As part of my “Top 100 K-pop Songs of All-Time” countdown, I took the effort to dive deeply into my top ten picks and break them down moment by moment.
But, there are plenty of other songs that deserve this same treatment. So, The Bias List proudly presents an in-depth feature: “Breaking Down the K-pop Song.”
As part of this feature, I’ll be taking a close look at some of the songs that really resonate with me. They could be personal favorites, or simply tracks that are too interesting to ignore. This feature will include title tracks, b-sides… even J-pop.
**Although I have a musical ear, I’m not technically trained. As a result, these breakdowns will often describe things in a more abstract way rather than use a ton of technical jargon. But as always, my passion for this music will certainly shine through!
Kara – Step
Released in 2011, Step represents the peak of Kara’s collaboration with producers Sweetune. It’s taken from their album of the same name, and injects their synth-heavy sound with a ton of retro flair. It’s their third highest selling single in Korea, taken from their highest selling album.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why it’s so satisfying.
Music: Han Jae Ho, Kim Seung Soo
Lyrics: Song Soo Yoon
00:00-00:08 – I love when songs get right to the point. There’s no messing about here. No atmospheric story building. The beat drops right away, powered by a thumping kick and seesawing synths that instantly set the retro mood.
00:08-00:16 – And here we get the first taste of those lush, layered vocals — a Sweetune trademark. Kara were no slouches in the vocal department, but Sweetune make everyone sound better. I love how this brief vocal segment previews the chorus without spoiling it. I also love how the synths and vocals almost seem at odds with each other. The girls offer a descending riff, while the instrumental is more of an up-and-down loop that fills in the empty space.
00:16-00:33 – The production remains remarkably stable here, utilizing that same synth riff that opened the track. Yet joined by the melody of the verses, it has an entirely different feel. And I can’t say enough about that throbbing dance beat. The kick is unrelenting, and keeps the entire track solid as a rock.
I write about “sing-talking” a lot, and the melody here could easily have turned into that. But, it has an intentional construction, and resolves nicely.
00:33-00:49 – Step really starts to bloom here. For the first time, that central synth riff is replaced by ceremonial synth brass that punches forward with an effusive energy not unlike Infinite’s The Chaser. The melody also picks up steam, taking an immediate upward turn. All the while, the brass eggs it on. In one short pre-chorus, Step delivers two mini climaxes, making this segment incredibly satisfying. Add to that a generous does of backing vocals and a sprinkling of filtered guitar and you have a sound tailor-made to lift your mood.
00:49-1:04 – Of course, every great build needs an incredible payoff, right? Step’s chorus brings it all together. That central synth riff is back, along with the insistent kick. Added to the mix is electric guitar and a couple of perfectly-placed drum fills.
The vocal layering here is nothing short of transcendent. I almost wish I could strip the instrumental away and hear it on its own, because it has such a full, textured sound. This is essentially a call-and-response hook, with the call being immensely arranged while the response uses fewer vocal layers. This results in a push and pull that becomes its own sort of rhythmical force.
01:04-01:12 – And what’s this? A secondary hook? As if Step wasn’t crammed with enough goodies already, the chorus leads into a chanted refrain. The guitar from the pre-chorus becomes more prominent once more, but the vocal layering remains the standout.
01:12-01:20 – Many of today’s K-pop tracks favor a tempo shift immediately after the first verse, but Step knows how to distinguish this segment without losing momentum. The melody from verse one is back, but the instrumental changes. Gone is that bright synth riff, replaced with scuzzier electro bass that functions in much the same way. The kick remains, ensuring a sense of continuity, but this brief segment has a grit that keeps the song interesting.
01:20-01:28 – Before we know it, all the core elements are back again and we’re sailing along, ready for the…
01:28-01:36 – …second pre-chorus! Wisely, this one’s half as long as the first, getting right to the good stuff so that we don’t waste any time in between choruses. In fact, this whole second verse/pre-chorus segment is only half as long as the first, which is a hallmark of many of my favorite pop tracks. If you’ve already got us hooked, for god’s sake don’t let us go!
01:36-01:52 – We reach the second chorus, and it’s largely the same as the first, except…
01:52-02:07 – We ditch the post-chorus refrain and head into a bridge of sorts. This segment is a real stunner… kind of like Step’s chorus on steroids. The key raises and we hit another call-and-response. But this time, it’s the vocals that are calling and the synth that’s responding. This bridge offers a spike of drama but also gives us a moment to breathe. Those two things shouldn’t fit together naturally, but Step really makes it work.
02:07-02:15 – Two minutes in and we finally hit the first rap verse. The instrumental changes up in the most dramatic way yet, but never at the expense of the song’s energy. The rolling synth line here is incredibly funky, playing an off-kilter rhythm that unleashes a brand new texture to the track. It’s echoed by a splashier synth flourish. The percussion has plenty of reverb, giving the whole production a full, wall-of-sound appeal. It becomes more brilliant and enveloping the closer you listen to it.
02:15-02:23 – If you thought things couldn’t get any funkier, rhythm guitar comes in for the second part of this rap verse, and it brings an incredibly joyous energy to the already-blazing production. Just masterful.
02:23-02:38 – And our extended, three-part bridge continues. The instrumental briefly falls away and we’re left with an airy mix of filtered synths and keys. What sounds like plucked guitar lulls us into a sense of peacefulness before that thumping percussion reconstructs itself. This brief moment of weightlessness comes at the perfect time, giving extra emphasis to the final chorus.
02:38-03:24 – And here it is: the grand finale.
You know how they wait until the end of most fireworks shows to set off the most bombastic display? Step uses the same format, bringing everything together for its final knockout punch. The bridge bleeds into the chorus as the key changes, pulling some of the plucked instrumentation with it. But most brilliantly, Sweetune take the song’s two “call” elements and merge them together.
After one repetition of the chorus in its new, ascendant key, the track places the climactic call from the first part of the bridge right after the normal call in the chorus. It’s a call call special! A double call! This pair-up could be jarring, but every element is so perfectly calibrated here that it works wonders and puts one final exclamation point at the end of an incredible song.