Soul From Seoul: The Underappreciated Genre of Korean R&B

On July 12th I had the opportunity to finally check off an item on my music bucket list and see Korean R&B artist and Voice Korea 2020 winner Kim Ji-Hyun, better known as G Soul (aka Golden). I discovered his beautiful soulful voice in 2018, when I was going through my Korean R&B journey. Out of all the artist that popped up on my Pandora K-R&B channel, G Soul was the first one that pulled me in and I have been here every since. He has been through his share of ups and downs in the Korean music industry, including three label changes and taking a risky shot, as an already established artist, by competing and ultimately winning 2020’s Voice Korea. However, I hate to say, that his story among Korean R&B artist is not all that uncommon.

After I posted a few clips from G Soul’s concert, I had a number of friends ask me questions about the Korean R&B scene. First of all, they were impressed by G Soul’s, energy and soulful voice saying that if they had not seen him they would not have known he was Korean. They also admitted to their own ignorance to the fact that South Korea even had a heavy R&B presence. I had recommended several other artist to listen to and explore to broaden their knowledge. But, this whole interaction with my friends made me think of how underrated the Korean R&B scene really is outside of South Korean and that is unfortunate. So I wanted to write this article to hopefully, educate and enlighten others that there is a wide world other than K-Pop coming out of Korea.

My Introduction to Korean R&B

In 2018 while sitting in my doctors office, trying to occupy my mind during the long wait, I starting going through the magazines in the waiting room. Among the magazines was a Vibe magazine and while flipping through the pages I saw an article: “Meet Jay Park, Roc Nation’s First Asian Artist”. This “new” artist was none other than Jay Park, a well known artist and music label CEO in South Korea. Although I have always listened to music from all over the world and various genres, I was quite ignorant to the fact South Korea had such a strong and vast Hip Hop and R&B scene. My American mind just always imagined that the majority of the world mainly listened to Hip Hop and R&B from the United States.

The most popular genre of music most listened to in South Korean are ballads, or Trot, which is Korean’s original pop music. Known for its specific rhythm, cadences and storytelling, evoking the emotions of the listener. It is music enjoyed by many generations, even with several competitions looking for the next big star in the genre, such as Miss Trot and Mr. Trot (click on the hyperlink for a brief explanation of Trot). R&B is thought to be first introduced in Korea during the Korean War by Black American army soldiers. However, contemporary R&B and it’s growth in South Korea started with Seo Taiji & the Boys in the 1990’s who incorporated both Hip/Hop and R&B into their songs and style. This was the beginning of what is now Korea’s R&B beginnings.

There are several labels in South Korea that have multiple R&B/Soul artist, however the most notable labels would be AOMG and H1gher Music both founded by Jay Park. Even within the Big 4 labels (SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, HYBE), with multiple solo artist and solo acts among major K-Pop groups, year over year AOMG and H1gher Music artist are at the top of Korean music charts for R&B. Below are a few of my personal favorite R&B artists from the peninsular.

Jay Park

Of course the first on this list has to be Jay Park since he is the one that started me on my journey. Born in the U.S., Jay stated his career as a K-Pop idol in 2008 with the group 2PM. After a series of unfortunate events Jay left the group, however after posting some covers on YouTube and gaining popularity, he returned to Korea as a solo artist in 2010. In 2013 he founded AOMG Label and was co-CEO with Hip/Hop artist Simon Dominic until 2018. In 2017 he founded a second label called H1gher Music with long tome friend and music producer Cha Cha Malone. Jay has released five studio albums and several EP’s. Because of his ability to sing in both English and Korean his songs tend to be an eclectic mix of both R&B and Hip/Hop, what many would consider melodic hip/hop. Some of his most popular melodic R&B-hip/hop songs would be “Mommae” , “Feng Shui”, and “Soju“. However, Jay Park is most loved for his R&B songs that are right in line with either party music ready to turn up with your friends or quiet nights cuddled up with your significate other. Fan favorites would include “Me Like Yuh“, “All I Wanna Do”, “Joah“, and “Solo”. In 2021 Jay stepped down as CEO of both AOMG and H1gher Music, but needless to say this has not slowed him down in the slightest. With a new label More Vison he has already released two new singles “Ganadara” (ft IU) and “Need To Know”.

G Soul aka Golden

When I first heard G Soul‘s voice I was quite literally shocked. Why, some may ask. Not because he’s Korean, because I needed to know who was this man able to sing with the type of soul and emotion I was use to hearing from old school soul singers like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Yet, also like modern day R&B artist like Anthony Hamilton, D’Angelo and Maxwell. With five albums under both names G Soul and Golden since his debut in 2015, he has blessed us with ballads and slow jams such as “Where Do We Go From Here”, “Natural”, and “Hate Everything” . Yet, with that same voice, full of soul and feeling can give us club hits like “Tequila”, “Crazy For You”, and “Broken Record”. His intricate use of both Korean and English is beautiful and doesn’t feel forced, which is not always the case with some Korean artist. This is a testament to his incredible song writing. He has added his vocals as a feature to numerous artist such as Sik K, Jay Park, PH-1, Woogie, WheeIn and even lent his voice to the OST for Sisyphus with the song Stay. For so many, he is a new discovery, whether that’s because of his time on the Voice Korea or his many collaborations with some of Korea’s biggest artist. Needless to say, no mater the journey, G Soul is an artist in his own right, here to stay and will be with us for a long time to come.

Hoody

I use to call Hoody the first lady of AOMG, because, until sogumm signed on in 2019 and Lee Hi in 2020, she was the only female artist of a label with all men. Kim Hyun-Jung, professionally known as Hoody is another one of my favorite R&B artist from South Korea. She has been a mainstay in the Korean R&B scene since her solo debut in 2015. She has released a total of two EP’s and one album which includes some of my favorite songs that remind me of slow jams from the 90’s and early 2000’s such as “Why (ft george)” , and Lust (ft ELO). However what I love the most is Hoody’s light, playful and fun singles like “Sunshine (ft Crush)”, and “Adios (ft GRAY)”. In spite many of her own successful tracks, many have only heard her sweet, soulful melodic voice as a feature with some of Korean’s top R&B, Hip/hop artist such as Jay Park’s “Solo” and “All I Wanna Do”, and pH-1 “Lately”. Hoody is such a wonderful artist on the softer side of Korean R&B.

Dean

I have so much love for Dean that I just want to run up on people and make them listen to him. Kwon Hyuk, known professionally as Dean has been, at least for me, one of the top 10 Korean R&B artist in the past 10 years. Although he debuted in 2013, he has only released one full album in 2016 titled “130 mood TRBL”. He has released a multitude of singles that include “Bonnie and Clyde” “Love (ft Syd)“, “Howlin 404”. However, one could call him the “king of the feature” as he has featured in over 25 singles since 2015. His most notable features would include Paloalto’s “Fancy”, Heize’s “And July”, and of course Zico’s “Bermuda Triangle”. In the last few years he has been fairly inactive and his devoted fans have been waiting and anticipating his return. His easy soulful voice and effortless stage presence is one of the main reasons why Dean is another artist on my bucket list to see.

Junny

Korean-Canadian Kim Hyeong-Jun, know professionally as Junny is a well known singer-song writer within the Korean music industry. He has written for NCT U, NCT 127, IU, Jay B of Got 7, Baekhyun, Suho and Kai of EXO, and a host of others. Like so many Western R&B artist such as Neo who started his career as a highly sought after song writer; Junny is a well respected solo artist in his own right, releasing a total of five EP’s since his debut in 2017. Some of my favorite singles are Stay Under, “For the Weekend (ft Paloalto)” , “Color Me (ft Chung Ha)” and “Trilla (ft Yelloasis)”. His sound and color of his voice and songs are just provide a chill relaxed vibe that makes you want to put your feet up, grab a glass of wine and cuddle up to someone special.

The Next Generation of Korean R&B

Bibi

New comer on the music scene is 23 year old Kim Hyung-seo, known professionally as Bibi. A singer- songwriter who would release her music onto Soundcloud to be able to express herself and be heard. She was discovered by Korean-American R&B-Hip/Hop artist Yoon Mi-Rae on Soundcloud and in 2017 signed Bibi to her and husband OG Korean Hip/Hop artist Tiger JK’s label Feel Ghood Music. I would compare her melodic style as Pop/R&B, much like Korean R&B artist Heize. However the honesty in her lyrics of her songs such as “The Weekend”, “Best Lover” and Fedexx Girl, show how unapologetic she is in her choices in topic. She is beyond any doubt one to look for, as she has performed at Coachella in 2022 and recently appeared on U.S. morning talk show Good Morning America.

Devita

Debuting in 2020 with her first EP “CREME”, Cho Yoon-Kyung aka Chloe Cho is a 24 year old solo artist using the stage name Devita, making her way onto the Korean R&B scene. Before signing to AOMG, just like Bibi, Devita started releasing her self written, self produced, music on SoundCloud as a teen. After signing to label AOMG in 2021, she released “American Gothic” in 2022, her first full album giving us the hit “Bonnie & Clyde”. With her rich and bight soulful tone, reminiscent of Ariana Grande, she is one to watch with such hits as “Eat Your Heart Out, Buddy Kane!”, and “Evita”.

Late

Late has been the opening act for G Soul during his North American tour. I absolutely loved his voice and his energy on stage. Starting his set with his title single “Homme”, which starts out with about two minutes of spoken word before going into smooth and emotional lyrics. I would describe his flavor of Pop/R&B to the likes of Sam Kim and Eric Nam. It’s a shame that I don’t know more about him other than what I experienced that night. I was able to find his Instagram, latedept, and while going through a few of his post, I can tell he approaches his music with a sense of vulnerability and honesty, which I appreciate. Due to some physical limitations, I I had the opportunity to sit a few seats away from him in the VIP area of the venue with other ADA patrons and guest of the promoter and artist. I saw him interact with another ADA guest when she, by chance, asked him if he was an artist, this is before we knew he was going to before. He was so genuinely nice and kind to this woman and took a picture when she asked. That moment right there, just as much as his music, made me want to watch out for what’s to come for Late. Please check out his 2022 album “Homme” on Spotify or YouTube .

Why More Focus on Korean R&B is Needed

There are literally too many artist that could be named in this article. Solo artist such as Crush, Heize, Colde, Chancellor, Sam Kim, DPR Live, Lee Hi and Ailee. Then there are the all too many to mention R&B/Soul artist in their own right, that reside in some of K-Pop’s most popular groups. Over all, what I know to be R&B music that I grew up with in the United States, is universal. It may have started in the U.S. within the Black American community, but it has grown and dug deep roots in South Korea. I can say that up until 2018 I was one of the ignorant many that didn’t know how culturally rich and diverse the Korean music industry is in terms of genres. You would be hard pressed to not come across some display of R&B/Soul and R&B/Pop coming out of the country on a daily basis. Whether that’s music coming from very talented solo artist and songwriters, to K-Pop songs that have an unmistaken mix of genres all in one album. Many of which are written and produced by Black American singer-songwriters year after year. It would absolutely wonderful that as Korean Pop music gains more popularity in Western society, that Korean R&B would also get the same recognition and airplay that it deserves. Because lets face it, good music is good music regardless of where it originates.

Click on the hyperlinks above and below for a few resources to help you learn and explore more about the Korean R&B industry, some of the artist and even an academic study done at Harvard University: The Impact of African-American Musicianship on South Korean Popular Music: Adoption, Appropriation, Hybridization, Integration, or Other?

A Conversation with Kuk Seung Pyo: The Popularity of Korean R&B by Aaliyah Facey,

The Rise of Korean R&B ft. Gallant & Lee Hi | Documentary | Seoul Music

Until Next Time….


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