As the crowd at Staples Center screams their lungs out at the sight of his group, K.A.R.D, the Jumbotron captures 25-year-old Los Angeles native Matthew Kim for a few quick seconds, smiling from ear to ear. B.M, as he's better known, and his bandmates dive into the first song of their performance, “Don’t Recall.” Only a month after dropping their first official single, the coed K-pop group are one of the most anticipated acts of the second concert night at the annual KCON, a Korean culture convention, on Sunday, Aug. 20.
Despite being the first performers, K.A.R.D (pronounced “card”) are far from unknown to the fans. The group released their first song back in December: “Oh NaNa,” a contemporary house and dancehall hybrid with production seemingly snatched off of America’s Top 40 charts. It features the perfect mixture of melodic vocals by the group's female members, So-Min Jeon and Ji-Woo Jeon, and the deeper registers of the male rappers J.Seph (Tae Hyung Kim) and B.M. Fans immediately took to K.A.R.D's fresh boy-girl chemistry, which is not super popular in K-pop, where fans tend to be overprotective of their idols and their interactions with the opposite gender.
With their incorporation of different Afro-Caribbean genres like reggaeton, dancehall and moombahton in their music, K.A.R.D were embraced by fans in the Americas well before they formally entered the K-pop scene in Korea this past July or even made a dent in it.
In an unusual move for a K-pop group, K.A.R.D released three songs prior to making their "official" debut half a year later, all in an effort to hype up their first EP, Hola Hola. And it appears to have worked. The video for “Don't Recall” has more than 30 million views on YouTube; their latest, "Hola Hola," is closing in on 11 million views just a month after its release.
Even before their formal debut in Korea or even holding concerts there, the group went on tour in the United States back in May, making stops in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. The Wild K.A.R.D Tour also reached cities in Mexico and Canada, and included a Brazilian leg that sold out in two hours.
“Being based in Korea ... I had no idea that it was gonna pop off in America or in Latin America or anywhere outside of Korea,” B.M tells me at KCON before their set. “But to be able to be invited to do shows, stand on the KCON stage in L.A., my hometown, where a lot of my friends are watching, I think it’s a very big lesson.”
Born in Los Angeles, B.M moved to Seoul in 2012 to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. He auditioned with three other guys as a group for an American Idol–like competition show called K-pop Star, but the judges cut him, saying he didn’t fit the rest of the group. The next year, the South Korean entertainment company DSP Media signed him to a management contract. He then was paired with J.Seph, a Korean native, and together they were groomed as a hip-hop duo.
At first, B.M didn’t speak Korean fluently and struggled with getting used to the culture. But training with J.Seph helped him learn the language and acclimate. While the K-pop trainee process is notoriously grueling, for B.M, the hardest part was the uncertainty of having to wait for nearly five years for his debut day to finally come. By the time it did, DSP had added So-Min and Ji-Woo to the mix and reinvented their hip-hop duo as a K-pop quartet.
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While not unheard of, coed groups are rare within K-pop, and the most recent attempts have largely failed. For K.A.R.D, however, it seems to work in their favor, allowing them to perform conversational songs (“Don’t Recall,” for example, is an ex-lovers' quarrel) and choreography that is sometimes sexy and sometimes them just playfully vibing off their boy-girl dynamic (“Hola Hola”). Judging by all the fans in the floor section at Staples dancing their asses off to that choreography in perfect sync with the group during their KCON performance, it’s evident that K.A.R.D's unique formula is working well.
As B.M explains, K.A.R.D are perfectly aware that their trendy, Afro-Caribbean–inspired music is what appeals to fans on this side of the world. But they don’t want to be put in a box. “We are doing a lot of the Latin style and the dance style, but we don’t want to be categorized into that one style because we have a lot of colors we can show,” he says. “I think the fans can expect a lot of different styles [in the future].”
While the sounds of moombahton have really taken off in Korea, with songs like Winner’s “Really Really” and BTS’ “Blood Sweat and Tears” exploding on the charts, K.A.R.D’s more direct approach to Caribbean music has yet to catch on. Outside of Korea, the quartet have carved out and secured their place in K-pop. Back home, however, they’re still rookies, with a long way to go in a highly competitive market.
K.A.R.D will be touring the United States South America and Europe starting in September. Their U.S. dates don't include another L.A. stop; instead, they’ll go to new markets including Minneapolis, Miami and San Francisco. “In October, we’re going to release a new album with various music styles and different genres,” So-Min says via a translator, “so please look forward to our music.”