K-Poppin’ Off – Episode 5: Mark Tuan!

We’re going on a musical journey. In this series, I’ll be exploring the world of K-pop, reviewing artists, bands, and albums as we go! Along the way, I’ll offer my unfiltered opinions – so if I criticize your favorite song, I apologize in advance. Let’s start “K-poppin’ Off!”

 

Forget Pitbull. No disrespect to the (305)’s globetrotting rapper, but I’ve found the new Mr. Worldwide, and his name is Mark Tuan.

I spent some time this weekend getting to know Mark’s backstory and listening to his music, both as a solo artist and as a member of South Korea’s award-winning and chart-topping boyband GOT7. But for the 27-year old vocalist, songwriter, and model, his journey didn’t begin in the Far East.

Born in Los Angeles, California, he’s of Taiwanese descent and spent time in both Paraguay and Brazil growing up. See what I mean about being Mr. Worldwide? Having returned to high school in LA, his career began almost by accident, when he caught the attention of JYP Entertainment talent scouts at his school. I’m impressed that he took a chance and flew to Korea at such a young age to begin his career – especially when you consider that he didn’t speak Korean!

As a trainee, he would eventually be placed in GOT7, and that’s where my musical exploration began. One of his many fan accounts on Twitter gave me a playlist of the songs he helped co-write, as well as his solo efforts, but I wanted to start at the start.

So I dove into “Back to Me” by GOT7 – from 2015’s mini album Just Right. I was met with squealy synthesizers, summery guitars, and feel-good vocal melodies. The production value and confidence levels of the boys didn’t sound as massive as I hoped, but this was an early release, after all.

Next, I listened to something Mark helped write from another mini album called Mad, released the same year. This one was called “GOOD,” and it was. The same funky guitars led the track, but the vocal performance was much stronger, and mixed much better.

Third up in my quick (and admittedly random) rundown of Mark’s lyric-writing credits was “See The Light” from 2016’s Flight Log: Departure. This one displayed a hip-hop influence that I’ve come to enjoy in K-pop offerings, and was the most mature pop effort so far I’d heard from GOT7 as a whole. I wondered if Mark’s solo music would continue in this modern direction or distance itself from the big 808s and Atlanta-styled percussion.

I decided I would find out after one more GOT7 song, “Born Ready” from their 4th studio album Breath of Love: Last Piece. This one was recently released, last year, and had all the crisp pop qualities of anything you’d find on a current EDM playlist. The chorus was undeniably catchy, but the verses were subtle and tasteful in contrast, with each stanza carrying new vocal patterns and tones. I suppose this song hadn’t been performed live yet due to the pandemic, but it belonged in a stadium full of screaming fans.

Having sampled his previous catalogue as part of a group, it was time to find out what Mark Tuan would do on his own.

“Outta My Head” was his first solo release, and came out nearly exclusively to the Chinese market. Pulsing, bass-heavy, and full of drama, he rode a wave of sound through a simple but catchy chorus, flipping between English and Chinese. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’ve listened to a C-pop song, but it was fun!

After his solid debut, Mark released another Chinese single – the title translates to “Never Told You,” and it began with a cool, collected instrumental that gave his voice lots of room to breathe. Through the use of tension notes in the pre-chorus and romantic lyrics, this felt like an R&B song from the 90s or 2000s. I was hoping for more excitement as the song progressed, but it remained relatively mellow for the entire 4 minutes. It reminded me of the type of songs that Ella Mai found some crossover success with a few years ago.

Last but certainly not least in Mark’s slowly-growing repertoire was “One in a Million” featuring the Bangladeshi producer Sanjoy. This one served a thumping double-bass intro and some clever geography references in the English lyrics, finding a middle ground between the excitement of his first single and the reserved nature of his second. Mark’s rap verse kept things spicy, although it deserved a tighter low-end on the instrumental underneath it. The melody was very casual throughout, as he didn’t test his range, even in the third chorus.

After checking out his material, I went back to Mark’s debut release, and thought it was a shame that “Outta My Head” isn’t available on most Western platforms. To me, I heard the most smash-hit potential there.

I typically take a moment in these reviews to talk about how the many talented K-pop stars might find more mainstream success in America. In the case of Mark’s music, I think he just needs the right team around him, because I already heard one would-be hit. In January 2021, GOT7 left their management at JYP, so it’s possible that he’s already building that team as we speak.

But to be specific, if he asked me for an American radio strategy, I would start with two things he’s already got down: English lyrics and a great instrumental. “Outta My Head” reminded me a lot of the solo music by EXO’s Kai, so I might try to hook up Mark with the same producers, like the French-born K-pop brainiac Alawn, as one example. It’s also possible that adding a female feature would add some extended melodic range and allow Mark to sit comfortably in the notes that clearly his fans adore!

That being said, it doesn’t look like American radio is part of the plan yet, as he just unveiled the brand new Mark Tuan Studios in China. The new Mr. Worldwide has his eyes set on taking over The Middle Kingdom, and I wish him the best of luck achieving that!

Mark told Paper Magazine that he’s got an album coming soon, full of “super meaningful” stories – and I know he’s being serious about that. After all, he puts his money where his mouth is, having donated money to causes like COVID-19 relief, Black Lives Matter, and Save the Children.

So whatever story he ends up telling, we know two things at least: it’ll be impactful, and it’ll be his own true story, after 10 years away from home.

My final scores for Mark Tuan look like this:

Persona: 10/10

Vocals: 7/10

Production quality: 7/10

Musical variety: 8/10

Replay value: 6.5/10

The final grade for Mark Tuan: 7.7/10. Armed with a base of passionate fans and a decade of K-pop domination under his belt, the world is Mark’s for the taking. Wherever he decides to strike first, his supporters will be there!

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