For years, knowledgeable K-pop fans have considered KARD to be one of the industry’s most underrated groups. But why are they still so underrated? What makes their work stand out? And what lies ahead for the four-piece outfit?
It seems KARD have become the hipster’s K-pop group. Perhaps in an ideal world, that would equate to coverage from vaunted indie blogs, college tours across Western countries, and a steady diet of radioplay, playlists, and curated content.
For now, the four-piece DSP Media act must fight for their lives in the highly corporate, vigorously competitive Korean idol industry. DSP is not a Big 3 label and carries less influence than the industry’s biggest imprints. Additionally, KARD is not quite a safe sell in the K-pop industry. They stick out like a sore thumb; a rare co-ed group featuring two women (Somin and Jiwoo) and two men (J. Seph and BM). Groups with multiple genders, while always existing on the fringes of K-pop, are often stigmatized as a tough sell due to Korea’s conservative gender norms (and assumptions members will simply start dating, thus ending the group).
Moreover, KARD’s music is often bombastic, driven by danceable rhythms that have become recognizable globally: the tresillos of reggaeton, the distorted 808s and hat rolls of trap-style music (both the EDM and hip-hop variations). In a time when K-pop occasionally feels safe and samey, their musical modernity is a breath of fresh air.
KARD’s members are dynamic, distinct, and refreshingly autonomous. Most famously, LA-born BM (Matthew Kim) often goes viral for being humorous and candid in his public interactions; but don’t mistake this candor for ignorance. After making waves for unabashedly talking about his tiddies (BM is a man who works out), the rapper/producer/singer turned the attention into a clothing line which donated a portion of its proceeds to breast cancer research. Through this good-natured dependability, his is the King card.
But the attention BM has received should not at all negate interest in KARD’s other three members. J. Seph (Kim Tae-hyung) is an aspiring actor (who occasionally films vlogs akin to the reality show I Live Alone) who writes lyrics, serves looks, and emanates a deadly sense of humor which allows him to shine in TV appearances. He is KARD’s Ace in the hole.
Somin (Jeon So-min) exhibits all the traits of a classic K-pop star; a blooming beauty ambassador, she glows in makeup videos on her promising vlog channel, where she continuously reveals a gentle spirit that underlies her smooth dancing and her dextrous, radiant voice. Always consistent and classy, she is KARD’s Black Joker.
Jiwoo (Jeon Ji-woo) represents an entirely new entity; a next-gen It Girl. Her gaze is intense and her vocal approach--rounded, heavy, sometimes snarled--still somehow showcases impressive range and agility. As demonstrated recently in her performances on the show Good Girl, Jiwoo performs with a fierce energy befitting of KARD’s Color Joker--switching between reds and blues with shocking ease.
But if there is one word that seemingly follows KARD most in their fourth year, it’s underrated. Though not a rare term for fans of any group to use for their faves, it can be startling to see just how many comment sections of KARD videos are filled with sentiments from Hiddens (a colloquialization of their fandom name, Hidden KARD) decrying the group’s overlooked status in the K-pop industry.
“They have a lot of potential, yet few opportunities to fully showcase [it],” says Cali, a K-pop stan from the Philippines who has been a Hidden since 2018. “They keep on putting out music with different genres and concepts, whilst working with the differences in each member’s vocal range and color.”
Such is the case with their recent comeback, a 3-track EP entitled Way With Words featuring the hard-hitting lead single “Gunshot.” It’s filled with personality, unique vocal colors and intricate, emotive production. But yet again, it seems KARD will come away empty-handed in terms of music show wins, one of the defining indications of a K-pop group’s ability to last and make an impact at the mainstream level.
Then again, BM, who wrote and produced “Gunshot” as he has many of KARD’s hits, appears to have had other goals in mind. “The message, what we went through in the making process, the energy it took, the pain it costed…” he writes in a post from August 20, “I don’t even care about an award or a number 1 anymore. I just hope it resonates and lets anyone who needs to release… release.”
Said message, as hinted in Big Matthew’s August 7 post, is dedicated to victims of verbal abuse, in line with a clothing line he’s starting which will donate to an organization combating bullying, bigotry, school violence and more. It’s no secret that verbal abuse is a daily reality for public figures, especially for Korean idols who are subject to all levels of toxic scrutiny.
In contrast with KARD’s legacy of fun-loving party anthems, “Gunshot” is ominous. The song works through a pounding 12/8 rhythm (around 68 bpm), underscored by distorted 808s, military-style drum-rolls, orchestral synth stabs on the offbeats, and a heap of triplets--both from BM and J. Seph’s verses and from a number of percussive instruments. The melodic instruments, warbling through different filters, alternate melancholy minor chords with hopeful majors.
Somin sets “Gunshot” off with laments: “I will never be enough/Even when I pour out all of myself.” BM opts for a melodic refrain: “When you say I don’t give a damn about you, it’s pain.” Jiwoo’s pre-chorus is unsettlingly seductive--”It’s like you control me, without you I’m lonely”--a defeated acceptance of a toxic dynamic. “Your words are like a gunshot,” cries the chorus, alternating between KARD’s songstresses.
This resignation at points gives way for intensity. J. Seph raps with poetic defiance, intending to “drag myself out of there, remove you from my life.” In the bridge, the drums explode into a four-on-the-floor rhythm gliding across the 12/8 as BM screams: “One shot, two shot, three shot, four; I can’t stand it anymore for my own sake.”
The aggressive disposition of “Gunshot”, which has its parallels in earlier hits like “Bomb Bomb” and “Dumb Litty”, was not always a staple of KARD’s music. The first track on Way With Words recalls the sunny melodies of early hits like “Oh Nana” and “Hola Hola,” over a slower-tempo beat with guitar synths on the offbeats, suggesting a reggae influence. Entitled “Ah Ee Yah,” the track’s interplay between suave male rappers and chaste female vocalists represents a staple of KARD’s repertoire, influenced by early-2000s pairings like Ja Rule and Ashanti or Nelly and Kelly Rowland. This nostalgic hip-hop sensibility is bluntly confirmed in the outro, wherein BM and J. Seph reference Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers.”
These bright, throwback overtones were the hallmark of KARD’s early hits. “Hola Hola”, for instance, is a tropical house style song--a summer bop. It kicks off with Somin’s modest, joyful reflections: “This sun beat down feeling so good,” she sings. “It feels like a dream; I don’t want to wake up.”
“Hola Hola,” which led KARD’s debut EP of the same name, signifies a young KARD showcasing their stark potential, but also taking in a moment of glory. The EP peaked at no. 2 on Gaon, still their highest Korean charting placement to date. Buzz was palpable for KARD, who had established themselves as K-pop’s up-and-coming underdog.
In 2020, however, KARD are no longer the new kids on the block. They’ve built a strong fandom, but they haven’t yet skyrocketed to the top of the industry. They reached number 3 on the US World Billboard charts last year with “Bomb Bomb” and “Dumb Litty”, a career best, but in general, their “numbers” have stagnated. It’s not for lack of trying, adapting or evolving: their place is still somewhat uncertain, but their skills are as sharp as ever.
The third and final track on Way With Words, “Hold On,” heads in a more sentimental direction. On the verses, the snare delays past the first downbeat and nails the second, anchoring a gliding drum track that underscores sentimental keyboard chords. Where the chord progression of “Gunshot” lives on a minor and transitions to majors, “Hold On” starts on a major chord and transitions to minors--beginning with hope and joy, but culminating in somberness.
Over this, Somin and Jiwoo expertly belt and swoon melismatic melodies, with lyrics recalling a missing lover. J. Seph steals the show with charisma and lyricism (“let’s look back on Spring days/to feel the smell of spring on reflection”), his delivery sharp yet slightly off-kilter in the way an East Coast rapper would approach their rhymes. “Hold On” is an R&B jam with a heart-wrenching subtext; if “Ah Ee Yah” is a nod to the past and “Gunshot” a face-off with the present, “Hold On” is a wistful approach to an uncertain future.
KARD nears a potential make-or-break moment in their career. On an IG Live a month preceding Way With Words, BM lamented the financial status of KARD’s label, DSP Media, during the economic crisis of COVID-19. “We’re going through a lot of struggles right now,” he says. As eldest member J. Seph crosses 28 years of age, Hiddens are now wrangling with murmurs of two cursed words in the K-pop landscape: the e-word (“enlistment”) and the d-word (“disbandment”).
Enlistment in South Korea’s military is mandated for all men between the ages of 18 to 28. Military service periods usually take at least 21 months to finish. Groups going on hiatus, dropping side projects, or even separating due to members’ enlistment is a tale as old as time in the Korean music industry. The remote prospect of KARD’s disbandment is seen as possible given that their label, a smaller one without the resources to pull through a crisis easily, might simply be unable to continue managing them. “Hold On”, a song about memories and goodbyes, has been confirmed to be a nod to J. Seph’s temporary--and challenging--departure.
Each member’s side projects, like Jiwoo’s electric Good Girl run and BM’s successful podcast Get Real alongside two other Kor-Am idols, are welcome boosts to their profile and outlets for them to thrive. But they also, at least in a theoretical, unspoken sense, represent KARD’s members planting seeds for solo careers; in case of any worst-case scenario, it’s good for them to open up new horizons for their dynamic skillsets to shine.
Of course, their label’s struggles as a smaller entity will not be news to the group’s members in 2020. From the beginning, KARD were a bit of a miracle; a rare co-ed group, with a unique style, resulting from happenstance. J. Seph and BM were originally meant to be a hip-hop duo; plans changed. Jiwoo had just moved to DSP two months before KARD’s debut after training under FNC Entertainment for two years. Somin debuted with three separate groups--first with Japan-based Puretty in 2012 (as a 15-year old), then as leader of DSP’s popular group APRIL in 2015, and finally with KARD in 2016.
Concepts and times have changed for KARD, but the members’ adaptability and amiability has kept them afloat. Their willingness to connect with Latin American audiences through YouTube content and Spanish-language phrases has built them a sizable following in South America. They can go from playful to meaningful; airy to heavy. Each member takes turns shining on different tracks; some favor the vocalists, others the emcees. They all are able to take roles in the creative process and can market themselves through creating their own content.
It’s true that KARD would probably get more shine on a bigger label, but it’s hard to envision big labels in Korea understanding their dynamic and vision. It’s true that they can only do so much without a greater industry push, but that so much is so much. Their music, their content and their conduct are all proof that the stigmas of K-idols as manufactured and artless are flat-out wrong.
No, their situation is not perfect. But if--and that’s a big if--they go down, they go down swinging; they will have left a bright, colorful impression on the massive page of K-pop. Such are the cards they’ve been dealt; but KARD will keep winning as long as they can keep playing them.