Before I begin this article, it’s necessary to note that quite a few of the performers on “High School Rapper” have appropriated Black culture. While K-hip-hop mainly has issues with stealing from Black artists, K-pop as a whole has appropriated from other cultures as well. Many fans—mostly BIPOC—try to hold idols accountable, yet there are always those who attempt to speak over their voices. As such, I think it’s relevant to include a few links that will explain the cultural appropriation that goes on in the South Korean entertainment and music industries; I want to make space here to shed light on the topic, as avoiding it only adds further harm. Here is a good starting point, which talks about racism and colorism in South Korea and the irony of the fetishization and appropriation of Black culture. This article talks about the disrespectful use of a Hindu god and also links to other examples of cultural appropriation.
Mark Lee performed “Drop” with Red Velvet’s Seulgi in the final round of “High School Rapper,” an elimination-based show for, well, high school-aged rappers to see who among them is the best. Lee belongs to SM-Entertainment-managed NCT, a K-pop group, and while he had achieved success before his participation on the show, he battled against the label of “idol rapper,” which belittles those in the K-pop industry as “fake” rappers. Given that he persisted until the final rounds when no one expected a K-pop idol to even last on the show and that he played a significant role in writing the lyrics, “Drop” can be seen as a culmination of Lee’s efforts in breaking free from stereotypes and truly finding himself. Thus, I’ve always seen this song as a message of support.
Every time the song starts, I immediately feel less alone: “Hey you kids with the neck ties / Take a look around / As you finally reach the age of 20 / The world that you’re seeing change / I just wanna write it all down to ya.” In Korea, you aren’t considered an adult until the January 1st after you’ve turned eighteen, and the age system is set up so that you are about a year older than you are elsewhere. In other words, the January 1st after you’ve turned eighteen is when you’re an adult—and twenty. Also, anyone born in the same year is referred to as a 친구, or friend, so there’s this unspoken sense of togetherness and comfort, hence the casualness with which he is referring to other new adults as “kids,” a term that, in Korean, can also mean “guys/buddies.” Even though this solidarity seems to only refer to other Koreans, given that Lee was raised abroad, it’s implied that the support is meant for anyone listening.
The song continues, “The title called Adult is heavier than a book bag.” Lee understands just how heavy the burden is; after all, he came to South Korea alone in middle school to pursue his dreams, and he had to transition into adulthood largely on his own. As a listener, this context feels soothing—he’s this experienced person who understands just how hard it is to grow up and figure out who you are. Still, Lee doesn’t try to act as though he knows everything: “Saying I’m ready is a lie / Since I can still do a lot / For a little while / I’ll drop off the me who is full of worries here / Take the heavy mic and here I drop that.” Although the official English title of this song is “Drop,” in Korean it’s 두고가, or, in a direct translation, leave it behind. Yet Lee purposefully uses “drop that” when he raps in English, not only alluding to his experience as a singer (by using the metaphor of a mic drop), but showing an important distinction in the nuances of the language, as dropping something has a much larger impact than just leaving it behind.
Lee raps about his own desires to support others as well: “Even though it’s hard I want to do the things I want / I want to buy food every day for my younger friends / I want to be a reliable shoulder for them to lean on / When they’re tired from running / I want to tell them the road to go on like a dad.” Here, his tone seems even more tender, fatherlike, reinforcing the sense of an experienced figure offering advice. The message of togetherness prominent in “Drop” also appears in other lyrics Lee’s rapped. In “Go,” his part goes: “This isn’t just my monologue / Those dreaming the same dream, dreamers shout back.” Lee always makes sure to uplift fellow youth, regardless of whether they’re his friends or younger than he is. Obviously, he uses his platform to encourage others to loudly fight back against societal expectations in their own way while simultaneously reminding them that dreams do not have to be groundbreaking. It’s far more important to stay true to oneself than change to fit a mold that others attempt to force you into.
“Drop” starts wrapping up with some much-needed empowerment: “Although I don’t know when this’ll be, / If I have to go anyways / I’ll drop off the word called fear / In case you know of this feeling too, drop that.” Though Lee acknowledges becoming an adult is scary, he notes that avoidance won’t do you any good. So he offers respite, using his prominent voice to gently coax youth—including me—forward. “One more time / Again now, for me, drop that.”
I only just graduated high school, but these lyrics made my insomniac nights that much easier. Though I felt alone, it was like I was being guided, and as a Korean-American, being able to hear such words from my own tongue was incredibly important. “Drop” made me feel at peace with myself for the very first time; I knew that it was okay and even normal to be struggling, and my future didn’t seem so daunting and lost to me anymore. This song became my way of coping, as I could put it on and drop off all my worries alongside Lee’s thoughtful words.
Note: the quoted lyrics have been translated by me, so they may not be 100% accurate.