A Beginner's Guide to K-Pop

BTS is just one of the K-pop groups you should know.
BTS is just one of the K-pop groups you should know.
Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment
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When BTS released their sixth album, Love Yourself: Tear, on May 18, it was already a global phenomenon by anyone's standards — after a week of pre-sales, the album had sold more than 1.4 million copies. BTS' world domination has been going on for a while, but they certainly have had a great year when it comes to North American exposure. They've played at the American Music Awards, their single "MIC Drop" peaked at position  28 on the Billboard Hot 100, and they've spent 74 weeks in the Number One position of the Billboard Social 50.

BTS are just one instance of the boy-and-girl bands that the Korean music industry is producing with alarming consistency. K-Pop, short for Korean Pop, is the genre that these groups are often relegated to, but that’s reductive to only the region of their work. Western musical stylings like hip-hop, trap, R&B and more are all thrown into the pot, creating a genre of music that’s hip and evolving in real time.

The bands are generally composed of a small crowd of vocalists — seriously, these groups can have upwards of a dozen singers — who typically develop international followings, in a group setting as well as individually. Generally, the acts are composed of one sex, but that’s not a steadfast rule. But, for fans of K-pop, the acts typically have a bubblegum-quality, comparable to an updated version of the American pop music of the aughts.

As streaming services have become more popular, the charts have shifted to favor hip-hop and rap more than radio-friendly pop music. K-Pop fuses all of these conflicting genres into one, ever-changing sound with the power to saturate an American marketplace. Here are some of the acts that could invade car radios, the Spotify homepage, and more as K-Pop’s grip tightens around the zeitgeist:


BTS appears as though they've not come to play when it comes to their upcoming album. The seven-person group are arguably the most popular K-pop act stateside and internationally, partly due to their bilingual oeuvre. The band have written three albums in Korean and three in Japanese. They've also recruited popular American acts like producer Steve Aoki and rapper Desiigner for their music. They've participated in the talk-show circuit, performing on Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and will perform shows in North America later this year.

Love Yourself: Tear serves as a sequel to BTS' EP Love Yourself: Her, which featured hits "DNA" and "MIC Drop."  However, Love Yourself: Tear, is seemingly taking a different direction if "Singularity," the album's first track, is indicative of the album's tone. "Singularity" is a soul/R&B solo sung slowly by band member V —comparisons to The Weeknd aren't off the money.


The nine members of EXO keep themselves busy, whether it be with solo music careers or roles in television and films. The band has been the subject of at least eight reality shows, a television drama, and 10 tour DVDs. They've done all of this, and released five albums and six EPs, in the span of a six-year career. Prolific doesn't even begin to describe EXO's accomplishments.

In January 2018, EXO dropped Countdown, the band's first foray into J-pop. To make things more complicated, three members of EXO — Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin — also perform as a subgroup named Exo-CBX. In May, Exo-CBX also dropped a J-pop album, featuring single "Horololo," a high-energy dubstep, electro-pop dance song.


Despite the fact that BLACKPINK haven't even released an album yet, they're arguably the most famous K-pop girl group stateside. They're the highest-charting K-pop girl group on Billboard Social 50, peaking at position 15. Five months after the group's official debut — although record label YG Entertainment reportedly had been hyping the group's lineup since as early as 2012 — BLACKPINK won the New Artist of the Year Award at the 26th Seoul Music Award.

BLACKPINK have released two EPs titled Square 2 and BLACKPINK. The neon-hued music video for their latest single, "As If It's Your Last," has accrued more than 302 million views on YouTube at the time of writing. The song features all four members trading verses in Korean and English to a reggae-inspired house beat.


Unfortunately, it's impossible to write about SHINee without writing about the band's recent tragedy. In December 2017, member Jonghyun died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in what has been ruled a suicide.

The band formed as a five-piece group in 2008, and have released six Korean and five Japanese albums, as well as performing numerous appearances on reality and scripted shows. Their sound is most often described as contemporary R&B, although elements of EDM, funk, hip-hop, and dance can be heard across their oeuvre. SHINee will continue as a four-piece group, releasing a three-part album titled The Story of Light on May 28. Earlier this year, Jonghyun's second solo album, Poet | Artist, was released posthumously.


In 2015, competition-based reality show Sixteen set out to form a power-house girl group of talented singers and dancers for the JYP Entertainment Corporation. Girls were split up into major and minor groups. The major group was composed of singers already positioned for a spot in TWICE. The minor group had to piggy-back over the advantaged girls while receiving limited resources and worse living conditions.

Controversy surrounded the cruel approach, but the pop-star boot camp fashioned together the nine-member TWICE. In 2016, their single "Cheer Up" was the best performing single of the year in Korea. Their latest EP, What is Love?,was released in April. The titular track combines retro-electro-pop with trap percussion, creating a contemporary sound with a tenuous connection to Gwen Stefani-esque bubblegum.

Red Velvet

Entertainment company SM Entertainment began casting members of Red Velvet as early as 2007. Red Velvet didn't officially debut until August 2014, when they released the single "Happiness" and appeared on the TV series Music Bank. Since then, they've occupied the number one position of the Billboard World Albums chart more than any other K-pop girl group. They've dropped five EPs and two albums, all in Korean. However, they plan to cross over to the Japanese market with their upcoming EP and J-pop debut, Cookie Jar.

Their latest single, "Bad Boy," comes off The Perfect Red Velvet, a reissuing of their second album. American production team The Stereotypes, who most recently worked with Bruno Mars on 24K Magic, took part in the production of the R&B-synth fusion track.

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