On the recently released Coup D’etat, K-pop star G-Dragon has his cake and has a fanciful outfit made out of it too.
Successful pop megastars engage with a fan’s sense of fantasy. The Beyoncés, Britneys and Biebers of the world incite lusting, envy and lifestyle aspirations. One of the reasons K-pop’s prince is so magical, and not to mention wildly successful, is because he sets the imagination off in so many different directions. He gluttonously engages with identities; he is a suave superhero, a trusty sidekick (especially to his YG Entertainment brethren, like his group Big Bang), and a Tim Burton-esque cartoon villain all in one.
He has the charm of a sociopath who has mainlined decades of pop culture from an early age. He’s ingested the magnetism of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow/Edward Scissorhands/Willy Wonka, Parklife-era Damon Albarn, Snoop Dogg in Bones, Lady Gaga, Steve Urkel, Johnny Rotten, and many, many more personas. The allure of his eclecticism carries over into his music, which sometimes ends up taking a backseat in conversations about G-Dragon in the West, in favor of narratives surrounding his fashion sense.
His new solo release Coup D’etat is a mélange of his influences which span from trap music to pop punk to adult contemporary shlock to Korea’s underrated disco-soul scene. At times the album feels like empty calories—artificial whipped cream synths, dated dubstep bass belches, and cheesy hooks. But to their credit, he and his YG Entertainment co-producers Teddy Park and Choice 37, have created a post-modern pastiche of worldwide pop idol sounds in 2013. G-Dragon comes off as eccentric, because he aspires to be everything to everyone. In the album’s outro “You Do,” G-Dragon interpolates Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma” over a trap beat with pop guitar licks, yelps like Lil’ B, and raps in Korean “You could be somebody man / a Superman of justice / Look so fine /Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne …You can do it too, man / Play guitar, Kurt Cobain / Hold a mic, become Lil’ Wayne / be popular like Big Bang.”
A favorite talking point about the album has been about the efforts G-Dragon went to in order to appeal Western markets. It does feel slightly strained at moments, particularly in the Timbaland-imitating “Niliria” featuring Missy Elliot, but it feels less like catering to an audience and more like he’s had the same fantasies about his heros as his fans do of him. In “You Do” it sounds like G-Dragon can’t wait to meet Killa Cam to discuss fur coats or meet the Based God to talk about really positive things. If the video for the deliciously dark title track “Coup D’etat” is any indication, he’s probably fulfilled a dream of having late night conversations with Diplo and Baauer about global EDM illuminati secrets.
Unfortunately, there are also times where his infatuation with Top 10 music is trying, like on the Bruno Mars/Maroon 5/Jason Mraz imitation “Who You?” This formula is hugely popular in many parts of the world, but its blandness detracts from G-Dragon’s manicured edginess. A much better fit for him is the brilliant sparse R&B track “Black,” where a bleak meditation on love doubles as a cutesy, flirtatious duet. In the online version of the song, K-pop singer Jennie Kim sings the female verse as impassioned and innocent, while Sky Ferreira’s delivery on the album version is husky and sexy. In Coup D’etat G-Dragon comes off as confident in his ability to manage the K-pop expectations of his hardcore fans, experiment with rap and dubstep, and warm newcomers up to the Jamiroquai-esque disco-soul sound of acts like Zion T.
In the end, only so much can be said about his music without referencing his visual output. The genius of the Korean music industry has long been their financial investment in music videos. G-Dragon’s videos for “Coup D’etat” and “Crooked” exude opulence in a way that’s increasingly rare outside of Korea. They are a throwback to the time when a music video release was a worldwide event. K-pop reaction videos, where fans record the first time they experience music videos, are ideal for his chameleonic looks. Each new character he creates, each brush with androgyny, each time we wait to find out whether we are getting the boy-next-door sweetie or the snarling anarchist, is thrilling enough that there’s a thriving subculture of folks communing over each other’s facial expressions and second-by-second commentary on his videos. YouTube a looking glass where we are anonymous and in Coup D’etat G-Dragon flaunts his delight in being on the other side.