Bobby’s Idol Attack: Why Rap Battles Are Good For Kpop

2014 had no shortage of scandals in Kpop. Among all the talk of groups falling apart, companies running amok and lawsuits abound, a disagreement between idol rappers seems like hardly anything to write home about. Besides, this isn't the first time we have heard about this type of thing. Last year, Supreme Team disbanded, leaving Korean hip-hop heavyweight Swings in a grudge match against E-Sens and others. This type of rap battle is now extending away from the underground scene into more popular idol culture. In early December, Bobby, a YG trainee and now member of the undebuted iKon, released heated diss tracks seemingly targeted at fellow "idol rappers.”

Netizens were quick to begin dissecting the lyrics and determined that Bobby's main opponents were Boyfriend, VIXX, and Bangtan Boys through his lyrics. I will leave out my personal opinion about these groups in response to Bobby's disses, and instead focus on the effects of an "idol-centric" rap battle. This issue raises questions about the inclusion of a medium like "rap," especially within the context of a Kpop frame.

There is possibly no other way to establish oneself as a true rapper, than to challenge others to establish a sense of supremacy. This is where the purpose of Battle Rap and Rap Disses come into play. Rap battles are an essential part of hip hop culture. American rap battles are composed of the rapper placing himself onto a pedestal with prideful comments about his success and talent, while also digging into an opponent's past to attack them with personal injuries. The crucial element to battle rap is the use of "'braggadocio," which is merely the use of boasting and bragging about oneself in order to render the opponent too embarrassed and thus unable to compete. The beaten opponent is then shamed, and seen as not strong enough to be part of the dog-eat-dog world of rap and hip hop.

To clarify, some Kpop fans may have a limited understanding of what rap battles truly are. This is fair enough. But up to this point, Kpop has never really engaged with hip hop culture in more than just an aesthetic format. Underground Korean hip-hop and rap culture have long adopted many of the similarities of American rap identity, including rap "crews." There is now a shift in the dynamic of the long-standing idol vs underground debate in Kpop, especially as it relates to the "rappers" of groups. Bobby's target in his rap battle is the "idol rapper." While many have speculated that he is sending out disses to specific idols, it is far more important to recognize the entity of the "idol rapper."

I have previously discussed the "idol" rapper as one that merely talks quickly over a beat, for lack of being able to sing to the standards of everyone else in the group. Personally, I have always been a fan of hip hop and rap from various countries, including American genres. Because of this, I have always been slightly annoyed by the "fast talker" being referred to as the rapper of the group, as a token member in order to fill a checklist of required elements for an idol group. Leader: check, main vocal: check, visual: check, rapper: check… This notion devalues many of the legitimately talented "idol" rappers that have dedicated time to their craft. Even for the casual Kpop listener, there is a vast distinction in style and performance between top-tier rappers and lower-tier "fast talkers." Bobby's claim that idol rappers are not real rappers is not entirely untrue, but Bobby himself is still technically an idol as well. He is able to make these claims because, in a way, he does not belong to the same apologetic culture that surrounds most Kpop groups.

What makes this diss battle especially interesting is that Bobby is positioned in such a way within the entertainment industry that he is already preened for success. YG Entertainment is known for establishing roots in hip hop and R&B genres, while also providing high quality training for the rappers in their artist line up. Bobby was also a contestant on Mnet's Show Me the Money 3, a "hip hop survival program" in the same vein as most music elimination programs. The show featured many well-known underground korean rappers as judges, including Masta Wu. Bobby beat out many of his opponents including Vasco and Giriboy, two relatively successful underground rappers with already relatively large fanbases. It might be this inclusion in a niche group of "famous" underground rappers, as well as the recognition of the YG label that gives Bobby the incentive to flex his lyrical skills and challenge others to rise to his level. He is already accepted as an underground rapper of sorts, and thus he does not need to be polite for the sake of not making waves. Because Bobby has technically already been accepted by his seniors and is not fighting for recognition, he is already "legitimate." This gives him a sort of leeway to slide away from the squeaky-clean idol image, to one where the aggressive presentation of hip hop is now more accepted.

In August of this year, a relatively unknown rapper by the name of Kemy of A.Kor burst into the scene with her heated diss track aimed at Park Bom. While Blackjacks exploded with death threats, deep down some believed that Kemy merely said what many kept quiet but wanted to express, hushed by the fear of having an opinion that deviated from the norm. Park Bom's plastic surgery is not a secret, and to pretend it does not exist silences the possibility for many critical dialogues about the place of beauty, success, and immunity from the law. Just because Kemy, and now Bobby, act within a musical genre that limits their expression does not mean that their experiences are invalid.

Bobby’s diss raps may have startled and alienated fans, but for YG this was the perfect move, and frankly one that was long overdue. Bobby personifies a different type of idol than one we have seen in the past. Ultimately, there will always be a division between what some may call "real"/underground rap and "idol" rap, but this does not necessarily have to be a negative thing. Just the ability to begin challenging idols as rappers is a huge leap forward because it questions the formula of Kpop and the actors in it. I interpret Bobby’s lyrics not as a personal insult to other idol rappers, but as a challenge in order to elevate their skills and take a sense of ownership in what they are doing. Rap as a noun, and rapping as a verb take a huge amount of passion and practice to excel at. Rap battles, though seemingly aggressive, are a welcome new chapter in Kpop. It is this friction between the “real” and “idol” rappers that drives companies, and potentially individuals to polish their individual abilities and learn real musical skills, rather than just being a part of the same mass-produced idol mold.

As Kpop idols begin to stretch and pull at their boundaries more than ever, there are new spaces being created that allow for personal and industry growth and creativity. Change may be scary, but Kpop has been the same for far too long. Maybe some challenge is just what it needs to rise.

'L' lives in Ontario, Canada. She is a pop culture and media junkie and has helped organize kpop parties and events across Ontario. Her biases are BTS, Block B, M.I.B and Infinite.


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