Artist Spotlight: Samuel

What happens when you put together Latin roots and K-pop? The answer lies in singer and dancer Samuel Arredondo Kim. Known as Samuel in the K-pop scene, he was born in Los Angeles to a Korean mother and a Mexican father, making him one of the few Latino K-pop stars. He became a huge hit at just 15-years-old, proving that age is really just a number.

When Samuel, now 16-years-old, first made his solo debut last August, he immediately caught my attention as well as the attention of many others. And not just because of his unique cultural background. He possesses certain star qualities and a seemingly inborn talent that distinguishes him from others in the industry. His career began at a very young age when he appeared in commercials for a Volkswagen dealership in Bakersfield. In these videos, we see a young and goofy Samuel, gushing about the cars on screen, constantly flashing a cheeky smile. He even sports an oversized suit and tie and speaks fluent Korean, adding to his more-than-adorable image. His comfort and ease in front of the camera makes it obvious that Samuel was born to be a star.

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At age 11, he moved to Korea to begin his training with Pledis Entertainment. While a trainee, he was in the lineup to become a member of boy group Seventeen and appeared in the live broadcast series, Seventeen TV. In these broadcasts it is not difficult to spot Samuel as he is the youngest of the group and quite visible. He is so small compared to the others, that before watching the video, I questioned whether or not he was a part of the group and whether or not his skills would be up to par. However, when he starts to dance, there is no doubt: it is indeed the young prodigy. In fact, he dances with such skill that he blends in with the rest of the group despite the obvious height difference. Unfortunately, Samuel left Pledis Entertainment and was unable to become a member of Seventeen.

That’s okay though, as it did not stop Samuel from pursuing a career as a K-pop idol. In fact, it was probably for the better as he embarked on a path that would transform him into the Samuel we see today. Shortly after leaving Pledis Entertainment, he signed with Brave Entertainment and became one half of the hip-hop duo 1Punch. They debuted in January 2015 with “Turn Me Back,” the title track of their album, The Anthem. The music video shows Samuel, now a preteen, sporting dreads and an outfit that is highly characteristic of the hip-hop genre. Though his appearance is drastically different, it is still undoubtedly Samuel as only he could possess such advanced dancing skills at such a young age. Although the “Turn Me Back” music video does not adequately show off his full skillset, Samuel is still able to give off a hip (yet adorable) vibe that catches people’s attention.

Not long after their debut, 1Punch disbanded after fellow member One joined YG Entertainment. However, Samuel retained his stage name “Punch” and collaborated with American rapper Silentó in “Spotlight.” This catchy single won them the 26th Seoul Music Award for Global Collaboration, and Samuel later went on tour with Silentó. The fact that he was able to go on tour at his young age proves he has the stamina and qualities of a star and was a good indicator of his future successes.

Samuel’s next big moment came when he joined the survival reality show Produce 101’s second season at the beginning of 2017. He immediately stood out to viewers with his indisputable talent, and even co-choreographed his team’s performances. One of Samuel’s most memorable performances was his performance of Chris Brown’s “With You,” where he displayed incredible footwork and, to the viewers’ pleasant surprise, even lifted his shirt to give a quick peek of his abs. It’s evident through this performance that Samuel has grown and matured so much since he first began his career in Korea. He was such a favorite throughout the show, that people were shocked when he ultimately did not end up making the cut for the 11-member boy group.

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Samuel’s true breakout moment came in August 2017, when he finally made his solo debut with “Sixteen,” the title track of his album.. Just when we thought he couldn’t get better (or cooler), he did. Sixteen was so successful, that the first batch of physical copies sold out, with the title track reaching number one on the iTunes worldwide album charts in Vietnam, Indonesia, and other Asian countries. It’s clear to see why: “Sixteen” is such an irresistibly fun bop that it’s quite impossible to not feel the urge to jam and dance along to it. In the video, we also see an obvious transformation in the young idol’s image. Instead of the adorable persona he once exhibited, viewers find themselves charmed by his cool charisma and attractive visuals. If that wasn’t enough, his vocals and choreography once again improved by tenfold, wowing fans even more.

Not long after that, Samuel released his second album, Eye Candy, in November 2017, which didn’t disappoint with its equally catchy songs. His most recent release was his birthday single, “Winter Night,” which he released January 16, one day before his birthday. Although the rhythm is slower than what we are used to from him, it still shows off his awesome vocals, proving that he is capable of a diverse range of musical styles.

As Samuel has already accomplished so much at such a young age, it’s exciting to see what else he will achieve as he continues to grow in his career and all eyes are on him to see what he does next.

Let us know what you think of Samuel in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

SHINee, Wonder Girls & T-ara: Single Roundup Review

Wonder Girls
Sometimes I think I’m not harsh enough on K-pop releases. Nearly every one of my reviews has been overwhelmingly positive. Those were all genuinely great releases, though, and I don’t think any differently now. Maybe K-pop is not as perfect as I thought it was, and I was adjusting my opinions to fit that. Then this week happened. Three titans of K-pop SHINee, Wonder Girls, and T-ara released equally exceptional new songs. As the kids would say, what a time to be alive.

These vanguards of K-pop are also a good example of a few different sides of the genre. Wonder Girls and SHINee deliver perfect 80/70s throwbacks in different ways and T-ara pull off the best generic Brave Brothers track since AOA’s “Miniskirt”.

SHINee “Married to the Music”

SHINee already showed us that they had the 90s sound and look down to a tee, and this time they take on the music of the 70s. Michael Jackson’s style in particular can be heard, which isn’t a surprise given his clear influence on Taemin’s solo and SHINee’s concept in general.

The first thing you’ll notice about “Married to the Music” is how wacky and fun the video is. It takes most of its inspiration from the 1975 cult classic, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It shows the boys from SHINee drinking some weird drinks that change their disposition (alcohol! gasp!) and having a wild time in a creepy house. Heads are chopped off, eyeballs popped out as events get stranger by the second. It is by far the most fun video of the year so far. It’s great to see SM actually trying with their videos as well. When they actually put effort in, and take SM artists outside of boxes, SM Entertainment makes the best video they have ever done.

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It’s disappointing then that the lyrics don’t match up with the video at all then. They’re pretty standard, about loving a girl. Even the music metaphor isn’t interesting as it’s always about the girl and not actual music, which could have been cool and unsurprising given SHINee’s seeming love of music, especially Jonghyun.

This disappointment doesn’t last long though as the song more than makes up for it. “Married to the Music” continues the retro theme with funky aplomb. The thing I really like about this song is the wide use of actual instruments over electronics. Apart from the drums it sounds like an actual band could have played this. The wandering bass that carries the song is particularly satisfying and reminiscent of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. The slick guitars provide the funk like no synths can. That’s not to say it’s devoid of electronics though, they are used sparingly to good effect at louder parts of the song like Minho’s rap. The song is a blast and has no trouble keeping up with the outrageous video.

Wonder Girls “I Feel You”

The throwbacks continue with the return of the legendary Wonder Girls. I got into K-pop in late 2011 so missed most of the Wonder Girls mania. So, they never really meant a lot to me apart from having some good songs. However, when the teaser came out for “I Feel You”, the single for their new rebooted band lineup, I fell in love. The MTV inspired video and 80s synth-pop sound appeared so perfectly realised. With the release of the video, this love turned out to be complete.

Like SHINee, it’s the dedication to being retro that really sets Wonder Girls apart. So often recently we have seen groups tack on the most obvious elements of 80s or 90s pop to make their song a retro throwback. The general sound and look of these songs are usually still quite modern, though, so it tends not to work. What Wonder Girls have done is transport the 80s to today and given it modern production values and edgy sexiness. Even with that, “I Feel You,” still sounds like it could have been from the actual 80s.

This is clearly evident in the synth hook that introduces the song. It’s an intoxicating riff that doesn’t outstay its welcome and eventually becomes the hook of the song. This is why the actual chorus comes across as quite flat at first. Sunmi’s softer, kind of talk singing over the chorus doesn’t inspire you to sing along but allows the synth riff to shine once she’s finished. It also works to carry over the sensual feeling of the verse which features similar sexy, whispered vocals. The addition of rapping that can sometimes make a retro K-pop track quite jarring doesn’t even stop “I Feel You” for a moment. Yubin’s deep, sensual voice fits perfectly with the rest of the vocals making her rap more a slightly faster verse than a whole new part.

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The music video also completely nails the 80s retro feel. The attention to detail in some of the images is brilliant and quite funny at times. If you ever thought the video was kind of cheesy at times, don’t worry: That’s the point. The opening is probably my favourite where Sunmi turns to the camera, smiles then zips down her shorts to reveal the group on stage. For whatever reason the turn before she smiles makes it for me; it seems unnecessary but works so well. I also love the shots of the girls as they rap the post-chorus part. They have two of the girls in each shot and pull focus as they rap. It’s the type of shot that would never be seen today and is the kind of detail that makes this song and video one of the best of the year so far.

T-ara “So Crazy”

For better or worse, Brave Brothers has become a mainstay of the K-pop environment. His safe but effective music has been increasingly popular in the last few years making him the go to guy for a hit. So his pairing with the once loved T-ara is an appropriate one. Ever since their scandal in 2012, T-ara have had a hard time regaining their popularity in Korea. Instead they have mainly focused on promoting in China where they have had unprecedented success. They, of course, have not given up on their home country though and are teaming up with Brave Brothers for “So Crazy” their new single.

While “So Crazy” stays true to the Brave Brothers form in structure and use of sounds, it is still an incredibly exciting track. It moves at intense speeds. The song doesn’t quite explode until the first chorus but the opening verse is deceptively quick and full to the brim with different sounds. Bouncing horns and layered vocals build anticipation before the song takes off. Its a sound that fits T-ara like few other groups. Their vocals lend to the high-pitched layers especially using the slightly weaker Jiyeon with a stronger vocal like Hyomin’s or Soyeon’s.

“So Crazy” is Brave Brothers at his absolute best. Of the three songs I’ve talked about so far, it is probably the least interesting and yet it remains the most exciting and listenable. His ‘oh oh oh’ hook once again works its magic. The song has an unhinged quality that is usually absent in Brave Brothers songs. It hits all the same beats as any recent AOA song yet there is always so much going that it never bores and feels like it could lift off into the stratosphere at any time.

What do you think of these three songs and of the current state of K-pop? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter,Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Brave Brothers and the Culture Industry

K-pop exists in a strange musical universe in which the biggest labels can afford to take creative risks and produce the most diverse range of music while the smaller labels have to play it safe and bet on already successful names. While the big three companies (SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment) often buy songs from foreign songwriters (SHINee’s Lucifer, Girls’ Generation’s Run Devil Run) or use in-house producers, all the smaller labels rely on outside Korean hitmakers to write and produce potential chart toppers. While there are benefits to both methods, the reliance on using the same third party producers is having a negative effect on the creativity of the industry.

In recent times, Brave Brothers (Kang Dong Chul) has been one of the most successful of third party Korean producers. Ever since Sistar’s Alone in 2012, he has been the most prolific and profitable. This song, which promoted Sistar from a lower tier girl group to the top tier of Korean girl groups, gave him a template to work off in order to continue creating commercially and critically successful music. That template is one of a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure with similar melodies and usually some sort of hook with “oooohs.” With this template Brave Brothers has led K-Pop into a conveyor belt system.

This may not seem strange to any regular viewer of pop culture as all other pop music markets are the same, but the timing of this for K-Pop makes it even more disheartening. The music landscape of South Korea had been going in an interesting direction with the trend of songs that played with the structure and average traits of a pop song instead of simple “template” songs.

SM were the leaders of this direction with EXO’s Mama, Wolf and Girls’ Generation’s I Got A Boy amongst others. These were songs that required and rewarded repeat listens. They played with the idea of what a pop song could strive to be and saw something so much more than just another cookie cutter production. When they were jarring, they were meant to be so in order to make the listeners actually think about what they were hearing. Even when they weren’t jarring, it was because the songs were produced so masterfully that it was not as noticeable but still always there. They were songs with no obvious chorus or hook, the exact opposite of what Brave Brothers produces.

This style of pop song is not one that is ever consistently popular, however. The fact that this trend lasted over a year in Korea was really exciting. One could see a possible changing of the industry with songs that did not conform to a factory accepted product, somewhere where creativity was put ahead of economy. This was all wishful thinking however, as the paying public did not agree and the companies reverted back to tried and tested ways. Focusing just on SM Entertainment we can see where this failure came from. I Got A Boy was a small seller in terms of the Girls’ Generation giant and received a lot of backlash from fans while EXO experienced their biggest hit with Growl, which was a more standard kind of song compared to Wolf and MAMA.

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At the same time as this progression, Brave Brothers’ regression was also happening. After the success of Sistar, songs like Gone Not Around Any Longer by Sistar19, Love Options by BESTie and 4minute’s two singles, What’s Your Name? and Is It Poppin? (which sound somewhat different but are in fact structurally the same with a few new bells and whistles) were the biggest hits for these groups’ careers. The simple structure and catchiness of these songs were the final forewarnings before his total takeover in 2014.

AOA’s Miniskirt and Short Hair, BTOB’s Beep Beep, Hyorin’s One Way Love, and Hyomin’s Nice Body were all big hits for these singers. Even JYP Entertainment succumbed to the trend, with Sunmi’s Full Moon bringing rave reviews. SM’s most trendy group, EXO, released another simple song Overdose and was again hugely successful at the same time as F(x)’s more ambitious Red Light faltered in terms of sales in comparison.

You might think this is not so bad. These are mostly great songs but there is something deeper going on here and this can be explained with help from German philosopher and critic Theodore Adorno. A little bit of history first. Adorno was part of the Frankfurt School, which was a Marxist school of theorists who wrote about many ideas regarding society but mostly centred on media and communications, which was active from around the 1920s to 1950s. Adorno was a major figure in the school and wrote extensively about popular culture and its effect on society at large. He wrote about pop culture as a culture industry, in that it had ceased to be an artistic endeavour and became a purely money making business.

This is where Adorno connects for us. We have seen that this is where K-Pop has reached finally but that is still not the most troubling thing. Adorno’s theory continues to say that this culture industry eventually does more than just make money but also serves the state in keeping the masses in line with their views. In musical terms this means that these songs are being created in an identical way in order to stop us from critically thinking about them and in turn nullifying our ability to critically think about any aspect of our lives.

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For me the work of Brave Brothers falls directly into this category. His recent work has had a profound influence on the rest of the industry and continues to be some of the most recognized. This is a direct problem for the state of music in South Korea and indicative of the conservatism of the country itself.

Considering pop music’s effect on society and how it reflects society is crucial for understanding and helping it grow. Right now, K-Pop is in a precarious position of completely yielding to the Brave Brothers template and being forever stuck with it. If the answer is not in I Got A Boy or Red Light then there is another way out there which we have probably seen before. It could be the melding of western and eastern styles we see so often or in the trot tradition of South Korea itself. Ultimately though, I don’t think there is an answer that can truly change the status quo.

Do you think Brave Brothers’ music is bad for the industry or do you love his music? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.