Many veteran artists had comebacks this month, some of whom made long-awaited returns, like Chungha and Day6. BoA, Super Junior D&E, Dynamicduo, and Highlight showed their impressive longevity with their comebacks, while Davichi released a bittersweet final single with their company. BTSV and J-Hope also both had releases while enlisted in the military.

On the other hand, March also brought listeners numerous debuts and releases from rookie groups (and, in one case, a new project group). This edition of Unsung Artists is dedicated to some of the promising new voices who made a strong impression this month.

Xikers – “We Don’t Stop”

Having just celebrated their first anniversary, Xikers is the most senior group in this edition of Unsung Artists. In their three mini-albums since their March 2023 debut, they have found a consistent vibe, with punkish, energetic, rap-driven songs. “We Don’t Stop” takes a rock-rap sound, with a screeching electric guitar riff comprising the beat. The song’s highlight might just arrive at the beginning, with Yechan and Sumin’s fast-paced raps in the first verse.

“We Don’t Stop” experiments with switch-ups in tempo and genre, from the guitar-fueled, chanting chorus shifting to a more stripped down post-chorus, with Junmin and Yujin whispering “break it break it down.” The biggest surprise comes in the final section, when the image of the MV cuts to black and white, and the members chant over a 90s hip hop baseline.

The kinetic energy of the song is evoked simply, yet effectively, in the music video, full of dynamic camera movements and brisk editing. In one playful sequence set to the second post-chorus, skyscrapers jump up and flip their tops as though dancing. Music and visuals combine to further the impression of Xikers as a unrelentingly energetic, passionate group.

Nomad – “California Love”

Five-member boy group Nomad debuted on February 28 with title track “No Pressure,” but returned with an unexpectedly sunny MV for March, “California Love.” Leader Doy has primary songwriting credits on this second single, as well as the other songs on their debut EP. The fact that Nomad are self-producing and all members are in their 20s is refreshing among the slew of newly debuted groups. 

“California Love” showcases Nomad’s R&B and hip hop crossover sound with confidently delivered melodic rapping and smooth vocals. The song grooves along to a simple guitar riff, until it peaks with ad-libs in the final chorus. While their sound is familiar to listeners of R&B and hip hop in the West, few K-pop title tracks currently adopt this style. Nomad projects the self-assurance of a more mature and experienced group – and one for K-pop fans to eagerly anticipate what they do next.

Young Posse – “XXL”

Like both Xikers and Nomad, Young Posse embraces hip hop, with their influences consistently from the 1990s. Their latest title track “XXL” samples the baseline from the pioneering Seo Taiji and Boys’ track “Come Back Home”, which itself drew upon 1990s West Coast rap, particularly Cypress Hill. In case their team’s hip hop knowledge wasn’t already apparent, the lyrics refer to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and brag that Young Posse is a “baby Wu-Tang Clan.

The Wu-Tang Clan comparison seems like unearned braggadocio, but the wacky MV provides another perspective. Directed by Ben Proulx (who was also at the helm of the group’s campy debut “Macaroni Cheese.”), the MV is a fever dream of colorful cityscapes, larger-than-life animated images, and intentionally poor green screen effects. The Young Posse members dream about being “extra, extra, double extra large” in their fame, with their faces all over billboards and magazines, but at the end, fans push them aside to cheer for another girl group. The self-deprecating humor of the MV conveys some self-awareness on the group’s part – they have not achieved XXL status yet.

The members do have noteworthy rap talent, particularly Sunhye in her rapid delivery and impressive flow in the third verse. There are very few hip hop-oriented girl groups in K-pop as it is, and Young Posse’s unapologetic quirkiness makes them even more unique.

IIlit – “Magnetic”

Illit, the first girl group from HYBE label Belift Lab, formed from the survival series R U Next?. Their debut, the dreamy electropop dance track “Magnetic,” combines pluggnb with house beats. Meanwhile, the trilling synths throughout the song, along with sound effects in the post-chorus seemingly right out of a video game, help convey the whimsy of youth. 

The MV perhaps overemphasizes the members’ youth, especially the pajama party scenes where some members are styled in braids and headbands that make them appear even younger. The video best handles the youth concept — and is at its most creative — when it leans into depictions of magic, with star-shaped lighting, levitating puzzle pieces, and origami cranes that fly and stop midair. If they had fully embraced this concept, they would do even more to differentiate themselves from other groups and establish their own identity.

As is the trend for many current K-pop songs, the song maintains a consistently relaxed pace, repeating the structure of verse – pre-chorus – chorus – post-chorus without many dynamic changes. However, there are periodic moments of silence that keep the song from feeling monotonous. The stuttering “You, you, you, you, like it’s magnetic” has to be one of the catchiest hooks in a song this year, and it is not surprising that the song has found fast success on charts so far.

Rescene – “UhUh”

Rescene is also a recently debuted five-member girl group, but from a smaller company, The Muze Entertainment. The group followed up their pre-debut single “Yo Yo” with a pop R&B track “UhUh” that delivers in its instrumentation, production, and song structure. The deep synth bass drives the song, sliding in and out throughout. The moments without that synth, such as the pre-chorus, feel comparatively empty, but the song still contains layers of instrumentals that provide texture. 

With a runtime of 3 minutes and 30 seconds, “UhUh” bucks the recent trend of shorter songs. As a result, the song can linger on some sections, like the pleasing layered vocals of “ba-ra-ram” in the post-chorus. Rescene also brings the satisfying drama of a bridge that changes up the tone, along with key changes and other elements for variation. “UhUh” feels more fully developed than many other K-pop releases as a result.

Despite not appearing on music shows or engaging in other promotions of a larger company, Rescene has already sold 25,000 physical copies of its single album, suggesting that their approach is resonating with a number of listeners.

Artms – “Birth”

Technically, the members of Artms—Choerry, Haseul, Heejin, Jinsoul, and Kim Lip from Loona—are not rookies. Signed to Modhaus, the label of Loona’s former artistic director Jaden Jeong, Artms is a project group that will officially debut in May. “Birth” is the first of four predebut releases. Unlike a song like Rescene’s “UhUh,” it might not feel fully realized as a standalone song, and lacks the replay value of a single. Instead, the avant-garde “Birth” effectively accomplishes what a pre-release should: set the tone and build anticipation for the group’s upcoming work. 

“Birth” immediately feels unsettling, with twisted strings cutting through the intro with tinkling piano notes, the hiss of a record, and mysterious footsteps. The instrumentals and vocals continue to ramp up tension throughout the verses. This tension breaks at the beginning of the chorus, with Heejin’s line “I could gather ex-boyfriends.” Meanwhile, dark, distorted industrial chords punctuate each line. The first post-chorus changes up the genre, with Kim Lip’s airy vocals flitting over a drum and bass beat. “Birth” continues to change up tempo and genre until the second post-chorus, where Kim Lip and Choerry sing over minimal instrumentals, to haunting effect.

Directed by Digipedi, the “Birth” MV is certainly the most creative music video of the year so far, and one of the most masterfully done. Incorporating hand-drawn images and animation, “Birth” emphasizes the song’s eeriness with striking, dark imagery, such as a hybrid unicorn-woman figure looming splitting into five pieces, each generating a comet with a fetus. Much of the imagery evokes the group’s namesake, the goddess Artemis, particularly the drawing of her aiming an arrow at a deer, as well as a giant figure of light that Heejin faces in an alleyway. Mysterious and terrifying, yet beautiful, “Birth” is a boundary-pushing experience unlike anything else seen in K-pop.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5][6]. Image via Modhaus).

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