Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: YG ENTERTAINMENT

After taking a look at SM Entertainment‘s 2020 progress, it’s now time for YG Entertainment to take the spotlight.

As usual, the thoughts are my own and aren’t privy to any insider information. I’m not taking into account things like profits and stock value. The purpose of these articles is to determine how well K-pop agencies are serving their artists and fans.

The Good

After a disastrous 2019, YG Entertainment had a lot of goodwill to build back. And though I don’t think they’ve hit things out of the stratosphere, the agency feels much better positioned right now than they did a year ago. Artists are getting regular comebacks, scandals have died down and some of their heavy hitters have returned from the military.

Despite bungling so many opportunities, YG have somehow ended up fostering a genuine sensation. BLACKPINK has become one of the most recognizable K-pop acts worldwide – second only to BTS, I’d argue. And although the quality of their material varied in 2020, this finally felt like the year they were able to capitalize on that hype. Three back-to-back singles (with another on the way?) seems like a miracle for a group who had been relegated to one comeback a year from 2017-2019. And though we can debate whether their eight-song album really counts as “full” in the context of the K-pop industry, it released on schedule and was buoyed by their strongest title track in years. I might be grading on a curve, but for YG this is a minor miracle.

After a long wait, 2020 also marked the debut of the agency’s boy group Treasure. Again, I think the quality of their material has varied. But, they’ve become a breakout success right from the start. I don’t agree with most of the ways YG promotes its artists, but I do like how their rookies’ debut years are often marked with a steady string of singles. This rapid fire approach quickly solidified the fan bases of both Bigbang and iKON, and it seems to be doing the same for Treasure.

AKMU continue to be a bright spot for YG. The duo doesn’t release nearly enough music, but they’re insanely popular on the Korean charts. Over a year later, their How Can I Love The Heartbreak, You’re The One I Love is still riding high in public consciousness. Other agencies (even some of the big four) would kill to have a hit this enduring. It was also smart to debut Suhyun as a soloist, and to have her track composed by brother Chanhyuk. When it comes to this talented duo, keeping the creative ventures in the family is a total asset.

And though they didn’t release any music this year, YG is sitting on some serious hype with the eventual return of Bigbang and its individual members. Enough time has passed since Burning Sun that their comeback should become a bonafide K-pop event. This seems to position the agency well for the future.

The Bad

As always, I’m going to come off like a bitter old curmudgeon longing for “better days,” but I truly do miss some of YG’s older composers. Teddy seems to have lost some of his creative touch, and the talent driving much of the agency’s current output seems more in love with noisy EDM drops than timeless choruses.

With this in mind, I think YG needs to branch out and find some new behind-the-scenes talent. Other than Chanhyuk (who mostly just works on his own projects), the agency is in need of another great melody writer. Years past saw talent like Kush, Choice37 (who did co-compose a couple tracks this year) and Lydia Paek. Then of course, there’s G-Dragon, whose skillful, idiosyncratic ear has been missed for far too long. Newcomers R.Tee, 24 and Future Bounce show glimpses of potential, but so far most of their work has yet to reach the level that YG used to produce on the regular.

I’m also a little worried about the agency’s second generation of boy groups. After B.I.’s departure, YG doesn’t seem to know what to do with iKON. Their 2020 comeback came and went with little hype, and even their once-flourishing Japanese activities seemed to stall. Meanwhile, Winner are in that tough, enlistment-driven stage of their career where radio silence is the name of the game. A rock-tinged Kang Seungyoon solo comeback could certainly be the jolt that their brand needs. We’ll see if it ever materializes.

Finally, although YG’s output increased from nine to twelve title tracks compared to last year, I’m going to repeat my endless criticism toward their embrace of digital singles. Some of my favorite YG projects have been full or mini albums. I really wish the agency’s artists were allowed to release more material. A digital single is fun, but often falters without the context of an album. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way.

Previous years: 2019 // 2018 // 2017 // 2016