This is the seventh in a 15-part series on the stars and trends of "hallyu", or the Korean wave, which is gaining popularity in Southeast Asia and Latin America. The Korea Times is producing this special project in cooperation with the Korea Foundation and CJ E&M. - ED.
By Kwaak Je-yup
From day one, K-pop foursome 2NE1 have been all about breaking rules and surprises.
Their larger-than-life stage presence and natural charm were already enough to make them stars but their uncanny ability to produce something fresh and out of the ordinary with every new release - catching fans and casual listeners off-guard without exception - has placed them in a league of their own.
Just three years after their debut, they have become one of the most popular K-pop groups today, turning heads all around the world, from Korea and Japan to the United States and Brazil. They were at the Cannes Lions, presenting K-pop's spread at the advertising
world's biggest event. Spin Magazine ranked the group's sophomore EP "2nd Mini Album" No. 6 on its review of best pop albums, above those by Florence + the Machine, Coldplay, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna and fellow K-pop act Girls' Generation.
For the group's members, C.L., Bom, Sandara Park and Minzy, success has come from hard work and the willingness to venture outside their comfort zone. But the girls' surprisingly introverted demeanor at the interview, in stark contrast to their free-wheeling energy on stage, made the occasion even more intriguing, trying to discover the formula behind the hitherto foolproof K-pop magic potion.
"For 2NE1, it's always been all about music", said rapper and vocalist C.L., 21, who was the most engaging during last week's interview but saved her words for later. "People really respond to that".
And the excellent tracks are thanks to a partnership
with prolific producer Teddy Park at their label YG Entertainment, who the members say lets them explore, or "do weird things". The fruits of their labor - from the gritty hip-hop jam debut single "Fire"and the reggae-influenced ode to the brokenhearted "I Don't Care" in 2009 to last year's club anthem "I Am the Best" - have all been trailblazers in the often risk-averse K-pop industry.
Three years of No. 1 mega-hits later, 2NE1 are back with their boldest move yet.
Since its unveiling last week, their newest single, simply titled "I Love You", has polarized listeners' opinion more than any other song in recent memory. Its relatively slow tempo, intimate toned-down electro-pop sound and alleged inspiration from the oldest Korean popular music genre "Trot" - what C.L. called Korea's answer to America's country music - produced some discomfort, even
among fans. The song's straightforward message of love, the group's first, as well as the unabashedly sexy choreography, another unexplored territory, has attracted vocal detractors. Online bulletin boards were ablaze with heated discussions about the track's prospective chart performance.
But "I Love You" stays safely on top of download charts since its release, proving the risk-taking has paid off once again. The group's first TV performance showed off moves choreographed by Sheryl Murakami, famous for her work with Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne and Nelly Furtado among others.
C.L. admitted that her first reaction was also less than enthusiastic: "The guide track only had the first few measures completed when I heard it. And I said to Teddy, 'are you kidding me?'" Then, it gripped them.
"They said there was a drug in the song", said singer Sandara Park, 27, short for Sandara Park, referring to the initial feedback from those around her. "We were all hooked. It had a hypnotic effect".
Spin Magazine had called their previous effort "the year's most boldly thrilling recorded statement". The new record, reminiscent of Kylie Minogue's later albums, tops it by a wide margin.
As they embark on their first world tour - "We don't want to call it our first yet. This is our test run", said C.L. - through East Asia and North America, they have brought in an all-star team. With a back-up band that usually works for Beyonce, world-famous choreographer Travis Payne, veteran producer Divinity Roxx and longtime wardrobe partner Jeremy Scott revamping their performance from every angle, the lucky fans will get a chance to see the thrilling change up close.
Perfectionists, 2NE1 stopped short of releasing a studio album this time around because they did not feel it was complete. They continue recording and mixing these days, as they rehearse for the tour.
"I think the new material (which still has no fixed release schedule) will be more us, more what fans expect from us", said C.L. "and by that, we mean we tried something extraordinary, something strange".
And they would not have it any other way. One day, if their makeover can no longer meet their level of satisfaction, they said they will stop - with no regrets.
"No one can tell if we will be here as a group in a few years time", said C.L., without a tiny bit of hesitation. "If we feel that we can no longer provoke, no longer offer something new, then we will stop".
The group's "New Evolution" world tour will kick off with two shows on July 28 and 29 at the Olympic Gymnastics Stadium in Seoul. The girls will then head to 10 cities in seven countries including back to Japan, the United States and Hong Kong.
For more information, visit www.enewsworld.com.
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