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!
ONF – Complete
Complete (널 만난 순간) was released in June of 2018 as ONF’s first official comeback. This followed a nearly year-long hiatus in which the group participated in YG Entertainment’s failed Mixnine series. Despite this long absence, the song’s parent album nearly doubled the sales of its predecessor. ONF would still have a long way to go commercially, but Complete put them on the map for many listeners, and offered an upbeat energy that would later inform their 2021 hit Beautiful Beautiful.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why it’s so satisfying.
Music: Hwang Hyun (Monotree)
Lyrics: Hwang Hyun (Monotree)
00:00-00:15 – Complete is one of the most musically optimistic songs of the past few years, and that energy generates right away. There’s a lift to this opening instrumental – a tugging quality not unlike the moments when an airplane begins to pull itself from the ground.
The chords here preview the outline of the verses, while wisps of strings add to that feeling of ascension. A swirling tropical synth line weaves its way through the segment, unresolved and anticipatory. Something is certainly brewing.
00:15-00:30 – MK’s vocal opens the verse, unaccompanied. It’s only at the fifth syllable that the percussion drops back in, and from here it’s a steady decline down the scale. This structure could easily come across as dull and repetitive, but the phrasing is brisk and lends the verse an incredible sense of movement.
Synth strings trace every note, while electro bass chugs along in the background. And though it’s quite simple, I love the formation of the melody. After descending in a predictable way, the end of each couplet tugs back upward, maintaining that sense of lift from earlier. This creates a velocity that makes the verse sound quite playful and fresh. The vocals and instrumental often contrast, with ONF going high and the synths going low — or vice versa. The result is both satisfyingly predictable and delightfully surprising.
00:30-00:39 – Pre-chorus is king in modern, EDM-inspired pop music, and Complete boasts an excellent pre-chorus. All elements of the song gain intensity at once. The percussion becomes more insistent, the bass becomes more measured, and the vocals build toward a more sustained climax.
00:39-00:46 – This tension continues to mount as the pre-chorus adds seesawing strings and the vocals become more robust and powerful. All signs point to a massive beat drop, coming in one… two… three…
00:46-01:02 – Ah, the release! Up until this point, Complete’s groove has been a bit hesitant and fractured. It’s like a turbulent climb from the runway as our metaphorical plane reaches cruising altitude. But with a simple vocal statement, the song kicks into full bore.
Once hesitant, the bass relaxes into a gallop, keeping steady beat with a commanding thump. Splashes of synth, twinkles of keys and the occasional “whoop” give this segment atmosphere, but the instrumental here is remarkably simple. Yet, the full-bodied bass ensures that it never feels empty or skeletal.
ONF’s vocals are warped with a brilliant effect, as the word “me” is stretched in all sorts of directions until it becomes a flourish of sound. It’s the rallying cry for which the rest of the chorus responds to, and its spiraling plunge instantly wipes away all the tension built from the song’s verse and pre-chorus.
01:02-01:10 – We hit turbulence again, but in the best way possible. After the exhalation of the chorus, Complete grabs us by the collar and roughs us up a bit, attacking with a maelstrom of sax and guitar distortion. We don’t often imagine these two musical elements existing together, but their competing charms create such an intense and dynamic centerpiece. The two forge a chaotic refrain, upending Complete without pulling us out of the groove. It plays like a series of exclamation marks, adding a sense of delirium to the song.
01:10-01:18 – This may be a small point, but I love how the instrumental pulls away for a moment before slamming back in. Rhythm (and especially funk) isn’t just about the instrumentation you hear. Empty space is equally important, and can lend emphasis to all the right spots in a pop song. Here, its use feigns whiplash, accentuating Complete’s brisk velocity.
01:18-01:25 – What a clever way to incorporate a bit of rap! Wyatt’s flow has always been pretty melodic, and that fits well with ONF’s general style. Here, his performance is underlined by a dynamic burst of house piano, swerving the song in a slightly new direction but maintaining its overall energy. The keys mirror Wyatt’s words, adding extra tug to each syllable.
01:25-01:33 – We’re back to the general structure of verse one, but now that the song has hit its stride, the performance feels looser. The melody isn’t quite as lockstep. The notes are slightly more drawn out, and a few echoed backing vocals give the rhythm a different appeal.
01:33-01:48 – It’s the pre-chorus again, though there are slight changes this time to lend it even more emphasis. There’s a thumping kick added to the percussion and the whole arrangement feels a bit more anthemic.
01:48-02:04 – Chorus/beat drop number two. More of the same. Equally awesome.
02:04-02:12 – Rather than go straight into the bridge, Complete’s sax-and-guitar loop filters out – sucked into the throbbing bass. In the music video, this is cleverly edited to match a dive in the pool, and the song definitely sounds like it has plunged underwater for a moment.
For a dance track that prides itself on an ever-expanding and warping sense of movement, this is a fun little surprise, and a bit of a tease since most listeners are likely waiting to hear the full drop once more.
02:12-02:27 – Instead, we move into a gorgeous bridge. The alarm-like synthline from Complete’s introduction returns, as most of the percussion falls out and the production calms. We’re left with a series of bright synth textures, maintaining momentum without hitting the rhythm so hard.
The melody here is equally delicate. It has a reassuring energy, soft but resolute. This is supported by Hyojin and MK’s deft performance, which feels warmer and airier than much of the song.
02:27-02:37 – The instrumental rips completely away for a spotlight on those oft-repeated, pre-drop words: “You complete…”
This is followed by a brilliant breakdown, where that twisting, filtered “me” is framed by stabs of percussion and keys. There’s a lot of empty space here, which emphasizes the aggressive nature of the breakdown. It’s a wonderful way to shake things up with an unexpected climax.
02:37-03:06 – And when the full charge of the chorus comes back in, it’s all the more rewarding. We get that full chorus + beat drop combo that we’ve been longing for since we heard it last time. It’s the fulfillment of a promise, and a very satisfying way to end the song.
Everything comes together and the guys ride on momentum. Complete draws to a close with echoing vocal loops, its ever-propelling energy still generating long after the music has faded.