Will Hagle‘s Duolingo game is real strong.
One of the more surprising developments in popular music in the years since Psy danced his way onto almost every American computer screen has been the stateside surge in unironic appreciation of K-pop. “Hallyu,” or the “Korean Wave,” it seems, is in full force. BTS, the well-groomed Korean 7-piece also known as the Bangtan Boys, has encapsulated a boy band aesthetic and fervor in the US more so than any group since those other boys from the Backstreets. XXX, the Korean experimental hip-hop duo comprised of rapper Kim Ximya and producer FRNK, intend to continue spreading the “Korean Wave” while simultaneously subverting both the global and national perception of what it means to make K-pop music. Their approach might just work on an international audience that’s growing increasingly accepting of foreign-language music, especially because they balance their Korean with some English and ground it all with atypical yet enjoyable production.
XXX recently released their sophomore album, Second Language, on the Korea-based Beasts and Natives (BANA) imprint. The album, which has received write-ups in esteemed American publications such as Billboard, Pitchfork, and, now, POW, incorporates bilingual lyricism and electronic-infused beats in a way that’s never been done before anywhere in the world (at least to my knowledge). Whereas Cypress Hill, Cardi B, Immortal Technique and others have rapped in both Spanish and English, XXX randomly throws in English words and phrases amidst a flurry of technically sound Korean verses.
A favorite English word of rapper Kim Ximya is “bitch.” Another is “fuck.” These two words are the most obvious and striking to pop out from beneath FRNK’s beats. They also call into question the nature of hip-hop and language, and the ways in which a global audiences perceive the genre and translate it into new forms based on their own cultural experiences. XXX draws from a long history of hip-hop both from the US and within their home country, which has fostered its own unique, popular scene for decades. Ximya might have mostly picked up on the vulgar aspects of American music, but isn’t that what American audiences mostly picked up on too?
Listening to rap music in an indecipherable language is always a challenging experience. Words tend to be the forefront of hip-hop, and understanding what the rapper is saying is a fundamental part of active listening. As popular American hip-hop culture has shifted to focus more on the rhythms and vibe of rhyme delivery rather than the lyrical content, audiences may have unintentionally primed themselves to be ready to accept non-English-speaking artists. By infusing just enough recognizable English terms into their work, XXX makes it that much easier for American audiences to latch on.
The dynamic music that XXX makes should sound interesting and pleasing enough to any human ear, but even the duo has been surprised how their songs have attracted more attention internationally than they have at home. That could be partially due to the influence of the media, and the tendency for English-speaking countries to show preference to groups that at least rap partially in their native tongue. It could also be due to the fact that XXX is different than most K-pop international audiences have grown accustomed to hearing. Yet XXX aspires to lean into the K-pop distinction while changing it from the inside, with the sinister passion of Matthew Lillard snarling in his lawyer suit at the end of SLC Punk.
“Back home some artists don’t like the word K-pop because it has the stereotype about making factorized music and music that has absolutely no meaning. I think we should not avoid using the word K-pop but change the image and impact that it has,” Kim Ximya said in an interview with Billboard.
That statement, coupled with FRNKs glitchy, abrasive beats and Kim Ximya’s aggressive, angry rhyme style, positions XXX more like the Korean version of Run The Jewels than any sort of extension of BTS’s shiny pop. They, like Run the Jewels, seek success with as wide of an audience as possible, as long as they don’t sacrifice their own musical values. They’ve been outspoken about their dissatisfaction with the Korean system, and their collective desire to voice those frustrations. Again like RTJ, the duo’s formula appears to be working.
In that same Billboard interview, Ximya listed his inspirations as “Jay-Z, Eminem, Yelawolf, and Isaiah Rashad.” FRNK listed his as “J Dilla, Radiohead, James Blake.” Obviously, the storied history of Korea’s rap scene has also undoubtedly influenced them. Their choice of American and British references, however, accurately describe the way their music sounds. Even though non-Korean-speaking fans won’t fully understand what Ximya is saying, he raps more like the best American technical rappers than he does the more modern mumbling ones. Over beats that sound like a conflation of J Dilla, Radiohead, and James Blake, with a little abstract experimentation, deep bass and heavy synths, Ximya’s raps are hard to ignore, even if you have no idea what he’s saying.
On “Bougie,” for instance, Ximya raps: “I’m bougie, never hit that pussy / [Korean language line]… wife beater.” Without consulting a Korean speaker, the tone of the song seems to indicate that it’s mocking the more privileged members of society in a darker way than “Gangnam Style” did. On first listen, however, a native English-speaker might think that Ximya is bragging about never hitting pussy. Either way, the song works, because the blend of Korean and English is perfect enough to make listeners want to unearth meaning or discover more.
XXX named their new album Second Language because their first album was called Language, but both are likely also references to the significant role that the blend of Korean and English words plays in their style. On the newer album’s seventh track, “Language,” Ximya uses more English than he does on every track in order to accomplish the hook: a repeated, double-meaning refrain of “We do not speak the same language.”
It seems unlikely that a mostly-Korean-speaking hip-hop duo with an ungoogleable name (due to porn but also xxxtentacion) that even Apple Music classifies as “K-pop” will find the success stateside that they, Billboard or Pitchfork want them to find. They risk becoming ephemeral sensations like Psy or Keith Ape, who rapped in Korean, but stole his flow from OG Maco and uses bland American-style trap beats. XXX, however, is doing something so wholly unique, intriguing, forward-pushing yet balanced, that they may benefit from the renewed global interest in Korean culture. They might become the next K-pop sensation, partially because we can understand some things they’re saying, but also because their sound is more unique and captivating than anything anyone’s ever heard come out of Korea or anywhere else in the world.