First Impressions: "Kpop Star 2" Winners Akdong Musician Debut Under YG

I'm back! (That phrase has become a regular fixture on my posts, I'm sorry.) March was a really deadly month for me, because I was literally drowning in schoolwork -- If you follow me on instagram, I have a picture of my desk there. So once the semester was finally over I spent a whole week just getting my brain back in shape, and another plotting this comeback, complete with a new look and a super late sixth birthday post! But this is my first proper piece in months, so bear with me as I try and get back into the groove. (I have a four-month summer ahead of me though, so I can't use school as an excuse anymore. T_T)
When I started this series in January the main assertion I wanted to prove, for reasons personal and otherwise, was that there is so much more to a debut than just the music. In more recent years I've stayed away from the politics and business side of the pop I discuss here in favor of highlighting the musical and artistic because I believe that they are the foundations of the industry, but now I feel confident enough in my writing to be able to tackle both at the same time. Because as I hope this series will prove, when politics and artistry work together (instead of trying to overpower the other) magic can and will happen.

Akdong Musician is a very interesting case in point not just because of their debut package, but because of how the stage was set for it. Over a year ago on the second season of SBS' talent show KPop Star, which the sibling duo won around this time last year. Kpop Star 2 was honestly the most interesting season for me because several of the acts who eventually made it to the live shows staged creative, sometimes out-of-the-box, performances. Of course the "just singers" contestants couldn't be taken out of the picture completely, but Akdong Musician's win said a lot about the acts Season 2 had to offer.

Throughout the show AKMU performances, whether covers or their own compositions, very quickly established a sound for them. The best description I have for AKMU style based on their time on KPop Star 2 is that it's clever. Their performances were clever lyrically, something the judges did point out numerous times, but the duo can manipulate arrangements as well as they can verse -- all while churning out countless hooks and some gorgeous, gorgeous melodies. They know their music, but they also know their pop and moreover, they're unafraid to let the two seemingly opposing qualities work together. Because of this, AKMU performances were the epitome of substance being a means of achieving style. One of my favorite instances of this clever creativity is their "Mmbop" cover, where they not only covered a song previously performed by runner-up Yedam, but also snuck in a section with hooks of the other songs Yedam covered. It's fun, it's catchy, and you don't expect all the bells and whistles -- but they're there and they work together seamlessly.

A concern I've always had for talent shows that aimed to find "K-Pop" acts and put them through a process of manufacturing after their time on those shows is that that's not the way K-Pop works. There is so much emphasis on the "formal" debut under an agency, especially one as big as YG in the case of AKMU, and so the agency is very much involved (as seen through acts such as WIN or EXO). This involvement starts way before the actual debut, and obviously include decisions as important as musical direction, packaging and how to build hype pre-debut.

The "problem" this set-up raises is not so much a problem for AKMU, or even for listeners who knew and liked them during their talent show days -- it's a problem for YG, hence the quotation marks. YG had minuscule control, if not absolutely none, over the public exposure AKMU received pre-debut. Their agency had little involvement in manufacturing them, because they signed on as not only already a duo, but one that had established a sound and identity via Kpop Star. To change that would be to risk losing the fan base they had already built (which is often considered a good thing) if the change isn't received well, and to a certain extent starting from scratch. The duo aren't like Lee Hi, whose identity was her voice -- substance, not style like AKMU. Which is why on one hand out of the three choices YG was the most plausible, but on the other none of them really stood out as a perfect fit for the duo.

Which is why I think AKMU's debut is all about compromise.

The main compromise of course is the cleverness of their compositions to fit a more "mass-oriented" market (the idea of which I myself had to compromise with my own leanings). While Chanhyuk had a hand in the entire album, it's obvious that he had to tone down a lot of the things that made AKMU stand out as Kpop Star contestants. But the operative word is "tone down," which the album has shown to be a very masterful toning down.

This compromise is seen most clearly in one of their lead singles, "Melted." At first glance it sounds nothing like AKMU and more like a Lee Hi track, and for the most part it really is -- a monotonous melody, an even more monotonous hook, melodramatic strings and a relatively "bare" arrangement with no bass line. But that's all style, and we need to remember that one of AKMU's strong suits is their ability to use substance as a means of achieving style. That no matter how established their style is, they are proficient enough to know the substance behind it and are able to apply it to seemingly unsuited styles. It's in the structure of "Melted" -- the relay-like transition at 1:13 before the chorus that sees the two melodic lines overlapping as a means of giving the song more weight and dynamics, or the return of clever rhymes in the lyrics that give the monotonous melody a stronger sense of rhythm. While as a whole I would have liked to hear more cleverness and I don't think "Melted" does them justice at all, the fact that they were able to work around their limitations and compromise effectively says a lot about their proficiency as a unit and AKMU's highly possible lasting-power as a KPop act.

But of course, their substance is best paired the style they pulled off so well last year -- the fun, young, upbeat "acoustic" -- and it's for that reason that my initial favorite track from "Play" was "Give Love," which was recently announced as the third single. This is a song that screams AKMU, most probably because it was written before they signed to YG and was merely revised for inclusion on the album. It allows the playfulness of the substance seen through the rhythmic rhyming lyrics, the lively, graceful melody and tight arrangement to translate into the style with elements like the snappy drum line or the vocal techniques that fit the upbeat melody, as well as playful additions to the instrumental like the harmonica and chymes. But at the same time it's extremely catchy with a singable melody and a melodically catchy hook. "Give Love" sounds marketable, but the means by which that sound was achieved wasn't as simple or "brainless." That "Give Love" is now a single on top of being included in "Play" is proof that, one way or another, YG has allowed AKMU significant creative freedom and has built upon the identity they established prior to signing to the agency.

I would have liked to see more "Give Love"s in AKMU's debut, of course. But given the circumstances, mainly the duo's unusually interesting circumstances in relation to the mainstream K-Pop industry they entered upon signing to YG, I'd say this was an effective debut. Their well-established identity was introduced to the mainstream in various levels through the varying ratios and choices of style and substance in the singles chosen. AKMU's debut is effective because they know how to compromise with YG and K-Pop's expectations while keeping what defines them as a musical act. And it takes talent to do that, talent this sibling duo have shown time and time again, through competing in Kpop Star 2 and now through their debut package.


  1. Great review! I am really enjoying their album and I am glad that Yang Hyun Suk was as hands off as possible with the creation of the album. I look forward to more of their work for sure!

  2. A lot of the songs on the album were written before they signed with YG, you can look in Youtube, the videos are there

  3. I think i see the album a bit differently.
    Because i think melted was not a compromise or a tone down from AKMU, but it actually their attempts on broaden their image in the public. I got this impression when i read that melted was chosen by AKMU as their 2nd title song.
    Even in Kpopstar, they have this heavy with quite dark melody song called optical illusion which totally different from their initial impression, so they already have it from the beginning not because they're compromising. But public had already inlove and associate them to this fun, young, upbeat image. So I think with melted, they're trying to loosen up that image, so they won't be retricted by it later.
    However, i agree that they did this album masterfully, as they not change their style completely, but slowly introduce their listeners another side of them in the album. (melted and hello in their album had this kind of heavy and dark melody in them)
    nonetheless, it's such a great album overall for me.


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