2017 was the year K-pop finally broke in the United States. BTS made their American television debut that spring on the Billboard Music Awards, snagging the title of Top Social Artist – and breaking Justin Bieber’s six-year winning streak. In November, the band returned to perform at the 2017 American Music Awards, paying additional visits to Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden on their late night TV run. Their 2017 EP Love Yourself: Her has now spent 27 weeks on the Billboard 200 – the first K-pop release ever to do so – and their singles “DNA” and “MIC Drop (Remix),” the group’s collaboration with Steve Aoki and Desiigner, were both certified gold. Their next full-length album, due May 18th, has already topped Amazon’s sales chart with preorders alone.
For most American viewers, BTS was their first taste of K-pop since Psy’s viral 2012 hit, “Gangnam Style.” But while the seven-member boy group are nothing like Psy, they feel familiar in different ways: their carefully coordinated outfits and dance moves made some nostalgic for One Direction, or even the boy band golden era of the Nineties. But beneath BTS’ glossy surface lies an elaborate and deliberate infrastructure. Music, lyrics, and production – all of which the members have a hand in – work in tandem with wardrobe, visuals and meticulously crafted narratives to create an interactive experience for fans on social media. While the detective work is par for the course for long-time followers, it’s a crafty way to keep newer fans hooked.
And BTS isn’t the only Korean act gliding into the American consciousness with smooth moves and tresses. The captivating spectacle that is K-pop – conceptual staging, powerful choreography, crazy-catchy melodies, and dynamic performers – has captivated listeners around the globe. After his departure from boy group 2PM, Seattle-born singer-rapper Jay Park hustled hard and started his own label before signing to Roc Nation last year. And at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Korean hip-hop queen CL and boy group EXO closed out the games with high-octane performances. While K-pop idols may just be starting to gain traction in the general public United States, their fandoms are powerful enough to sell out arena tours in mere minutes. Here are 10 more acts on the rise.
After placing fourth on the wildly popular girl-group–making survival show, Produce 101 – think Making the Band but 101 times bigger and more intense – a star was born in Chungha. As per the premise of the show, she cut her teeth as part of 11-member girl group I.O.I for a year. Yet Chungha’s sharp dance moves and sophisticated presence would set her apart from the others, earning her the nickname “Dance President.” Now that she no longer has to share the spotlight, we can bask in the full range of her charms. In her latest single, “Roller Coaster,” Chungha’s supple voice simulates the ride, rising, falling and looping with ease.
Day6 may be signed to one of the biggest K-pop labels in Korea, but they’re not the average K-pop band: They like their pop with a little rock & roll. Sungjin and Jae dominate on guitar, Young K on the bass, Dowoon on the drums, and Wonpil on keyboard and synths. In 2017 the band worked on a year-long project called Every Day6, in which they released a single and B-side on the sixth of every month. The final installment in the series, “I Like You,” starts like a classic-rock ballad and swells into an explosive, soap-opera–worthy declaration of love. After a long time spent holding back for fear of ruining a good thing, Day6 finally let it all out, culminating in a cathartic shout from the rooftops (depicted quite literally in the music video).
As a former member of the wildly successful group Sistar, vocalist Hyolyn has racked up more experience than most other acts on this list – and she’s just getting started. But now that the group has disbanded and she’s setting off on her own, she also has a lot more to prove. Best known for her mighty vocal range and her group’s fun and flirty repertoire, Hyolyn is now readying music on her very own label, bride (stylized as brídʒ). In her first independent release, “To Do List,” the singer laments staying busy to keep her mind off the ex – meanwhile flaunting all the colors of her voice. The sexy follow-up, “Dally,” gives the cold shoulder to an ex-lover trying to resuscitate a long-dead relationship. Hyolyn glows as always, but it’s her enticing and commanding choreography that keeps her ahead of the pack.
Another Produce 101 alum making a name for herself is scrappy rapper Jeon Soyeon. Her buoyant 2017 debut song, “Jelly,” was a pleasant surprise, considering she’d been on the down-low since competing on Produce 101, followed by TV rap competition, Unpretty Rapstar in 2016. Jeon Soyeon unlocks her inner actress and master storyteller in “Idle Song,” where she considers shaking up a stale relationship to see if it’s worth saving. She owns the role of lethargic girlfriend but her flow doesn’t suffer for it, remaining characteristically sharp as ever. Although she can clearly hold her own as a soloist, Soyeon will soon join the ranks of Cube Entertainment’s newest girl group, (G)-Idle.
Jo Woochan, Park Hyunjin and Achillo
They may be barely out of grade school, but 13-year-olds Jo Woochan, Park Hyunjin and Achillo are already bolder than rappers twice their age. Their latest song is titled “OGZ” – which is a mash-up of the term O.G. and Korean word ojida, meaning brilliant and talented. The song delivers just that: a trio of gifted young rappers unafraid to let listeners know just how exceptional they are. Jo Woochan has appeared on televised rap competition Show Me the Money, where he outlasted most of the much older and more seasoned contestants, and Park Hyunjin won the last season of K-pop Star, a TV competition à la American Idol in which three entertainment companies audition artists to find the next big thing. But it’s Achillo, the only one of the three without reality-TV fame, who brings the most bite in his verse. He goes straight for the jugular and calls out the struggling rappers of Seoul’s hip Hongdae district for not rapping as much as they “puff and pass.” These three rappers are cute as heck, but they also write a mean verse and deliver it with the kind of bravado that only teenage boys could muster.
Thanks to their unconventional debut strategy, girl group Loona have already amassed a strong global following. Since October of 2016, each member has revealed themselves each month with a single and music video. From the dramatic strings of HaSeul’s “Let Me In,” to YeoJin’s cute and theatrical “Kiss Later” and Kim Lip’s smoldering “Eclipse,” the members of Loona have already shown impressive range in song and character. All the while they’ve been building their elaborate Loonaverse with members’ stories overlapping – inspiring online study groups to decode all their music videos and examine the relationships between them. Even Kim Chi (of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame) is on board, tweeting almost daily about her love for the group. The 12th and final member of the group, Olivia Hye, was revealed last month. Her single, “Egoist,” echoes the sentiments of fellow member Go Won’s self-love anthem, “One & Only,” and reinforces the triumph of a post-breakup rebirth by crashing synths – leaving a song as expansive as the world Loona has created.
For those easing into K-pop, energetic girl group Momoland will help make the transition smoother. With a playful sensibility, the group’s nine members each bring their own touch of whimsy to the mix. Fans of BTS may recognize tendrils of “DNA” in the bass line of Momoland’s latest track, “BBoom BBoom.” The group shows off their campy side in the song’s cable-shopping-network–inspired video, selling everything from makeup to soft drinks to plungers – including a surprise rap break – with all the enthusiasm and overacting of the best infomercials. Perhaps this year the public will finally buy what Momoland is selling.
NCT (Neo Culture Technology)
NCT is SM Entertainment’s boy group of the future. Comprised of 18 members (so far), NCT is the label’s most ambitious project, designed for optimal global reach. The full lineup charged onto the scene last week with their potent single, “Black on Black” – although they’ve previously released music as smaller sub-units. The sexy kingpins of NCT U, the more rowdy NCT 127, and the most junior group, NCT Dream were the first groups to debut – and they are primed for world domination. But it’s “Baby Don’t Stop,” the latest release spotlighting Ten and Taeyong of NCT U, that really affirms their boss status. The crafty bass line, Taeyong’s confident rapping and Ten’s sensual singing make for a mesmerizing performance piece. The label intends to add even more members, based in different cities around the world.
Oh My Girl
Dreamy girl group Oh My Girl debuted in 2015 with the bright and bubbly “Cupid” and has consistently delivered solid singles since. After exploring a range of styles over the past couple of years with mixed reception, Oh My Girl finally cemented themselves as a serious pop contender with this year’s exquisite “Secret Garden.” But their latest effort, “Banana Allergy Monkey,” takes the ethereal brightness of their last single into dangerously kooky-cute territory. With sweet and silly choreography to match, the song centers a monkey with an unfortunate allergy. Even though its humor easily befits a children’s TV show, “Banana Allergy Monkey” is a bona fide summer jam.
Half-Korean, half-Mexican singer and dancer Samuel Kim Arredondo has been training to be a K-pop star since he was 11. He first trained with pop group Seventeen before forming one half of short-lived hip hop duo 1Punch – but he made his real breakout as a contender in the second season of Produce 101. Showing strong performances throughout the competition and consistently ranking high in audience votes, Samuel seemed like a shoo-in for the final group. But in one of the season’s biggest surprises, he placed 18th in the final round. Resilient as ever, the now 16-year-old performer debuted as a soloist shortly after the show with his carefree single, “Sixteen.” Everything about his latest offering is best described as slick – his dance moves, his self-assured lyrics, even the glossy sheen of his hair.