per year on housing, taking care of and training each prospective artist in their stable of trainees. Therefore, when it comes time to finally debut those prospects, often several years into their training, it seems hardly a prudent time to experiment and risk their investment failing before it even ever got a chance to earn anything. There are plenty of rewards and successes for those who dance well, sing well, rap competently, look good and exude just enough style and artistic expression to seem and feel unique. When this kind of stuff suffices — stuff that you can train into someone and into a group — there just isn’t much upside to getting cute with your ambitions and experimenting.

BIGBANG on the other hand has been around since 2006 and are already significantly well-established not just in Korea but globally. It’s not that they can do no wrong (though no evidence of this has manifested itself in at least the past five years). It’s that it seems like it would take a lot for them to do any wrong. Therefore, they have the ability to continually redefine their aesthetic and they have the artistic ken and practical resources now to be able to stealthily move amongst aesthetics as their vision for where the culture is moving and how to get there faster and better than anyone else sees fit. All this explanation underscores the fact that they’re also just really fucking cool.


On Thursday (Apr. 30, 2015), after months of speculation and absurd levels of anticipation, BIGBANG dropped their first two singles “Loser” and “Bae Bae” (as well as the accompanying music videos henceforth to be referred to as M/Vs) from their forthcoming album MADE.

Since then:

While I’m tempted to talk about BIGBANG’s potential to crossover in America, I do wonder if they’re kind of beyond that kind of stuff. In the seemingly eternal question of whether or not K-Pop can cross over, they are the resounding answer of “Why does K-Pop even need to cross over?”

Because for the most part, 2014 was a historically successful year for K-Pop in terms of revenue and audience growth. The three major agencies (SM Entertainment, BIGBANG’s label YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment) combined saw $106 million in sales in Q1 2014 alone, which represents a $33 million increase from Q1 2013. To point, YG Entertainment, the hipper more hip-hop-centric of the three agencies, recently received a $80 million investment by LVMH, seeming to solidify its artists reputations as viable culture icons. This is all occurred, mind you, with mere niche popularity in America.

This isn’t to say K-Pop can’t cross over in America. BIGBANG labelmate CL of my favorite K-Pop group 2NE1 is due for her solo debut in America any day now. Her debut is being managed by Scooter Braun (who manages Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Carly Rae Jepsen) and being produced by Diplo, Skrillex and a slew of other high profile producers. There’s perhaps no K-Pop artist in the history of K-Pop who has been better positioned to make the leap. She sings well (think Katy Perry like range). She is one of the best rappers in all of K-Pop (Nicki Minaj comparisons are, for better or worse, somewhat unavoidable). She can dance, she’s young, she’s beautiful, and most importantly, she’s unwaveringly cool.

For CL, crossing over is a reasonable ambition. For BIGBANG, especially with the mandatory two-year enlistment in the military looming for each member, expanding their already huge global popularity may seem more reasonable rather than starting relatively anew, which, given the route CL has taken, seems to be necessary in order to newly approach the U.S. market. Planet earth will have to suffice.


Bae Bae

Pretty much the first thing anybody — and in particular any BIGBANG follower — noticed about “Bae Bae” was the radio-friendly trap aesthetic of both G-Dragon and T.O.P.’s rap verses. In a lot of ways this — “trap” — was the answer of how BIGBANG would distinguish their sound after a three-year absense which saw numerous K-Pop artists co-opt the trends made popular by BIGBANG as well as by the solo efforts of G-Dragon and Taeyang, and the sub-group efforts of G-Dragon & T.O.P. and G-Dragon & Taeyang.

Brilliantly, the swagger of the rap verses along with the hazy-lazy melodrama of the chorus produce this incredibly vertiginous and druggy feel. It’s pop music that never makes its listeners feel like they’re on steady ground. It’s cool because it seduces you into a bit of thrilling, entrancing discomfort. The only antecedent for this in K-Pop that I’m aware of is appropriately enough T.O.P.’s 2013 single and M/V “Doom Dada”.

In my estimation, there are four types of rap in the Korean music scene:

  • Real Rap. This encapsulates rap that doesn’t really exist in K-Pop or only exists in cameos and features. In the past this has mainly meant stuff that is meticulously and thoughtfully lyrical. However, as the Korean rap scene becomes better at evolving at the pace of America’s rap scene, you’re beginning to see Korean rap that aligns with the trends in American rap.
  • Pop Rap. This is less rap and more either not-sung vocals or rap that very transparently serves the pop song’s substance and ambitions.
  • Real-Seeming Rap. This is rap done by seemingly good rappers who happen to exist within K-Pop, either as a solo artist or within a group. Therefore, while there’s potential, it always seems very much discernibly limited by its overarching pop aesthetic. I’m thinking of BIGBANG’s labelmates the aforementioned CL, Bobby from iKON and Song Min-ho from Winner, Zico from Block B and Rap Monster from BTS.
  • Weirdo Lifestyle Rap. For lack of better terms. Think Korea’s Missy Elliots.

I would say T.O.P., at his loosest and best, embodies this latter point, a growing rarity in the current Age of the Real-Seeming Rapper in K-Pop. These Real-Seeming Rappers are, in a way, great because they’re all for the most part these super talented super young super hungry kids who have grown up immersed in rap and who have to varying degrees made a name for themselves in the underground rap scene prior to entering K-Pop. They also can be not so great because as I said above, they are a bit restricted by the tween/teen-friendliness content demands of the business.

Things get far worse with Real-Seeming Rap in K-Pop when it reveals its rappers lack of, how should I term this, an earned narrative to match their lyricism — a failure which results in sometimes all-caps PROBLEMATIC shit like Zico’s “Tough Cookie”. Once this happens, it compels us to perform an appropriation autopsy on the material on hand. To say this kind of material rarely stands up to accusations of appropriation would be generous.

This why Weirdo Lifestyle Rap (or whatever you want to call it!) feels like such a good look for T.O.P. and BIGBANG in general here with “Bae Bae”. T.O.P., a former underground rapper himself, clearly has the lyrical dexterity and flow to be one of the best rappers in K-Pop. However, T.O.P.’s swagger and by extension, BIGBANG’s swagger isn’t really suited for Real Rap or Real-Seeming Rap and they’re too good for Pop Rap. Being weird allows T.O.P. and G-Dragon (who throughout his career has wonderfully danced with impunity from one categorization to another and back again) to rap and rap well without coming off as false or trying too hard or appropriating.

My worst fear for the new BIGBANG music would have been basically attempts to replicate the success of their biggest hit (and funny how these things go in pop music, their most annoying song) the epic-in-scope arena-readymade single “Fantastic Baby”. For now, with “Bae Bae” [and “Loser”], these fears have been allayed. “Bae Bae” conveys coolness through its newsness. There is nothing more BIGBANG than that.


Loser

Despite being to date the more successful of the two debut singles, “Loser” is the less impressive (though still wildly enjoyable) of the two. In a way it’s the spiritual successor to “Blue”, also mid-tempo, also sad and also the debut single of what was at one point their forthcoming album Alive, which came out in 2012.

“Loser” is a lights-on bars-closed kind of song. It’s the long lonely walk home at the end of the night that it so very much wants to be. Its droning, moaning of a chorus commits to the concept cleanly and artfully. The raps are basically the kind of raps G-Dragon and T.O.P. can nail half-asleep at this point in their careers. In fact, if you wanted to say that this song is more about the vocalists, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. If you don’t believe me, take a look at their first live televised performance of the song.

“Who is having the most fun in this performance” rankings?

  1. Seungri
  2. Taeyang
  3. G-Dragon
  4. Daesung
  5. T.O.P.

Compare it to their first live televised performance of “Bae Bae”.

“Who is having the most fun in this performance” rankings?

  1. G-Dragon
  2. T.O.P.
  3. Taeyang
  4. Daesung
  5. Seungri

In a way, “Loser” is less in service of its existence as a song on an actual album (or on a computer via YouTube) and more in service of its existence as a song that will be performed live in super huge venues at some point in the near future. K-Pop fans are ridiculously passionate so I wouldn’t put it past them to memorize and the sing the words to the entire song, but if I had to guess, “Loser” will be the kind of song where most people save their voices and their super feels for the chorus which was seemingly tailor-made to be sung by a huge mass of people in unison.

Simply put, BIGBANG is not a group that really has to dance much anymore. That’s a good thing. I have a piece on this coming sometime in the near future but K-Pop’s ardent commitment to choreographed dancing has made it, yes, supremely well suited for popular internet consumption however it has also made its live performances — because of how unwieldy it can be to execute elaborate and complex dance moves and sing at the same time — seem less like genuine musical performances and more like something that should be hosted by LL Cool J on SPIKE. This hasn’t really applied to BIGBANG and its members for a while and I think there’s something prescient about all of it. The power of BIGBANG is the force of their personalities delivered through song. Any unnecessary dancing and consequent lip-syncing would come, at this point in their careers, with minimal gains.

In a way, BIGBANG’s comeback was so exciting and will continue to be so exciting as they roll out new tracks from MADE all spring and summer precisely because they do many different things incredibly well — they are one of those pop acts, who due to their versatility, are timeless, and timelessness is something that we all tend to root for as a culture.


A Brief BIGBANG Breakdown

The Undisputed Champion of BIGBANG’s Discography

K-Pop’s “We Made It to Gawker Media” moment so you know it’s good:

BIGBANG Takes It Nice & Slow

During a hiatus a few years back, BIGBANG rappers G-Dragon and T.O.P. created their own two-person sub-group. The first six songs are all great and…WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED WITH THE SECOND HALF OF THIS ALBUM?

My Favorite BIGBANG Song

As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan put it, “A better Coldplay song than anything Coldplay themselves have done since A Rush Of Blood To The Head.” I love this description even though I somewhat disagree. Come on, dawg, you got no love in your heart for “Strawberry Swing” or “Lovers in Japan”?!?

The Best Song Diplo Has Ever Produced Not Named “Climax”

It’s Time 4 Da Perculator!

Old School BIGBANG and Also Their Best M/V and It’s Not Even Close

Aka the roller blading stalkers M/V.

Aka the swag shopping cart lifestyle M/V.

Aka the T.O.P. is murdered by a pineapple M/V.

This is pure uncut pop music.

One of 2014's Best K-Pop Songs

It wasn’t ever made a single but given everyone’s year end lists, it maybe should have been. It was in my top 5 for sure. FWIW, my top 5 also included EXO’s “Thunder”, Hyuna’s “Red”, Block B’s “Her” and f(x)’s “Red Light”.

The god G-Dragon

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.