Despite Korean music's worldwide renown as "K-pop," the limiting moniker can diminish the importance of hip-hop and R&B in the industry. Westernized Korean music rose to prominence in Korea in the '90s beginning with hip-hop crew Seo Taiji & Boys disrupting the music scene with their unique sound, and R&B has an even longer history in the country. Even the most bubblegum K-pop acts incorporate those genres into their repertoire, and many idol groups have members who serve as (sometimes decent) rappers. But it's only been in the past few years that hip-hop has returned to the mainstream Korean music industry in earnest. The revival in popularity is spearheaded by many acts -- Epik High, MFBTY, idol groups like BTS and BIGBANG -- but three of its leading talents recently came together to collaborate on "Bermuda Triangle."
Producer and rapper Zico (a member of the boy band Block B), alt R&B artist Dean, and smooth crooner Crush have each made an impact on the Korean music industry with their solo and collaborative projects. Released on Nov. 28, their single "Bermuda Triangle" is a dark, minimalistic synth and bass-heavy song that focuses on the threesome's slick vocals.
Each artist delivers verses in a style that suits his individual musicality: Dean's falsetto and rapid-fire vocals bookend the song while Zico's alternating rap flow is delivered over an off-kilter beat. Crush takes a break from his usual sentimentality, and instead offers up a bravado-filled rap. Technically the song is a Zico track featuring Dean and Crush, but all three artists hold their own, although there's not necessarily an overall sense of identity through "Bermuda Triangle."
The collaboration is a self-aware ode to the success that each of the artists has seen in the past few years. Blustering lyrics like "In a few years, we naturally took over the media" reference the trio's ascendency: 2015 and 2016 saw the three gain momentum with multiple releases, many of which saw immense popularity in Korea and internationally. Zico's "I Am You, You Are Me" was one of the most listened-to songs in Korea this year, while Dean's debut EP appeared on multiple Billboard charts in 2016. Crush has also become one of Korea's most popular artists and currently is a featured vocalist on three songs charting in Korea ("Bermuda Triangle," Geeks' "Sometimes", and Loco's "Still"). All three artists performed at North America's largest Korean music event, KCON USA, this summer.
"Bermuda Triangle" is filled with numerous references to the success of K-pop's rising triumvirate, including a shout out to the year they were all born (1992). But some of the swaggering lyrics are more than a little problematic. Like many other Korean artists attempting to prove their street cred by referencing hip-hop's roots in African-American culture, Zico delivers a racially-tinged line: "Bermuda, We're yellow people but I got black soul." This isn't the first time Zico's included insensitive lyrics in his songs. Zico's first solo track, 2012's "Tough Cookie," also garnered condemnation from international K-pop fans for derogatory language and for the rapper wearing a leather jacket with a Confederate flag on it in the song's music video.
Aside from their songs, Zico, Crush, and Dean have also helped shape the genre, both as producers (Zico's produced for countless acts and Dean created hits for idol groups like EXO and VIXX) and featured artists. Zico appeared as a judge during the 2014 season of the widely popular rap competition series, Show Me The Money, while Crush and Dean also participated in Show Me The Money and its sibling program, Unpretty Rapstar. Both shows were created by the Korean television channel Mnet, and their existence helped spur the lethargic hip-hop scene.
The channel's Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) takes place on Friday, Dec. 2 and the trio will perform "Bermuda Triangle" on a special stage with Wiz Khalifa. Gallant and Timbaland are also performing at MAMA 2016.
Watch the video for "Bermuda Triangle" below.