B.A.P's "Warrior": Ready for Battle
So last year I wrote a lengthy post about boy bands and how the market for them is getting seriously crowded. I predicted that boy bands would have a harder time distinguishing them from the pack, and would really have to bring it both musically and performance-wise in order to make their mark on the music scene. After Block B's debut, I pretty much stopped following the new boy bands (and girl groups) because there were just too many of them, and I couldn't bring myself to care.
However, after hearing the buzz about B.A.P, the new boy band from Secret's management, TS Entertainment, I decided to check them out. I have to say, I was pretty impressed. I'd been keeping my eye on Bang Yong-guk ever since his duet with Song Ji-eun, and he and his crew basically came in ready to fight their way to the top. I promise not to make any more puns, but I can't help but find their debut song and concept really appropriate: k-pop has become a very serious competition for chart awards, sales and fans, and if you don't go in willing to give all you've got to make it, you get left. B.A.P knows it, and the song almost comes across as a message: watch out world, we're coming for ya.
"Warrior" is a great track, though it may not be obviously good or immediately appealing. It's not particularly new in terms of sound, though it does stand out from the myriad of electronic, four-on-the-floor tracks, with it's mid-tempo hip-hop beat. It also starts off fairly low-key, slowly building until the last chorus, by which time you're bobbing your head and singing along. It's surprisingly un-catchy, yet I find myself listening to it over and over again. The vocals are solid, the rapping is on point, with Zelo giving Block B's Zico a run for his money in the speed-rapping department, and even the sub-vocalists/rappers make the most of their eight-second appearances.
Their performances are also great and full of energy, despite not having a dancey beat or particularly complicated choreo. There's something about the controlled aggression they bring with their performance that really appeals to me. It's a nice change from the "beast" concept that has been popularized by 2PM and has pretty much dominated the boy band scene in terms of strong masculine imagery. They're not dressing in all black, rocking guyliner and ripping off their shirts, but they're showing their strength and skill and discipline in a very controlled way. They're definitely influenced by the performance tradition of African-American fraternities in the US - the stepping that they do at the dance break is an obvious example of that. The performance also reminds me of the haka that the New Zealand rugby team does at the beginning of their matches. Check out the videos below for examples of stepping and haka.
(Ignore the over-dramatics in this video - it's from a movie, Stomp The Yard. Couldn't find a real-life example with decent camerawork.)
I like that B.A.P plays to their strengths and doesn't try to be too poppy, but still show that they can do a diverse group of songs. "Secret Love" (below) is a fantastic track featuring Song Ji-eun, who sounds particularly good here, foregoing the belting for a softer sound. It's all acoustic low-key goodness, with mellow rapping and a hint of Spanish guitar in the chorus. I think it'll be a hit with people who aren't big fans of the typical k-pop sound. It's definitely the opposite side of the spectrum from "Warrior" and "Unbreakable" but somehow fits B.A.P like a glove.
All in all, this was a strong debut. I went back and watched all of the boy-band debuts of the past year out of boredom/curiosity, and few stood out (CHAOS and MYNAME seem the most promising). B.A.P has definitely knocked out most of the competition with this one, and I suspect they'll weather the storm and stick around for a minute longer than their peers. It's funny because while I'm still skeptical about EXO's upcoming debut, I think SM may be smarter than I originally thought - their latest teasers showcase some decent rapping, which to me is a sign that they're getting ready to duke it out with B.A.P and other hot up-and-comers for the top spot. You can always tell that a k-pop group is serious when their rappers aren't just pretty boys with deep voices. Could it be possible that the saturation of the k-pop market is actually forcing people to make better music? I'll remain hesitantly hopeful on that point.