I discovered K-pop a couple years ago, and it’s slowly worked its way into my workout playlist, the music I listen to when I walk the dogs, etc. I don’t speak Korean (much to my grandmother’s disgust), but I’ve always appreciated the work that goes into the music.
Turns out, some of that work comes from American R&B writers who’be been pushed out of the US market: a decade ago,
paring down rapidly to keep pace with hip-hop, deemphasizing melodic complexity and embracing the austere loops and rhythmic cadences that often imbue rap with pummeling power. As a result, [writer Claude] Kelly remembers, “Suddenly, I didn’t have to write a bridge anymore.”
“People would say, leave that 16 bars, and we’ll get a rapper on it so we can make sure it gets on the radio,” continues Kelly. “Things that had a bridge, that were a little slower, that took more time to build and had more than two keyboard sounds, people got afraid of.”
Rap’s minimalist palette still rules much of American pop. But some writers with bridges to spare have found an unexpected – though not unwelcome – refuge in South Korea, where K-pop artists still treasure the songcraft that persisted in R&B’s mainstream until the early 2000s: Meaty chord changes, harmonic richness and a bridge that demands a singer demonstrate range and ad-libbing ability.
Another example of foreign companies taking our jobs, or appropriating African-American culture?
“Everyone is stealing from R&B; not everyone is giving credit to it,” says Kelly, who also wrote for Girls Generation. “I’m actually happy that the K-pop scene is so unapologetic about giving props to Nineties R&B for its influence – much more than our American pop does, much more than American hip-hop does, much more than American country music does.”
K-pop’s willingness to acknowledge its debts to R&B leads to an odd phenomenon for the genre’s ace writers – a feeling more familiar to American jazz musicians, who have long been valorized overseas and overlooked in their homeland. “It’s almost like you get more honor outside of your own country for what you do sometimes,” Kelly admits.
It’s also the case that, as is so often the case, the Korean product is more complicated than the thing that inspired it:
“Korean pop music likes differentiation and changes,” Bell continues. “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies.” “The one-loop beat doesn’t work over there,” adds [writer and producer Kevin] Randolph…. “You definitely get to stretch. No other style of music has that many parts in their songs.”
I also gotta check out songwriting camps, where people might generate a dozen demos in a week.