The world of K-Pop has undeniably revolutionized pop culture as we know it. In a world previously dominated by western artists, the West has welcomed more and more international artists to the music world. Latin names like Bad Bunny, Rosalía, J Balvin, and Becky G have marked their unbeatable presence in charts worldwide, giving a voice to those whose American and British narratives no longer conjugate with their state of mind. Much like these Latin artists, South-Korean music, known as “K-POP,” has also taken off on international grounds in recent years.
Even though K-Pop has officially been around since 1992, with South Korea’s reformation of its democratic government in 1987, and consequently the modernization and lightening of censorship in television and music, it wasn’t until the 2010s that the Western world finally gave K-Pop a chance, in spite of its overwhelming presence in eastern countries. The lateness of the K-Pop welcoming in the Western world and international charts was especially noticeable through some of the South Korean music industry’s biggest names, namely EXO, BTS, and Blackpink. These groups have opened the doors for hundreds of smaller names in the industry, which are now notorious across the world.
Much like the Western music industry, K-Pop also has an abundance of soloists in its midst. Whether it is musicians that pursue their independence while in a group or start off as solo artists, there are plenty of names that are a part of our daily playlist and we may not even know who they are. For this reason, if you’re looking to expand your musical tastebuds with some South Korean music from solo artists, here are some names to be mindful of.
Lee Ji-eun, mononymously known as IU, is a South Korean singer and actress from South Korea. Quite possibly the biggest female solo artist from the past decade, IU is known for topping the Korean charts with her contemporary sound and unique voice. Active since 2018, IU rose into mainstream media after the release of “Good Day,” the lead single from her 2010 album, “Real,” receiving national and international acclamation after Billboard added the song to “The 100 Greatest K-Pop Songs of the 2010s.” With a total of five studio albums and nine EPs, IU has since become the artist with the most number-one songs on the charts, thus becoming the most popular soloist in South Korea.
Lee Tae-min, also known just as Taemin, is a member of the popular K-Pop group Shinee, which debuted in 2008, and a member of SuperM, which saw its debut in 2019. The musician and dancer is not only a part of two groups, but he also has an incredibly successful and profitable career as a soloist. In 2014, Taemin released his first EP, “Ace,” and it had immediate success, which was not surprising considering Shinee’s popularity at the time. It peaked at number one in several South Korean charts, marking the first time Taemin would top the charts. In 2016, the singer released his first studio album “Press It,” which immediately reached number one upon release. Since his first studio album, Taemin released three other albums, “Move” (2017), “Taemin” (2018), and “Never Gonna Dance Again” (2020). The latter was widely recognized by critics as one of the best K-Pop releases of that year, becoming one of the most acclaimed solo artists in South Korea of all time.
One of the idols that often goes back and forth between her solo projects and her group, is Ahn Hye-Jin, also known by her stage name, Hwasa. The vocalist from the popular South Korean girl group MAMAMOO ventured into the solo world in 2020 through the release of her debut solo EP, “María”, and again in 2021 with her debut studio album “Guilty Pleasure.” The lead singles of the EP, “Twit” and “Maria,” reached number one in the South Korean charts immediately upon release. The 27-year-old singer reached international fame through her work with MAMAMOO, alongside her group members Solar, Moonbyul, and Wheein. She is known for her powerful voice, with raspy undertones, making her the perfectly versatile vocalist to completely master every single musical genre.
BTS’ sub-rapper and main dancer J-Hope is one of the many K-Pop idols to have taken a solo venture while working as a group with BTS. In 2018, BTS’ J-Hope released his debut EP entitled “Hope World,” which peaked at 38 on the Billboard 200, consequently making J-Hope the highest-charting Korean soloist at the time of release. In 2022, during the BTS break when each member is releasing solo music, J-Hope kickstarted the plans by releasing his first studio album “Jack in the Box.” J-Hope’s studio debut explored different sounds than previously touched on by the artist and even BTS, exploring a much more grunge and R&B genre, in contrast with the cheerful songs from his previous EP. As a result of his already ginormous popularity with BTS, J-Hope’s “Jack in the Box” was awarded Platinum certification by the Korea Music Content Association, solidifying the rapper’s role as a solo artist.
The rising alternative R&B phenomenon Kwon Hyuk, known as DEAN, has made his presence known throughout the K-Pop industry. Unlike most Korean artists, DEAN’s career actually kickstarted in the United States in 2015, where he worked on his first collaboration with Grammy winner Eric Bellinger. Later that same year, he would also get his Korean debut through a collaboration with the rapper, Zico, and through the release of his second single “Pour Up.” The singer, rapper, and producer released his first EP in 2016, entitled “130 Mood: TRBL,” but it wouldn’t be until 2017 that DEAN’s name truly rose to fame, after the release of his single album “Limbo,” which was composed of only two tracks. Both singles rose to the top of the charts, and since then, DEAN has been gathering quite a few collaborations with several South Korean and American artists, wide-spreading the Korean influence in the West.
6. Agust D
One of the best solo artists in the Hip Hop South Korean world is Agust D. Min Yoongi, also known as SUGA and Agust D is the lead rapper of BTS. The rapper’s name varies from his group work as BTS, where he is known as SUGA, to his solo work, where he is known as Agust D, a rearrangement of Suga’s name along with a nod to his hometown, Daegu. The songwriter and producer from BTS was one of the first members to pursue a solo career outside of the group and is known for his early start as an underground rapper. After joining BTS, Yoongi released his first self-titled mixtape “Agust D,” being raped by Fuse TV as one of the Top 20 mixtapes to have been released in 2016. A few years later, in 2020, he released his second mixtape “D-2,” with the single “Daechwita” peaking at number 76 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. For being one of K-Pop’s most credited producers and songwriters, Yoongi is also expected to release his first studio album, alongside other BTS members, becoming one of the most anticipated artistry studio debuts in South Korea.
As one of the most iconic and coveted names in K-Pop, CL has solidified her presence and reputation in South Korea and internationally throughout the years. As one of the most emblematic artists in K-Pop, CL’s name will go down in history as one of the most influential artists from the industry. The singer and rapper debuted and rose to fame in 2009 as a member of the girl group, 2NE1, a second-generation group, which would go on to become one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. Following the group’s hiatus in 2015, CL released her first solo single “Hello Bitches” and “Lifted” in 2016, landing her a spot on the Billboard 100, becoming the first female K-Pop artist to achieve this feat. After nearly two years of hiatus, YG announced 2NE1’s disbandment, and although she remained in the company, CL subsequently left YG and promptly released her first solo EP “In the Name of Love” in 2019 followed by the debut of her first studio album “Alpha” in 2021.
8. Jackson Wang
Jackson Wang is the only non-Korean artist on the least, but that doesn’t mean he is any less deserving of being one of the best soloists in K-Pop. The Hong Kong-based rapper, singer, dancer, and producer gained widespread recognition after joining Got7, who had their debut in 2014. With dreams larger than life, Wang founded Team Wang and kickstarted his solo career in 2017, but it wouldn’t be until 2019 that the singer would release his first solo album, “Mirrors.” The debut studio album reached number 32 on the Billboard 200. In 2020, the singer released the single “100 Ways,” which mixed English and Chinese culture, and also became the first song by a Chinese solo act to debut on Mediabase’s U.S. Top 40 ratio chart. His fluency in Korean, English, Cantonese and Mandarin has granted Wang international acclamation, releasing singles in at least three out of the four languages, as well as his large influence in the music industry for his well-versed knowledge in music production in addition to being a fashion designer and creative director.
Lee Sun-mi, mononymously known as SUNMI, debuted in 2007 as a member of the South Korean pop girl group Wonder Girls, a second-generation group. After opting to leave the group to pursue her studies in 2010, SUNMI debuted as a solo artist three years after her hiatus, releasing the EP “Full Moon,” and spawning the two singles on the South Korean digital charts. Her second EP released was Warning, in 2018, with two sirens “Heroine” and “Siren.” Part of the reason why Sunmi became an acclaimed solo name in K-Pop, besides her undeniable musical and dancing talent, was that the singer is known for having created her own musical style, oftentimes called “Sunmi-pop.” Although it maintains K-Pop’s core influences like pop, disco, rock and traditional Korean Music, Sunmi-Pop also incorporates elements of the singer’s own defined music identity, that can’t otherwise be found in any other K-Pop musical style.
Kim Hyun-ah, better known by her stage name HyunA, is a South Korean singer and rapper that, alongside SUNMI, began her music career with the Wonder Girls in 2007. Not long after the group’s debut, HyunA left the ensemble, subsequently leaving JYP Entertainment. In 2009, the singer would join the group 4Minute, thus becoming part of one of the most popular girl groups in South Korea, however, her solo career wouldn’t start until a year later, releasing her debut single “Change,” which went on to chart at number two on South Korea’s Gaon Digital chart. Her first EP was released in 2011, entitled “Bubble Pop!,” with its title track selling more than three million digital copies, and whose music video earned the singer the spot as the first female K-Pop solo artist to gather 100 million views on a single video. HyunA released five more EP’s under Cube Entertainment, and in 2018 she released “Flower Shower,” her first digital single under Psy’s P Nation, which became her seventh top-ten entry on the US Billboard World Digital Song Sales.