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10 Best Korean Hip-Hop and R&B Albums of 2021

From techno to funk, loneliness, mental health and love, South Korea’s R&B and hip-hop artists delivered fearless reflections of themselves and the world we live in

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10. 4 Only – Lee Hi

Marking the singer-songwriter’s first studio album since her 2016 release Seoulite, AOMG’s Lee Hi makes a powerful return with her third Korean-language album, 4 Only. Collaborating with artists such as B.I., Yoonmirae and Wonstein, the 10-track studio album narrates the story of the protagonist experiencing the different forms of love and the emotions they bring. From anger to excitement, joy and sorrow, Lee Hi deep dives into the effects love has on our very souls. The composition is lively, rooting its foundation in synth-pop and neo-jazz. This approach is sonically different from her earlier R&B releases, a sign of her liberal yet creatively enriching approach when it comes to music. There is a sense of vocal resemblance across the tracks, but the similarities in her pitch and vocal range are complemented and balanced by the retro influences on the record, resulting in an ambient listening experience. –Divyansha Dongre

9. Demon Youth – Punchnello

Serving as Punchnello’s first studio album and first album release since winning the hip-hop reality show Show Me The Money in 2019, Demon Youth is a gritty and aggressive record rooted in techno and trap. The rapper attacks right from the get-go with “Yellow Tape,” a grimy dive into bass-heavy techno that sees him warning listeners they’re about to be thrown into dangerous territory, setting the tone of the LP. “9 to 5” is similarly unforgiving, growing more frantic as it slips into faster techno but addictive in a way that’s hard to describe. Tracks like “Who Need” featuring rapper Coogie and “Faded” do wonders to break the tension with their slower, bass-heavy beats — as does the album closer “Don’t Love Me” with its haunting take on string acoustics and synth — but there’s an eeriness that lingers throughout the LP that’s impossible to ignore. Demon Youth was written by Punchnello in a drunken haze and attributes its unsettling but addictive production to the rapper’s longtime collaborator KONSOLE. The unique production (reminiscent of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers), combined with Punchnello’s rapid verse delivery, are designed to slam you right in the face, the heavy electronica and (purposely) repetitive verses dizzying at certain points but strangely alluring and most definitely genius. –Riddhi Chakraborty

8. Bambi – Baekhyun

EXO member Baekhyun has stayed committed to delivering excellence, and his third EP Bambi is no exception. Right from his debut as a solo artist in 2019 with the EP City Lights, the vocalist has cemented himself as a powerful name in K-R&B in addition to his legacy in K-pop. His understanding of the genre is exceptional, and with Bambi he steps into experimentation, and reviving sounds from the late Nineties and early 2000s. The lead single “Bambi” (written by producer COLDE) is sexy, smooth, playful with a tinge of dark obsession and jumps into pure R&B reminiscent of greats like Usher, Maxwell and D’Angelo. “Cry For Love,” despite its anguish, is a victorious display of Baekhyun’s ability to hit notes most vocalists can only dream of. The Nineties-influenced “All I Got” (written by South Korean songwriting powerhouse Kenzie) is the absolute crowning glory on the six-track EP however, and sees Baekhyun unleash the full power of his voice from the first note itself. He cruises effortlessly through impossible vocal runs, flawless falsettos and quick key changes. Bambi is unforgettable, not just because of its lyrics or thematics, but due to Baekhyun’s outstanding vocal performance on each track. –R.C.

7. Life Is A Bi….- BIBI

Known for her signature dark-R&B and groovy pop influences, South Korean singer-songwriter BIBI offers introspection on life in her sophomore EP Life Is A Bi…. Co-written by the vocalist alongside Stevenc4stle, the record presents life as an endless loop of contrasting emotions that exist on different tangents. The gravitas of the overarching theme is balanced with a dreamy synth and R&B soundscape, underlined with faint reminisces of loop-based pop. Oscillating between laid-back beats and dark synth, the record is quintessentially BIBI with the inclusion of seductive number “BAD SAD AND MAD” and delightfully fresh lo-fi track “Life Is A Bi….” Her fresh and youthful vocalization further elevates the allure of the record, coloring it with strokes of tranquil hues. All-in-all, Life Is A Bi…. is a go-to EP for days you want to ruminate about life without coming out of your contemplation zone feeling miserable and glum. –D.D.

6. Point of View: U – YUGYEOM

Following GOT7’s departure from JYP Entertainment earlier this year, singer-songwriter and the group’s youngest member YUGYEOM moved to South Korea’s leading hip-hop and R&B label AOMG. His move to a label that houses accomplished musicians such as GRAY, Jay Park, Cha Cha Malone, Hoody and more immediately pushed the young vocalist to work on and release his solo debut EP, Point Of View: U. The seven-track record is an amorous sonic love letter dedicated to the gifted artist in him. In fact, during the first episode of YUGYEOM – Point Of View: U (a mini-documentary capturing the EP making process), he confessed to enjoying singing more than dancing when asked if he felt he’s “improved a lot.” The shift in preferences reflects on his mature vocal performances on this EP. As opposed to presenting a cascade of themes, YUGYEOM unveils the romantic in him with his take on love, passion and heartache. Primarily a sensual R&B record, Point Of View: U sees the producers introduce nuances of dark-synth, dreamy retro influences to groovy cues and laid-back pop beats, lending sonic depth to the EP. The soundscape and choice of themes allow YUGYEOM to swing between mellow notes to breathy, sensual vocalizations, attesting to the commitment to his art (especially in “When U Fall” and “Falling In Love,” where his vocal performance glows.) Through this record, we are also given a glimpse of YUGYEOM’s prowess for composition and writing, with the vocalist actively participating at both fronts. Unarguably, YUGYEOM’s evolution from the boundaries of an ‘idol’ into that of an artist standing on the cusp of tapping into the full potential of his artistry has been one of the biggest highlights of this year. –D.D.

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5. Epik High Is Here (Part 1) – Epik High

Fresh from the studio of Korean hip-hop’s frontrunners (and industry legends) is the January 2021 release, Epik High Is Here. Part 1. Boasting a stellar line-up of collaborating artists such as CL, HEIZE, G.Soul, ZICO, Changmo, Woo, Nucksal, Miso, B.I and Kim Sawol, Epik High’s 10th studio album is nothing short of exemplary lyricism and sonic reinvention. It is divided into two parts. The first part is about introspection and soul-searching with themes sprouting from the human psyche and realities of the pandemic. The pinnacle of the record lies in its lyricism (an Epik High staple), providing distinct perspectives on common misfortunes we face as a society. At its core, the album elucidates the adversities of a rather tectonic and unprecedented year with tracks such as “Based On A True Story,” “Social Distance 16,” “End Of The World” and “Wish You Were Here.” In true Epik High fashion, the trio carefully moves into a deep contemplation zone with “Lesson Zero,” “Acceptance Speech” and “Leica,” touching on subjects such as unlearning past habits, working on yourself and our foolish obsession to digitally capture moments as opposed to experiencing them. The album takes a somber approach with the reverbed alt-track “True Crime” that reiterates how misconstrued the idea of love has become due to government legislatures dictating what form of love is ‘acceptable’: “And whichever’s law may be broken/ love is love.” Undoubtedly, “Rosario” and “In Self-Defense” are added jewels to Epik High’s crown of badass hip-hop numbers, especially with the former track which drives home the complexities of fame and how haters continue to fuel success with the list of collaborative artists on the number. –D.D.

4. Alpha – CL

Released on October 20th, 2021, Alpha marked CL’s return to the spotlight. Stacked with powerful rap anthems, introspective ballads and spunky hip-hop numbers, CL’s 11-track album is a celebration of her identity and artistry. Owning her title of the Baddest Female, CL welcomes listeners into her sanctuary, brimming with motifs of power, identity, courage, passion and heartache. The contrast between the assortment of thematics acts as an introduction to the rapper-songwriter’s moniker (CL) as well as her persona behind the spotlight (Lee Chaerin). The album opens with “Spicy”, an unapologetic celebration of her Asian heritage and concludes with “5-Star”, an earnest portrayal of passion. On the surface, “Spicy” and “5-Star” stem from varying motifs, however, there’s a hidden sense of strength unifying both the tracks. While “Spicy” is your traditional power anthem with its high-energy rap-pop ensemble and bold lyricism, “5-Star”presents strength stemming from vulnerability. For an artist to break down their walls, a colossal amount of courage is needed – a challenge CL has seamlessly accomplished with Alpha. In fact, this altered perspective on power is experienced in CL’s intimate, break-up anthem (and fan favorite) “Lover Like Me.” In many ways, Alpha unlocked the door to CL’s world of iridescent thoughts, untold stories and alternate perspectives while fleshing out the artistic hues that have backed her illustrious career thus far. –D.D.

3. Island – Ash Island

Seeped in power, confidence and a touch of vulnerability, Island is one of the most powerful albums of 2021 and rightfully deserves all the recognition it gets. Rapper-producer Ash Island dives into raw emotion right at the start of his sophomore LP with “Melody,” a trap-synth ode to love lost and loneliness, before shifting into denial and anger on “Okay,” and then acceptance on the punk-rap “Over.” He’s a chameleon as he jumps from genre to genre, but weaves the tracks together into a story that unravels as you go through the record. The young rapper presents a brilliant picture of self-identity, maturity and independence with just the right amount of youthful braggadocio (“Checks,” “Grand Prix”). While he does a fantastic job on the more aggressive hip-hop and trap numbers, Ash Island truly shines on the heart-wrenching vocal-heavy pop and rock influenced numbers on this record. “Beautiful,” “Eclipse” and “Lonely” are such examples. The ballad-like “Error” is undoubtedly the stand-out on Island. Released in 2020 as a single, the track outlines a desperate loneliness after the end of a relationship and sees Ash Island unleash his vocal abilities and pair it with emo rock-influenced electric guitar, violin and acoustics — unique and absolutely heartbreaking. His lyricism all through the record is rooted in fluctuating emotions, and this chaos is a highlight that embeds itself in the heart of every listener. Island also features a dazzling roster of hip-hop collaborators like Beenzino (“Grand Prix”), Swings (“Okay”), Jay Park and The Quiett (“Checks”), Loopy (“Error”) and many more; it’s a testament to their (and our) faith in the 22-year-old rapper’s pure talent. –R.C.

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2. Grayground – GRAY

We’ve been waiting a long time for this superstar producer to drop his first studio album and it was worth it. On Grayground, GRAY declares himself the emperor of South Korean R&B, dipping into various branches of the genre including funk (“Close 2 U”), soul (“Selfish”), alternative (“I Don’t Love You”) and trap, while also bringing in his own takes on dancehall (“Baby Don’t Cry”), jazz (“Eternal Sunshine”), pop and Nineties hip-hop. It is bright and sweet with touches of sorrow and depth that then veer into looking at a better tomorrow — similar to GRAY’s own sweet but complex take on life. There’s comfort and familiarity on Grayground thanks to the producer’s affinity for old-school hip-hop and R&B, but the record remains fresh because of his strong ability to mold genres based on his own mindset. “Ready To Love” is one such example, bringing in early-2000s style of pop and R&B but blending it with strings and brass to elevate it into something luxuriously intricate. Grayground is packed full of collaborators — one on every track save the closer “U”— including GRAY’s famous AOMG labelmates Hoody (“Ready To Love”), Woo (“Selfish”), Loco and Lee Hi (“Party For The Night”) and other big names like Zion.T (who also recorded GRAY’s producer tag, bringing things full-circle), pH-1, and more. – R.C.

1. BLOO IN WONDERLAND 2 – Bloo

There’s no one who understands melancholy and all its intricacies better than Bloo, and his first full-length album BLOO IN WONDERLAND 2 is testament to this. The 13-track LP coasts through various genres, including alt-R&B (“Drama”), acoustic pop-trap (“Come and Kiss Me”), his aggressive brand of hip-hop (“Rap”), rock-rap (“Get Money I Love It”), jazz and blues (“Bloo Story”) and dream pop (“What If.”) The rapper, producer and songwriter delves into various aspects of himself, addressing self-discovery, love, loss, artistic evolution and his mental health. As a result, the record serves as a diary to his thought process — intensified by the lack of any featured artists. While every single track leaves an imprint, Bloo delivers absolute excellence and honesty on the contemplative pop number “What If,” the hazy, soulful piano-drenched “Anxiety Disorder” and the bitingly playful jazz summation of his life, “Bloo Story.” With “Bloo Story,” he addresses the anguish of his past as a Korean immigrant in the U.S. as he raps: “I remember eating plain hot dogs because I couldn’t pronounce ‘ketchup’/ I made friends with everybody on the basketball court/ Adapting fast was the only skill I was born with/ Besides that, there wasn’t much else remarkable about me.” He doesn’t shy away from pain and self-deprecation, embracing them as tools that forged him into the alternative powerhouse he is today: “I just keep on grinding and it all works out/ Keep on watching me ‘cause I’m still coming up/ There isn’t just one way to win this game/ My story is gonna keep writing itself.” BLOO IN WONDERLAND 2 is a powerful, emotional offering that surprises with the unexpected, but somehow remains firmly grounded in Bloo’s unique brand of music that aims to deliver “the feeling of feeling.” – R.C.

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