BTS and BLACKPINK still rule the K-pop roost, but competition within South Korea’s pop industry is both gruelling and fierce, with a group debuting (seemingly) every other week.
So, when ENHYPEN (part of the Hybe family, alongside BTS) made their much-awaited first comeback on April 26 via a live-streamed press conference with new single “Drunk-Dazed,” they rather aptly called the music landscape a “battlefield,” noting that between the latest groups (known as the K-pop’s fourth generation of idols) there is a war to be the hottest and the best.
The fourth generation includes groups such as Stray Kids, ITZY, ATEEZ, and TXT, all of whom debuted after 2018 and have already achieved significant success across the globe. They’ve been joined by a slew of rookie idols looking to make their own mark on the world of music.
Here are seven of the best new K-pop stars you need to listen to right now.
Members: Sumin, Sieun, Isa, Seeun, Yoon, and J
Debuted: November 2020
Korea’s “idol” music, with its progressive-pop values, has long emphasized saturated colors, glitchy synths and tweaked-out vocals, lending a sense of euphoria to its millions of fans. StayC’s debut single, “So Bad,” arrived with a bubblegum-pink bang, its traditional fly-high pop chorus beefed up with club bass and twitchy flourishes that sound like the voice message button on South Korea’s messaging app KakaoTalk being repeatedly and impatiently pressed.
They were an instant hit, and their EP, Staydom, made them the rookie girl group with the highest first-week sales of 2020 to 2021. When you’ve got Black Eyed Pilseung (South Korea’s celebrated songwriting/production duo) as your CEO and producer, prepare to expect the unexpected.
Members: Keeho, Theo, Jiung, Intak, Soul, and Jongseob
Debuted: October 2020
A much-debated topic over the past few years has been idol “noise music.” Loosely categorized by fans as disjointed K-pop, it contains ultra-heavy electronic beats (often influenced by rave culture) and mechanical sounds, for example, Red Velvet’s “Zimzalabim” (2019). P1Harmony’s second single, “Scared,” sits in the middle of this divisive genre, but it’s where you really sense their bigger potential. Alongside the clanging metallic hook, they deliver a rallying call for self-belief to outsiders. Their latest EP, Disharmony: Break Out, is wall-to-wall social observations, and a must-listen for those who like their K-pop loud, high-energy and defiant.
Members: Karina, Giselle, Winter and NingNing
Debuted: November 2020
Aespa are SM Entertainment’s first new girl group since 2014, and excitement reached fever pitch for their debut single, “Black Mamba” (2020), whose simple “Aya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya” hook embedded into the brain with frightening ease. Their visual concept is rooted in digital art, AI and virtual reality: Aespa contains four human members and four virtual ones. How the two sets of girls interact with each other, and potentially their fans, was demonstrated through a short video called “My, Karina,” but with only two tracks thus far released, we’re yet to see SM’s tentpole ideas (and Aespa’s storyline) in action. “Black Mamba” has racked up a staggering 141 million views in just five months, however, so there’s clearly no shortage of fans waiting for that moment.
Members: Heeseung, Jay, Jake, Sunghoon, Sunoo, Jungwon, and Ni-Ki
Debuted: November 2020
Having formed through survival show I-Land, a joint venture between K-pop giants Big Hit (now Hybe) and CJ E&M, ENHYPEN amassed a huge fanbase before their debut EP, Border: Day One, had even dropped in November 2020. Their producer, Wonderkid (a.k.a. Kim Tae Yun), has delivered psychedelia and tinges of rock to their 2021 EP, Border: Carnival (which has notched up a staggering 400,000 pre-orders), putting down the bedrock to enhance ENHYPEN’s biggest strength: their stage performances. New single “Drunk-Dazed,” with its complex, demanding choreography, is well worth watching again and again and again.
Members: Park Ji-eun, Na Go-eun, Dosie, Ireh, Yuki, Chaein, and Swan
Debuted: March 2021
Two warm-up singles-the unapologetically ballsy rock of 2020’s My Heart Skip A Beat and R&B-pop of “Can We Talk Again” (2021-showed off the group’s range, while single “Ponzona” (2021) added yet another dimension to Purple Kiss. The track fused K-pop’s stalwart ‘girl crush’ concept with lashings of Billie Eilish and the darker, edgier feel of fellow K-Pop group (G)I-DLE.
No matter what you call this process-a jumble, a fusion, a melting pot-K-pop’s ability to create a coherent, engaging tapestry of sights and sounds from a dozen pop-culture references never fails to astound. Though one can never predict K-pop’s breakout acts from smaller agencies, by matching this alchemy to a group such as Purple Kiss whose presence can be felt even through a laptop screen, you may well be looking at the next big thing.
Members: Soojin, Jiyoon, Monday, Soeun, Jaehee, Jihan, and Zoa
Debuted: June 2020
It takes a strong will to resist Weeekly’s 2020 debut, “Tag Me (@Me),” with its brat-pop cuteness, which, like all good K-pop, marries a dozen styles including a wistful bridge and hyperactive outro. One of the industry’s advantages is that everyone is catered for, from gothic to candy-colored, hip-hop to balladry, serious to sentimental, and Weeekly-who nabbed the New Artist of the Year award at South Korea’s Melon Music Awards 2020-have released three EPs (2020’s We Can and We Are, and 2021’s We Play) that sparkle with some truly wholesome fare, particularly on B-sides “Top Secret,” “Butterfly” and “Lucky.” If your taste leans towards fizzy escapism, allow Weeekly to whisk you away.
Member: WOODZ (a.k.a. Cho Seung-youn)
Debuted: with UNIQ in 2014, X1 in 2019, as WOODZ in 2020
After years of bouncing from group to group, Cho Seung-youn found firm footing on his own as WOODZ, releasing 2020’s earworm “Love Me Harder.” His debut EP, Equal (2020), was a heady spin through perhaps too many styles and sounds, but on the second EP, 2020’s Woops!, he struck a groove with warm, acoustic-led pop-rock. His latest single, “Feels Like” (2021), is, arguably, his best. Breathy and seductive with treacly guitar riffs, this is WOODZ creatively pushing himself to the point where he sounds like no one else in K-pop’s current climate, and that alone demands attention.
Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.