K-Pop is paradoxically encaged by its global popularity. Breaking through to the American audience at the beating heart of global capitalism is key to success in modern music. For with commercial success can come the freedom to make truly artistic music. This happened most recently with hip hop, which transformed through its late ‘90s and early ‘00s mass popularisation from its regional roots in New York, Chicago, and LA into the universal genre that it is today. In 2010, Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an artistic culmination of the genre on par with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in high rock music, or the Beatles’ Bob Dylan-inspired Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Hearts in classic rock. K-Pop now faces its own turning point, where it can translate commercial popularity into musical hegemony through artistic transcendence. Who will bear the baton into the new world? If K-Pop is to contribute to the next great musical genre, it will have to build on what has come before. It will have to build on existing pop music and its most recent animating genre: hip hop.
Lisa is the main rapper in the K-Pop group Blackpink. At the MTV VMAs, I was struck by similarities between Nicki Minaj, the rapper behind Pink Friday, and Blackpink, with their most recent hit ‘Pink Venom’, which also echoes Eminem’s ‘Venom’. Just as Rosé draws on John Mayer, Taylor Swift, and Jon Bellion, it seems that Blackpink’s Lisa draws more heavily on hip hop (Bellion’s province before producing for pop artists more widely, with Rosé’s strikingly cathartic ‘On The Ground’ bearing Bellion’s signature sonic imprint). This brought me back to 2021, when Blackpink went solo.
Of course, this was anticipated by Jennie’s stunning ‘SOLO’ a couple years back, but this failed to sustainably launch Jennie as a solo artist. Rosé’s ‘Gone’ is the acoustic accompaniment to ‘On the Ground’, and Blackpink’s label YG Entertainment showed these songs to have performed well commercially. Fans were confused why the label did not release data for Lisa. There are two possibilities.
Either Lisa did not perform commercially as well as expected. But with over half a billion views for each of her solo MVs last year — LALISA and Money, echoing the incumbent queens of of hip hop, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B — Lisa has more YouTube views as a solo artist than any of her fellow Blackpink members (though Jennie’s SOLO remains the highest-viewed single MV by a Blackpink member going solo — and I am not aware of fourth member Jisoo’s plans for going solo). It is highly likely Lisa’s commercial sales of the double release reflect that fact. Money was Side B of the release, but broke onto western radio unlike anything I have seen from K-Pop, save from BTS’s more anodyne pop music, which is self-admittedly ‘smooth like butter’.
Blackpink as a collective group are powerful on Pink Venom, which, despite Rosé’s attempt to make the song echo Taylor Swift’s hip hop-inspired reputation, is most assuredly dominated, both on record and on stage, by Lisa’s skilled rapping and star-spangled presence. Lisa is not intentionally trying to be a breakout into western audiences, but she is. And this is part of the problem.
Lisa is trapped by a label agreement in Blackpink, the details of which are somewhat obscure. In Korea, her popularity is outshined by her co-stars. Her country of origin is Thailand, and her conflicted identity results in a unity of purpose which her fellow members lack. The situation is analogous to Camila Cabello and her original group Fifth Harmony, or Beyoncé and her original group Destiny’s Chile. An analogy may also be drawn to Justin Timberlake and NSYNC, or to Harry Styles and other members from One Direction who went solo. You might also compare the situation to that of migrant leaders Alexander Hamilton or Napoleon Bonaparte, or their shared conflicted inspiration Alexander the Great, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves …
It is possible for all the Blackpink stars to go solo. Rosé may compete for the title of queen of pop, previously held by Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande. But Britney had a stage presence that Lisa monopolises in Blackpink. Lisa and Rosé together could change music, but history suggests that only one can survive such a race to the top. I have previously predicted Sabrina Carpenter to claim the pop crown, but her label difficulties have prevented her from competing effectively with fellow Disney breakout star Dove Cameron, who has waited a long time for a hit (and who I thought should ‘run for the crown’, in Camila Cabello’s terms, before most people woke up to her evident pop musical greatness — as I noted with Camila Cabello before and in the months after she left Fifth Harmony, before ‘Havana’ confirmed my predictions, with an original twist). Sabrina may be waiting for an even longer time to claim her title as queen of pop, and perhaps (if recent hints of suppressed hip hop releases from her Singular double album, preceding the more acoustically-based numbers of this year’s emails i can’t send) queen of popular music more generally. I, for one, am happy to wait a little while longer. But not forever.
In hip hop, at least, and in the global future of pop music, I think Lisa has a chance of seizing the crown for herself, if she stages a daring escape from her current cage. I wish her all the best. Music needs a new queen. For winter is, most assuredly, on the way …