Back in 2015, Lim Kim’s “Awoo” was named one of Billboard’s best K-pop songs of the year. But listeners expecting the singer to return to that brand of quirky synth-pop, or anything else else she previously explored, are in for a shock with the 25-year-old’s latest release, Generasian, a powerful, subversive reintroduction — and perhaps her truest introduction yet, to Kim.
Now doing her own thing as an independent artist, Lim Kim (Kim Ye-rim)’s new music is empowering as it is impactful, and it’s her explicit response to being placed in what she describes as a figurative box that she felt trapped in during the early days of her career.
After parting ways with South Korean company Mystic Entertainment, now a subsidiary of K-pop megacompany SM Entertainment, in 2016, following the release of several popular albums and singles, Kim spent time working on the brand of music she wanted to put out to the world. The results started to reveal themselves this year, first with the crowdfunded release of her brash rap track “Sal-Ki” in May, and then later with the impactful, genre-hopping Generasian in October. A declaration of her return (and a shift towards English-language music), it was a dramatic move, and one that was an expression of her identity as a Korean woman dealing with her place in the world at large. “I need to change up this game/ Don’t identify self in the male gaze/ I’m raising my voice to be heard/ Building my world,” she proclaims on “Sal-Ki.” “Decolonize from weakness/ Overpower their system,” she later says.
Kim says her new music is full of rage aimed as an expression of her feelings, and writing her songs has helped her channel emotional turmoil. “I think after expressing your own feelings, you get a calm feeling,” she tells Billboard about her songwriting process, exuding that sense of calmness throughout the entire video call, even while talking about intense emotions. “After I finished [Generasian], I was really calm and silent because I’ve done everything that I had in mind.”
Everything that Kim is doing nowadays is a response, a manifesto of sorts, to how she feels about the world around her and her life’s experiences being both Asian and a woman: she grew up in South Korea, lived in the United States for high school and competed on an American Idol–like television show as one half of the duo Twogeworl, which resulted in her signing with Mystic. Once she began working in the K-pop industry as a soloist, she felt stifled by the ideals of how female artists should act and create music. It was a slap in the face for the young star, who says that prior to that she never truly felt restricted by her identity as a woman.
“I didn’t really think about it that much,” Kim recalls. “I wasn’t really feeling that I can’t do something because I’m [a] woman. But after I debuted it and started my career, they kind of put me in this box that is called ‘Woman.’ There were so many stereotypes that female singers have to be in K-pop‘s system. You have to be pretty or you have to be cute. You have to look good always like if you’re a female singer. So that was kind of the first time that I realized that, ‘Oh, I’m a female singer, I’m a woman.”
After years of fitting into the role built for her and seeing success with songs like “All Right” and “Awoo,” Kim quit Mystic, and now does things on her own terms and with her own definition of what it means to be a woman. In “Sal-Ki,” she declares herself an “unf—able creature,” and it’s become her catchphrase. She even sells merchandise with the term.
”When I used to work in [the] label, they always talked about how to look good as a woman because people always just focus on that [rather] than your music or your ability to do something. They always talk about how you look, how you have to be something like… I don’t know if it’s the right word. To be tempting, you know what I mean? They always had that weird perspective. I don’t really understand that, so I didn’t want to feel vulnerable to anyone. I wanted to empower myself at first because I don’t want to be looked at that way from so many people and strangers. It feels really wrong. I think, not even just [in the] music industry, there’s so many women who feel that in every day of their lives, in their company or anywhere. People just do that without any guilt. So I wanted to make that statement to be seen on the shirt and lyrics.”
Throughout her discography, Lim Kim blends her interpretation of modern day womanhood with her determined attempt to tear down Orientalist stereotypes and raise attention to how Asian peoples and countries are still overlooked in the west. A major theme that appears throughout is how Asian women have historically been depicted as docile and submissive, and in the music video for “Yellow” she performs the fierce lyrics while reclaiming fashion and traditional aesthetics associated with those stereotypes. “I’m the queen from the east,” she asserts, later adding that she’s the “Queen of east and the west” fighting to “break domes of male dominance.”
“Yellow” is an ode to pan-Asian cultures, and fittingly the music video draws on — and her lyrics reference — a variety of identities and languages, looking to reclaim them for Asian people and nobody else. The word “kawaii,” typically associated with a distinct brand of Japanese ideals of cuteness, is featured early on in the song, explicitly to create a parallel to how many western musicians have been accused of appropriating Asian fashion, including the likes of Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry. “So many pop stars actually use Asian concepts with their music or visuals but we don’t actually use that in our own way. So I was really curious about that actually. They love Japanese culture, Japanese looks, and K-pop and everything. So I just wanted to make fun of those perspectives, and I wanted to use that in our way too.” During the interview, she learns about the recent incident of Kacey Musgraves being criticized for donning and sexualizing an áo dài and sighs.
Kim is using her music as a way to connect with her identity as Asian and Korean and trying to sort out what that means in the age of modernity and globalism, with Generasian bookended by dual intro (“Entrance”) and outro (“Exit”) tracks, both dubbed “Minjokyo,” which incorporates the Korean word usually used for ”nation” or ”people.” She’s inspired by Korean shamanism, which has traditionally incorporated singing and dancing into rituals, and sees herself as a modern day priestess of sorts. “I felt like Korean people have this energy with entertainment,” she says. “So I started thinking about making music about those spirits and rituals, and that was the basis of ‘Minjokyo.’ The reason it’s split into two tracks is that when you do that ritual you kind of enter that ritual and you start to sing and dance to go to the next phase, the new world, I guess.”
This new world of Lim Kim is an exciting, more earnest one than she’s ever shared with listeners before. Not only is she speaking her mind and determining her own path, but she’s also singing in her own voice for the very first time: while participating within the K-pop industry paradigm, she was directed to sing with an unnatural tone, resulting in the sultry, dreamy vocals emphasized throughout her earlier releases; it scratched her throat to achieve the effect. After years of being told how to act and sing, Kim’s reclaiming herself and her voice, and exploring what that means. As a result, throughout her new releases her tone vacillates frequently, as she tries to sort out who she is and who is using her voice, and in what ways. “I always imagine this character in the song, so I just kind of make different voices each time,” she says with a laugh. ”I kind of imagine, and I can kind of control [it] to be something that I imagined, with the voice.”
Even as she’s sorting out what she’s putting forth to the world and using her vocal characters to relay that, Lim Kim is the most real she’s ever been and has the potential to be one of this Generasian’s great voices if she’s given the chance to shine, on her terms.