Last November, just days after Hurricane Sandy crashed into the Tri-State area, Korean pop fivesome BigBang played the fourth and final date of their ALIVE tour’s American swing at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center. And just as he had the night before, Seungri, known as one of the group’s strongest dancers, took a moment between songs to profess his love for BigBang’s chief songwriter and creative engine, G-Dragon. “I think he’s a genius,” Seungri told the sold-out arena. “He makes a lot of songs.” And then, turning to his bandmate: “You are a hero in my heart. I love you.”
Despite its scripted feel, the moment served as a strangely moving reminder of the dynamics at work behind BigBang, Korea’s most compelling boy band by a considerable margin. No one else in K-pop garners the same level of haloed, peer-to-peer respect. But Seungri, who would repeat himself in the show’s final minutes — eliciting, in the process, an “Okay, stop, that’s too much” from seemingly embarrassed bandmate Taeyang — was also echoing the thoughts of many observers, from fans to industry execs. BigBang have many terrific singles, but none of them are as exhilarating and diabolically crafted as those found on G-Dragon’s solo releases.
Last fall’s One of a Kind EP was his best yet. “Crayon,” in particular, which SPIN named our No. 1 K-pop single of 2012, almost felt too big for the occasion, too brash to have come from the leader of a boy band. While BigBang’s other members have recorded on their own, “Crayon” comes dangerously close to eclipsing everything the group have done together. But like Seungri said, G-Dragon makes a lot of songs; and most of them are daring by K-pop standards, wildly innovative by any standard (see the dazzling clip for undeniable pop-rap juggernaut ”One of a Kind”). And like Kanye West, a fellow outlier and a clear influence, he has created a world for himself between pop and rap and R&B. GD seems similarly unafraid of constantly pushing forward. Expectations are extremely high for his next solo outing — due to arrive, tentatively, early this Spring — as well as for the moment when, Y.G. Entertainment, home to his work and that of PSY and 2NE1’s, unveils their new, much anticipated girl-group later this year. G-Dragon reportedly has been working with them in the studio.
GIRLS’ GENERATION: After visiting with David Letterman and Kelly Ripa, many thought this record-setting, nine-member behemoth was poised to put a dent in the U.S. market in 2012. Unfortunately, they weren’t armed at the time with “I Got a Boy,” a shape-shifting stroke of genius that ranks as their most ambitious single yet.
2YOON: Gayoon and Jiyoon of veteran girl group 4Minute just released their deliciously campy, Taylor Swift-indebted single “24/7.” It’s an unexpected burst of K-country (from the duo’s debut mini-LP, Harvest Moon) that should raise eyebrows in Nashville.
JYJ: Long embroiled in legal disputes with their label S.M. Entertainment, the members of JYJ have confirmed plans to release their first studio album since 2011’s In Heaven. And based on the recent solo work of group members Junsu (whose “Tarantallegra,” was among SPIN‘s Top 5 singles of 2012) and Jaejoong (whose latest, Mine, brandishes a ’90s nu-metal edge), it’s bound to be fiery.
Ailee: This Denver-born, Jersey-bred newcomer boasts a seismic set of pipes, as evidenced by last October’s Invitiation EP, a debut that featured the “Umbrella”-like hooks of “Heaven.”
Exo: Modeled in part after Super Junior, Exo is a 12-member, bilingual beast whose Chinese (Exo-M) and Korean (Exo-K) halves can tour simultaneously but separately, then combine for special occasions. (Exo’s “concept” was discussed at length in last year’s introductory K-pop feature, Seoul Trained.) But “Mama,” their concussive, slightly gothic debut, provided more to love than just marketing smarts. As they confirmed in a video message on New Year’s Eve, they’re currently hard at work on a new album.