Is K-Pop the new hip hop?

Well, at least partially. I have previously hailed this new original era of musical expression as Wambop, akin to the origins of hip hop in boom bap, the origins of rock in rock ‘n’ roll, and the origins of jazz in bee bop and blues. But of course no era is truly original, building inexorably on the previous era and leading indubitably to the next. We are in a moment of transition, as existing genres such as R&B, soul, hip hop, rock, and jazz are globalised in a way that has not been seen at least since the 1990s. There have been moments of incipient globalisation of popular music, notably the breakthrough hit of PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ through YouTube in 2012, and the ongoing radio playability of Latin pop music, renewed by the recent smash hit of Camila Cabello’s ‘Havana’ and its successors. At the MTV Awards, Blackpink introduced Anitta, thereby tying the legacies of Gangnam Style and Havana together. At clubs and bars, I notice that Latin popular music remains more played than K-Pop. When people in the West do discuss K-Pop, the names that come to mind are PSY and BTS. Blackpink is occasionally mentioned, but the subsequent ‘fourth wave’ of the globalisation of Korean pop music is largely passing the western world by. This very month, a number of new K-Pop albums have made waves on the online music space, albums that I think take the third wave acts of BTS and Blackpink to a new level, largely thanks to the innovative work of leading Blackpink member Lisa in typing K-Pop to hip hop, echoing PSY’s brief fusion of dubstep elements with K-Pop musical mathematics. Lisa herself has been involved in televised mentoring of this new generation of K-Pop ‘idols’, emphasising precision in dancing and rapping, and overall charisma in performance, which ‘Lalisa’ herself exudes in oceans. But what of her dedicated descendants, who take Lisa’s legacy in new interesting directions, further bridging the gap between pop and hip hop around the world?

Lalisa Manobal, a.k.a. Lisa, leading member of K-Pop group Blackpink, and prominent hip hop/K-Pop artist in her own right (YG Entertainment / Rolling Stone).

I think the acerbic strength of Blackpink contrasts with the more alkaline, standardised pop of BTS, who echo One Direction more than the Beatles, while Blackpink echoes Destiny’s Child and at times the Jackson 5 rather than more recent western groups like Fifth Harmony. But needless to say, the influence of BTS is impossible to exaggerate. So positivity and negativity are inevitably fused on the new era of hip hop, tying the artistry of Blackpink’s hip hop with the commercial appeal of BTS’s blander form of pop. Occasionally, however, the introduction of hip hop has brought artists to other elements of the soul/R&B wave from the ’80s, leading Crush to make an Usher-infused musical rush on ‘Rush Hour’, while NewJeans directly echoes jazz-pop artist Charlie Puth on ‘Attention’. Blackpink remains the dominant influence on contemporary hip hop, but their apparent successor group NMIXX has made perhaps the best K-Pop song of the last month with ‘DICE’, an opening gambit which contrasts with the closing credits of Blackpink’s ‘Shut Down’.

BTS’ ‘Butter’ remains an instant ear-worm, bringing pop back to its Elton John-style roots, while Lisa’s ‘MONEY’ echoes hip hop at its most critical and incendiary, as on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Backseat Freestyle’ and its inspiration, the Kanye West/Jay-Z/Nicki Minaj collaboration on ‘Monster’, from Kanye West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, before the internet age reached its now-universal ubiquity. Of course, the journey has hardly begun, and the bridge between west and east on ‘LALISA’ and its near-eastern influences is as clear as it is compelling, at least to the judges of the MTV Award for K-Pop Video of the Year, on the same night Nicki Minaj won the Michael Jackson Vanguard Award. One is reminded of the night that led to Mr. West’s Dark Fantasy, a dramatic MTV Awards night which overshadowed Janet Jackson’s stunning tribute to her late brother, named the ‘King of Pop, Rock, and Soul’ by Elizabeth Taylor. Michael Jackson’s influence on hip hop is equally indisputable.

More recently, hip hop has influenced pop music through the alternative music of siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell. If K-Pop lacks anything, it is the introverted self-awareness that dominates so-called Gen-Z pop in the west. But around the world this is changing. Bella Porch’s ‘Living Hell’ takes the Billie Eilish moment to new heights, reflecting on her traumatic childhood before enlisting to the U.S. navy as a Filipino-American whose fame owes itself to TikTok, which has also recently launched the career of already-established hip hop newcomer Lil Nas X and kickstarted the success of Billie Eilish’s defining rock-infused ‘Happier Than Ever (Edit)’. Meanwhile Kane Brown is following Usher, on the one hand, and Lil Nas X, on the other, in fusing R&B and country music, further bridging the gap between town and country in American musical politics.

There is much to be said for K-Pop as a global genre, perhaps the first global genre in the truest sense of the term. Music, as we have seen, is going through a revolution everywhere – but K-Pop is where much of the tectonic movement is occurring. Could it be that the past few years have been distractions from the real turn of events, the turning of the tide of popular music and music as an art-form? For if R&B, soul, hip hop, jazz, and rock are fusing in Korean pop – NMIXX’s ‘DICE’ reminds me of old-school musical theatre as much as it does of more recent chart-topping pop trends and hip hop beats and bars – then it may be that globalisation has been misunderstood. Rather than being either decentred or centred on American pop as it was in the 1990s, perhaps the new globalisation is bringing Asia to the forefront of global musical geopolitics, reflecting the rise of the foremost Asian power of this century, China, to confront hegemonic American power. Regardless of this geopolitical confrontation, it may be that alliances with a variety of countries may help bolster America’s position.

To do so, it is not only necessary to build trade links but also expand soft power by building cultural ties. If so, it may be necessary to recognise the new power in global music, its significance for music as an art form, and its relationship to the dynamics of great power politics. It can’t hurt to ask: is K-Pop the new musical movement to shake the world to its very foundations? At the end of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the question is posed: ‘When all is said and done, build a new road to China if they’ll have you; who will survive in America? Who will survive in America? Who will survive in America?’. To answer this question, it may be necessary to look to the very place where America’s survival seems in question: the Pacific rim. There a new future is being built, for good or ill. The spotlight of musical history is shifting, from Chicago to Seoul, and from Kanye West to Lalisa Manobal. Watch out, Billboard. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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