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.

2020 Grade: B

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


25 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: YG ENTERTAINMENT

  1. I’m a little surprised you graded them higher than SM, but I remembered that AKMU were also under them so I guess between them and BLACKPINK finally somewhat pulling through (though really, Lovesick Girls is by far the best song–Pretty Savage is a distant second and there just isn’t enough material on this “full album”) it makes sense. I’ve still connected with more of SM’s output overall, but literally don’t think any of the big 3 had a great year. Though tbh given these times I guess it’s forgivable. Some smaller agencies didn’t even survive this year…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t want to say that I have different standards for different agencies, but I tend to compare an agency against their own past rather than directly compare different agencies to each other.

      Wow… does that even make sense? Haha I feel like I was typing a tongue twister!

      Liked by 5 people

  2. Despite my distain for YG I think BP’s successful and smooth year can just overshadow everything else (including Treasure Box’s not in melon chart streak, giving stray kids a worthy opponent) and cruise them to B+ to even A-

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As long as we grade on a curve with this year being a weird year, and extra credit that anything is better than their 2019, then sure, YG is a B this year.

    YG also should be acknowledged to have genuine hit groups with BlackPink and Treasure selling loads, even if the former is not my style at all and the latter is hit or miss for me personally.

    AkMu is a bit of an oddball these days at YG. They signed up back when YG was considered to be “The Artists” company. These days that isn’t the case anymore. To be honest, AkMu would be successful almost anywhere. Maybe for their first few years being at YG was a super plus as they learned the Music Industry, especially Chanhyuk, but going forward it will interesting to see if they stay or leave. In any case, I love their music, no matter where they are or will be.

    But what I really want to know is where the heck is Big Bang and G-Dragon? Sheesh.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree it’s been a nice year for YG, especially comparing it to last year. It seems they passed their streak of bad luck and scandals to SM, although I’d argue that none of their scandals are on the same level as Burning Sun.

    The quality of the releases could’ve been better but there’s no doubt Blackpink was one of the most successful acts of the year and Treasure has created a nice niche of fans. As for IKON, it seems the members are still very affected by BI’s departure, so I think it’ll be a while till they make a comeback.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know I understand that people have been not as updated to the scandals and what not because its old news to the general public. However it should be noted that so far the courts have concluded that Seungri nor YG in general had nothing to do with that scandal. Of course don’t expect the kmedia to post that because they’ve been long biased against them despite the courts actually going in their favor after almost 2 years of investigation.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I worry for IKON without BI, I honestly thought that IKON would get many comebacks this year to bring back their popularity which is the approach they took after they went to Japan for a while. I am not exactly sure what their music will sound like BI. What exactly went wrong with their comeback this year ? I am genuinely interested.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m looking forward to the fate of Big Bang. They seem to have totally lost the love of the Korean general public, but this does not preclude continued musical success. Even MC Mong still topped the charts after his big scandal and being such a hated figure.

    Btw, wouldn’t it be fun if you also did a review of Johnny&Associates? Especially now that there are so many changes happening in the company.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: JYP ENTERTAINMENT | The Bias List // K-Pop Reviews & Discussion

  7. YGE… they used to be my favorite agency. These last few years have not boded well for them and this year, in particular, has been a hard pill to swallow. Their only saving grace is the growing fever of BLACKPINK and the potential of TREASURE. Now, this is no exaggeration but I don’t think I’ve downloaded a single song from YGE. Their material felt second-hand and uninspired. WINNER’s farewell album was more of a whimpering sputter rather than a triumphant bang. iKON’s one feeble comeback felt lukewarm and I worry about their future. BLACKPINK understandably saw the most promotion with the obnoxious HYLT, the dizzying mess that was IC, and the somewhat rough and outdated LG. I still despise how the producers arranged LG’s chorus. TREASURE has… potential, but I wholeheartedly wish they dump the noisy choruses.

    I am eagerly awaiting next year as the only good thing I’ve heard from YGE is BIGBANG. Yes! The red carpet will be rolled out for you and heart-yearning screams and blinding lights will welcome your triumphant return!


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  9. I’m super late to this and it’s my first time commenting here but I will say that I enjoyed your analysis of the current state of YG. They had a better 2020 than 2019, but the bar was so low it was buried somewhere in the Earth’s mantle. While I think it would take a burning chunk of space rock cratering the agency to keep YG from puttering along – albeit, Burning Sun came close – like you, I’m worried about the agency’s future, especially creativity-wise. (Long-winded rant ahead, sorry in advance.)

    It’s rare for Teddy to put out a song for YG that I actually enjoy these days – the best songs he’s made lately were for Sunmi, and one of them was, if not plagiarized, definitely “inspired” by someone else’s work. He’s been using the same (bad) formula for years. (I think the writing was on the wall for me with Teddy and any future YG output of his after he and YG just reused what was definitely a rejected 2NE1 song for BLACKPINK with “As If It’s Your Last.”)

    Losing B.I was a huge blow for the company, and I don’t even say that as someone who was a huge fan of his or iKon’s work. He was new blood, offering some fresh ideas and a creative future for the agency with the Big Bang members’ enlistment in the military; I remember how even before iKon debuted he was being hailed as the next G-Dragon in terms of working on/producing his own stuff. Look how that turned out. The drug scandal and the cover-up were just too much on top of Burning Sun for YG, so I think that at that point they had to let B.I go, but in the long-term it was a mistake – not just for the agency, but for iKon, too. B.I and Bobby were, from the start, the most popular members and the driving force behind that group even when it appeared to be flagging in later years. While Bobby does produce and write some stuff, I don’t think he can carry iKon alone, (though, I’m biased – his try-hard “swag” sound doesn’t do anything for me).

    Something that doesn’t get talked about a lot but that I also think was a bad omen for YG was Epik High leaving in late 2018 right before Burning Sun and the drug/cover-up scandal went down. Epik High, along with AKMU, were the mostly loosely associated with the YG Family brand, and Epik High’s always done their own thing, but it still feels like it was a bad sign. Granted, I enjoy(ed) Tablo, Epik High, and HIGHGRND’s stuff more than most people probably did, but at the very least Tablo is someone other than Teddy who’s able to write and produce decent songs, (and able to bring other talented people into the studio to work on music… I’m pretty sure he was the one who asked Jonghyun to write Breathe). I also think Tablo cared a lot more about giving the underserved artists of YG time (and the material) to shine than YG did/does. (I’ll admit I’m biased, but I appreciate that both B.I and CL feature on part one of Epik High’s new album, especially since this is B.I’s first comeback since the scandal.) Lee Hi deserves the credit for her Seoulite album, but I’ll never forget how she was languishing at YG for years with virtually no output until Tablo came along and helped her put together an actual (and, in my opinion, good) album. Wasn’t surprised at all that she chose not to renew with YG, especially after Epik High had left.

    While Treasure is doing well and I don’t think anything will shake BLACKPINK’s popularity, even with their slim, so-so output, I do believe that YG /needs/ Big Bang to come back, and soon – and the fact that they have to rely on Big Bang isn’t a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, I think that any Big Bang or Big Bang-adjacent comeback will net a ton of money, but I’m not sure I agree with you when you say enough time has passed since Burning Sun. Seungri’s trial in the military is still ongoing. While I doubt any more revelations or a substantial punishment will come from it, any comeback from the group or its members individually, especially while the trial’s ongoing, is going to generate a lot of controversy. I think there’s going to be speculation about how much the other members knew about what Seungri was up to, (for the record, I suspect all they knew was that Seungri was sketchy and so were his friends and “business associates,” and either way, we’ll probably never know). Of course, you’ve got the hardcore OT5 stans who view Burning Sun as just another “scandal” along the same lines as idols dating each other or getting caught smoking weed, and don’t understand (or care to understand) the serious legal and moral implications and ramifications regarding what went down. But, at least in Korea, Big Bang has a lot to come back from, (not just with Burning Sun, but also with T.O.P’s weed thing, which brought up memories of GD’s weed thing – neither of which I give a shit about – and that escort business running out of the building Daesung owned). I think T.O.P recognized this when he mentioned in that V-live or IG-live or whatever it was that he didn’t want to have a comeback in Korea.

    I do think Big Bang will always have their title as the kings of K-pop, even with BTS’ insane success, but currently it feels like they’re more infamous than famous. In your words, they have “a lot of goodwill to build back.” I think that’s partially why GD is coming back first, to test the waters. (GD having a comeback within 2 years of being discharged, at YG? It’s a miracle. I hope I didn’t just jinx it.) I look forward to when he does, not just because I want to hear his music or to gauge how a Big Bang comeback will be received, but also so we have someone other than goddamn Teddy making music at YG. Almost surprised they didn’t have Taeyang come back first, considering he’s the only Big Bang member (past or present) whose reputation remains decent, but GD is the most prominent. (A little unrelated, but I doubt we’ll ever see T.O.P come out with a solo again. I never saw him pursuing a long-term music career outside of Big Bang to begin with, but after the way he was treated over his weed scandal I think that the only thing that’s going to get him on a stage again is the threat of YG sinking without Big Bang.)

    So, yeah. Not great that YG has to pin a lot (but, to be fair, not all of) their hopes on Big Bang coming back. I think the only act from YG right now who’s been successful in terms of popularity and keeping things interesting with their music is AKMU, but they’ve always done their own thing – I can’t see Chanhyuk producing for BLACKPINK or Treasure. Of course, Winner has a bunch of talented guys in it and in a few years they’ll all be out of the military, but YG regrettably never seemed to take them that seriously, and I doubt they’ll be allowed to or expected to man the helm in the way that, say, GD is. They aren’t as indispensable to the YG brand.

    Fingers crossed that GD’s comeback goes well both sonically and in terms of reception, and that a successful Big Bang comeback follows before we all have gray hair. Even that seems like asking too much of YG, so I guess I’ll just have to be grateful for Lee Hi breaking out of the dungeon and AKMU remaining untouched by the rot that seems to permeate that agency.


  10. Pingback: Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2021: YG Entertainment | The Bias List // K-Pop Reviews & Discussion

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