“Honestly now, did you spend your youth dreaming about someday owning a _______ or a _________?”
On November 28th, 2018, the Korean hip hop scene saw one of its most ambitious albums to date: XXX’s first full-length album Language. With ten tracks including two pre-release singles “Sujak” and “What You Want,” this album is a diary of two young men who are disillusioned with the current state of their home country’s music scene. The creative forces behind this group are producer FRNK and rapper Kim Ximya.
The duo met on an online hip-hop community and decided to join forces. They would go on to find a home in E-Sens’s label BANA (Beasts and Natives Alike). Throughout several interviews, FRNK has stated some of his musical influences are J.Dilla, Radiohead, and James Blake – for Ximya it’s Jay-Z, Eminem, and Yelawolf. While it’s one thing to be inspired by an artist and create similar works, it’s another thing entirely to take that inspiration and create something completely different. This is exactly what XXX has done throughout their discography.
With their first EP Kyomi, XXX riffed on commercially successful music by making fun of it, including metaphors and hidden meanings that flew over many people’s heads. With Language, the pair went in a different direction – creating a wholly unique soundscape with hard hitting, direct lyrics that leave no room for misinterpretation. Even if you don’t speak or understand Korean, you still know exactly what the songs are about thanks to Ximya’s English fluency. He is capable of switching from Korean to English, and back to Korean all in one sentence, and he makes it look easy. His raps are highly charged and energized, fueled by his disdain of the state of hip hop in Korea and his desire for success but unwillingness to compromise on artistic integrity.
If there’s anyone to perfectly match that energy, it’s FRNK. Though quiet and introverted, FRNK tells his story through innovative beats that you simply cannot find anywhere else. How? Because he uses sound to convey his unique experiences and thoughts. In doing this, he breathes life into the music and inserts himself into every aspect of his production, making us believe that the music is another living, breathing person sharing the track with Ximya. FRNK is the music. Both artists compliment each other and shine in their own way without ever overshadowing the other. The two have managed to create perfect harmony within the chaos of Language.
“Now I’ll be more to the point.”
Language opens with “18G 1517.” The track begins with a dreamy sort of vibe, and a relaxed flow from Ximya telling us about his dream of buying a Bentley for his father. To him, success is being able to support his family and treat them to luxuries they’ve never had before.
“I got that, I’m confident, Imma buy that whip
Gotta make up for all the wrongs I’ve done to them
‘Bentley’ he said, the dream car of my eternal hero
Rolling side by side in my dreams – two Bentleys
When will it become a reality
Over fame over cash over anything I get
Only then can I claim success”
As the song continues he gets more angry, lamenting the fact that big names in the industry profit from copying and stealing from smaller artists. The beat behind him becomes darker and more forceful to match – this shift in direction will set the tone for the rest of the album.
“The silly thought of getting rich once I become the greatest rapper is all just a delusion, aye
Sick stuff is bound to blow up, but I forgot there are cats that make a fortune out of copying, aye
Copy all you want, copies rule in the end
Though I wouldn’t mind getting a piece of that pie”
This energy continues into “Ugly,” where Ximya talks about the ugliness of the music industry – behind him, the word “ugly” is constantly repeated throughout the song.
Ximya and FRNK don’t seem to bother much with choruses or typical song structures, which is something else that sets Language apart from the vapid masses of pop and hip hop songs that were designed to be consumed by as many people as possible. “Sujak” is probably the closest thing we get to any semblance of structure on this album. Kim Ximya repeats the “strip club, casket, body in that basket” verse a few times, alluding to a chorus. Underneath everything, the beat pulses like a pacemaker – a mechanical heartbeat that keeps the album’s energy moving right along, never faltering.
Scattered like Easter eggs throughout the ten songs, we can hear moments of high-gloss, luxurious synths that both reminisce on on the previous EP Kyomi and foreshadow XXX’s next album.
“Ganju Gok” is one of the more sinister sounding tracks, though it begins with a beautiful string instrument arrangement and synths that mimic a choir. This song is almost a FRNK solo, but he allows Ximya to come in at the last minute or so. It’s amazing just how much he’s able to say in such a short amount of time.
“I don’t want no problem,
End up in that body bag with all these fools
I’ve put most of my energy for the brighter future of the market my own way
But this place seems fed up so easily
It’s fucking disgusting
I also have a problem –
I tried to sell insane music to sane people”
Ximya tells us that Korea hates his music because it’s boring, but I have to disagree. Language is both exciting and terrifying, equal parts beautiful and disturbing – fueled by anger and legitimized by skill. If anything, Korea was not ready to hear such a critical and nihilistic view on an industry they take so much pride in.
“What’s hip hop about other than money?”
In “Trust,” the word “trust” is used as part of the beat, repeating over and over in a sinister tone, much like in a previous track.
“S_it” is one of Language’s stand-out tracks. The general consensus on this one from reading fan comments is just one word: crazy. This song becomes more threatening as it goes on, leading up to the eerie sound of sharpening knives as Ximya tells us “nobody can save you, nobody can pray for you….” There are several great English lines in “S_it,” including “I ain’t telling you to be conscious, I want you to be cautious.”
“What you want me to do?” Ximya asks in “What You Want.”
“Stop talking about money,
I just wanna talk art
Art is human
Human is greed
Greed is money
Wait, hold up
Stop talking about money
I just wanna talk art
Art is commerce
Commerce is profit
Profit is money
Wait, hold up
Stop talking about money
I just wanna talk art
Art is love
Love is nature
Language as a whole circles around the topics of artistic integrity versus commercial success, recognition versus being ripped off, and the frustrations that come from trying to make it in a society that seems to be stacked against you. In the young musicians’ eyes, there is no success to be had for a couple of creative free-thinkers unless they were to sell out – as so many others seem to have done – and make mainstream friendly music.
Impact & Reach
While Language might not have garnered much attention in Korea when it was released, across the ocean XXX was becoming a hot topic. America first caught wind of the duo when “Sujak” was added to The New York Times’ The Playlist. After that, they were invited to perform at the 2019 SXSW Music Festival, as well as securing interviews with the likes of Billboard and High Snobiety. XXX would then return to Korea where – to their surprise – Language took the title of Hip Hop Album of the Year at the 2019 Korean Hip Hop awards. 2019 is also the year that XXX released Language’s companion album Second Language.
Trendy, surface-level lyrics and sounds continue to dominate the music industry, both in South Korea and in the west, but little by little the focus is shifting to newer, fresher music. With more eyes on Korean hip hop than ever, people are discovering the vastness and diversity of the genre. This has created some impressive opportunities for both XXX members. In 2020, Ximya released the album “Dog,” which featured the iconic former 2ne1 member CL. FRNK worked on Punchello’s 2021 album Demon Youth. We’re not sure what’s next for these two, but we look forward to their continued prosperity and hope to see them come together again as XXX in the future.
Listen to Language on Spotify.
Listen to +82 KHiphop Podcast discuss the rise of alternative rap in Korea, including XXX’s Language.