It's always tempting when assembling these kinds of end-of-the-year roundups, to look to which songs sold the most copies or made the biggest wave on social media. But that's what pop charts, trending hot lists and awards shows are for. If you asked 50 Korean hip-hop fans for their 2015 top 10, they'd probably respond with 50 completely different lists. But as a living, breathing human, I can only honestly tout the songs that get my own heartbeat racing. The rappers on this list are among the most innovative performers of the genre. So, sit back, click those underlined links and let's get this party rolling.
In a year that the Korean music scene had more than its fair share of high-profile collaborations, it's only fitting that the 2015's best K-hip-hop track would be one of them. For his part, Tablo brought the same infectious energy that made his group Epik High's own all-star collaboration from 2014, "Born Hater," featuring Beenzino, Verbal Jint, B.I of iKON, one of the year's highpoints to "Sold Out." As the ringleader of a four-MC lineup this strong, Yankie does what any great leader does, he works as hard as anyone, while laying back when it is time for the others to shine. The result is a sound that is nearly impossible not to move to. Add to that the fact that this talented ensemble seems to be genuinely having fun without anyone taking the proceedings (or themself) too seriously pushes the vibe on "Sold Out" over the top.
2. The Quiett - "Bentley"
The Quiett's flow can normally only be heard saturated with with high-speed hi-hat and keyboards. But once he got the space on this track for his flow to breathe, the distinctive MC was able to ascend to new heights. Though there is no denying that The Quiett has been perfecting his craft for some time, one of the riveting things about "Bentley" is how it seems to be one of those songs that even surprised its creators with how great it turned out. And though rap music has had a long love affair with cars like rock 'n roll before it, The Quiett injects a cinematic urgency over a beat possessing an almost mystical quality to create that sought-after dynamic of sounding both new and classic at the same time.
3. Peejay - "I Get Lifted" featuring Beenzino
One exciting trend that continued in Korean rap in 2015 was a move toward the more jazz-inflected sound of the classic era of the 1990s. Nowhere was embracing the cool more successful artistically than on Peejay's "I Get Lifted." Teaming up with one of the country's most prolific and consistent rappers never hurts either. Beenzino helps take this solid throwback beat and turn it into a drama in three acts. And just when you're sure the whole thing was constructed on two turntables and a microphone (plus a sampler or two) a blistering saxophone solo makes you rethink the song's construction.
4. Zico of Block B - "Well Done" featuring Ja Mezz
The Grateful Dead are not typically the go-to source material for hip-hop producers in search of hot beats. But on "Well Done," Zico and Ja Mezz turn the vocal hook on the beloved Dead classic "Dark Star" (often considered the most sought-after of the band's live set by bootleggers due to its rare appearance in concerts after 1974) and use it as the springboard for an edgy sound, burning with attitude, straight from the streets. Jerry would be proud.
5. GD & TOP of Big Bang - "Zutter"
For hardcore Big Bang fans, there's only one name that mattered in rap in 2015, or two names actually, as so-called band "sub-unit" GD & TOP were responsible for the creative highpoint of the monthly stream of singles that led to the group practically owning the pop charts all summer. All said and done, the "MADE" series sold over 13 million singles worldwide, all still without the group releasing a full-length album. But just as important for the group's cultural impact as their commercial success is that while a majority of the eight "MADE" singles unveiled between April and August veered toward an eclectic, though mostly mainstream pop sound, on "Zutter" the Hallyu icons proved they can tear up the track with the best of them. For all of the musical styles that childhood friends G-Dragon and T.O.P try on for size, it is when the duo are dropping rhymes that they seem to be the most at home. Whatever your thoughts are on Big Bang, there's no denying the duo is dropping hot fire here.
6. illinit - "Beer In My Backpack"
Anyone old enough to be a fan of the brew remembers that early excitement of heading home with a bag full of beers, ready to kick a few back for a few kicks. With the way rapper illinit attacks the track with fierce precision on this infectious song, it's clear he hasn't had one too many. With a sound that is both grounded with solid skills and obscured with psychedelic production flourishes, illinit proved to be a major innovator this year. His album "Made In '98," though yet to receive any mainstream press, announced the arrival of a distinct voice on Korea's hip-hop landscape.
7. MaseWonder - "Summer Night"
"It was a summer night during the weekend," MaseWonder said of his moody end-of-summer opus when I interviewed him last month. "My friends and I were drinking and eating at the riverside. You see them exactly like that in the music video. I think I succeeded in capturing the fever of the night." Capture it he did. MaseWonder may not have created much of a stir in the West with "Summer Night," but he crystalized a mood on the track, an honest expression of a great moment as he experienced it that will now always be there for all of us to enjoy. More than any song on this list, "Summer Night" is a healing tonic.
8. Deepflow - "Lookin' Good"
One look at Deepflow and it is quite clear this guy isn't messing around. Built like a truck, there is undoubtedly plenty of work for the MC in security or ultimate fighting if the whole rap thing doesn't work out. But when he picks up on the mic, Deepflow is as light as a feather. And instead of playing up his tough guy persona, he instead chooses to laugh it up, opening the song with a clip from some cheesy US reality show. And Deepflow's nuanced artistry extends to the way "Lookin' Good" was produced. The morphing layers of synths harken back to the days when Dr. Dre was still hungry.
9. 5Zic of M.I.B - "Zick Jasper"
Zick Jasper wasn't just a song title for 5Zic, he rebranded with the name for his solo career. And with the bombastic beefed up low end of a hot bass drum propelling the songs melancholy piano loop forever forward, the song doe have that feeling of a declaration of principles. In renaming himself, Jasper also staked his claim on darker territory than his band would ever tackle. His future is wide open.
10. P-Type - "The Stranger"
Zico wasn't the only Korean MC to find modern day magic in North American classic rock, as P-Type turned Neil Young's 1970 hit "Southern Man" into one of the year's most propulsive beats. And though the haters would be quick to point out that with the chunk of "Southern Man" sampled on "The Stranger," it's really more of a mash-up than a new song, it is P-Type's electrified rapping that makes it among the year's best. If Kanye can sample huge chunks of songs, why can't P-Type?