The Baddest of the East

Today marks the long awaited Korean debut solo release from CL, leader of mega-successful K-Pop group 2NE1 and the self-proclaimed “baddest female of Seoul city”. It’s kind of a big deal in K-Pop circles and so to celebrate, here’s a little something on Korean female idol rappers.

If you’ve ever had a taste of K-Pop music lasting longer than an hour or so, you’d have a pretty good idea of the genre’s attitude to hip-hop music. Hip-hop influences run through just about every bit of dance choreography you’ll see today, but there’s more to it than that. It pervades the image of nearly every group in some form, whether male or female. For example, outside of Girls’ Generation (coincidentally the most popular K-Pop group around these days), pretty much every girl group now packs an obligatory “rapper”. That’s regardless of whether said rapper actually has any background rapping, or whether their “raps” consist of anything more than talking in a slightly modified voice over a beat.

While this can result in some cringeworthy sounds, it also gives some rappers who do know what they’re doing a platform to the kind of recognition they just wouldn’t get on the underground scene. Because of K-Pop’s corporation-driven, highly standardised nature, which breeds the kind of male-female parity that only such unapologetic profit-chasing can produce, what we’re left with is a situation where, by association, female rappers receive just as much attention, if not more, than their male counterparts. I certainly can’t think of any other country where this is the case, at least not off the top of my head. And sure, idol group rapping is naturally going to be tamer than the underground stuff, but that doesn’t mean it can’t sound awesome (It certainly doesn’t hurt that the natural flow of the Korean language lends itself well to a good rapper).

So ignoring the likes of Tasha, a hugely respected Korean solo R&B/hip hop artist who is pretty incredible at what she does, as well as just about every other actual full-blown hip hop artist in Korea, I’m going to focus here on rappers that come from idol groups. What follows is my admittedly limited opinion on the seven best Korean female rappers going around in K-Pop groups at the moment:

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7. Lime – HELLOVENUS

Despite debuting last year as part of one of the girliest groups K-Pop fans have seen in a while, Kim Hye-Lim or “Lime” has some pretty impressive rapping talents. Not only can she belt out a tune with the best of them but she can also switch up rap styles, pulling off either speed or flow-based rhymes when the situation calls for it. Fans are still waiting for a HELLOVENUS release that actually shows off these skills in earnest, because for now they don’t really fit the group’s image, but no K-Pop group stays to one concept for too long…

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6. Zinger/Hana – Secret

Jung Hana, known by her stage name and former underground hip-hop moniker Zinger until recently when she decided to start using her real name professionally, is an idol rapper with actual prior rapping experience and it shows in her work with Secret. Compared with other top-tier idol groups not expressly focused on hip-hop, Zinger gets a surprisingly large slice of most of the group’s songs all to herself. She even had a self-written solo track on Secret’s only full-length album thus far, appropriately titled Amazinger, in which she runs the gamut of rap techniques and clever Konglish wordplay right up to the, uh, zinger at the end.

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5. Amber – f(x)

Taiwanese-born Amber Liu is without a doubt my favourite K-Pop personality. Her still-unique tomboy image, familiarity with English and wholehearted embrace of social media makes it very easy to like her, as does her top-notch singing and dance prowess. As a vocal fan of Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, her rapping style is rather reminiscent of the Los Angeles MC’s, with a persistently on-the-beat rhythm. Unfortunately a lot of f(x)’s singles have given her some rather lame English lyrics to work with, but she shines in some of their later material, such as this excellent track off their most recent mini-album.

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4. Jucy – EvoL

There are a lot of reasons to like EvoL, a severely underrated group following in the large footsteps of troubled male hip-hop group Block B. Chief among them is Jucy, a former underground rapper (then known as Juni.J) who has released a mixtape and now pens a good chunk of EvoL’s material. She flaunts a fantastic double dynamic with fellow group member J-Da, whose deep tones complement her feisty barks with stunning results. Case in point: Magnet, one of 2012’s truly outstanding K-Pop album B-sides.

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3. Miryo – Brown Eyed Girls

Of all the idols on this list, Miryo (also known by her earlier stage name Johoney) has been active for the longest, as she is one fourth of the seven-year-strong group Brown Eyed Girls (yes, the same group who lent some of their dance moves – and one member – to PSY’s 2013 single Gentleman) and was performing long before they even debuted. She writes most of her own material, has released a solo album and is a highly respected member of the K-Pop ecosystem. She also freestyle raps like she could do it in her sleep, which she probably can by this point.

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2. LE – EXID

There are many K-Pop observers who have already earmarked LE as the heiress apparent to CL’s throne as Seoul’s baddest. She has a reputable background on the Korean hip-hop scene, where she promoted as Elly, and she certainly isn’t afraid to drop profanities in multiple languages, as shown in the final minute of this collaboration from earlier in 2013. Its easy to see some CL-esque traits in her style, but that aloofness and the waver in her voice as she purrs her signature line “LE baby de craaazy” is all her own. EXID is very fortunate to have her.

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1. CL – 2NE1

Leader of the Korean girl group second only to Girls’ Generation in worldwide fame and success, CL is an absolute powerhouse not just in Korean music, but in fashion as well. It’s well documented that major American designer Jeremy Scott calls her his “muse”, a statement he backs up by regularly featuring her in his work. She speaks multiple languages, is active in charity work and is the unmistakable rock of 2NE1’s success, an impressive feat given two of the group’s members are seven years her senior. But above all, she absolutely owns the stage. Her performance persona is a fearsome creation and it is her peerless management of this image that immediately brings her name to mind when “korean female idol rapper” is uttered.

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