There are some artists whose passion for their craft transcends languages, boundaries, gender roles, and generations. If you’re familiar with the phenomenon known as K-pop, Lee Taemin instantly comes to mind. He debuted in 2008 as a part of SM Entertainment’s ‘Princes of K-pop’ SHINee, performed in temporary dance unit YOUNIQUE, then as a solo artist, and in late 2019, he debuted for the 4th time in the ‘Avengers of K-pop’ SuperM. The first K-pop act to debut in the US and at the top of the Billboard charts, this also marked a history making feat for Taemin, who can officially claim that his career spans three generations of K-pop. Now, while also preparing for SuperM’s comeback, he is promoting his third Korean studio album boldly named Never Gonna Dance Again, a cinematic masterpiece that marks a turning point in the 27 year old’s career.
It’s 2pm in Seoul when Taemin settles down for our Zoom call, the preparations of which began immediately after his previous album Want. Since it’s been over a year and a half since then, he understandably has much to say. Despite his excitement, he thanks me for taking the time to talk to him, a testament to his character. He’s one of those idols who feels more like a friend than an untouchable superstar.
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was going to have a concert and the title was going to be Never Gonna Dance Again.” Taemin explains, “This new album was going to be a part of a huge project, which includes a concert, but since that couldn’t happen and we had to cancel the concert, I decided to use that title for my new album.”
When the title was announced, fans of the veteran entertainer were understandingly intrigued, as Taemin is known as one of the best dancers in the Korean industry. But, that shock is exactly the intention: Taemin hopes to “show more of my rebellious and adventurous side. The title talks about how I want to break out of my shell and try something new.”
With his reputation, Taemin admits, “I have felt a little bit of a pressure to showcase a different side of me and something that I haven’t done before.” Fittingly, growth is a common theme for this new project, which includes a prologue, Act 1, and Act 2.
To begin the story, the video for the prologue single, ‘2 kids’, was shot in Paris. A location with an aura Taemin views as “mystical, alluring, and beautiful”, a vibe that meshes well with both him and the song. Walking through the steps, Taemin says, “With ‘2 kids’, the song talks about how I was hurt from love, and with title song ‘Criminal’, it shows a different storytelling that leads to Act 2, which is about finding a new ego, a new identity, and a new side of the self”. Put simply, “Act 1 is the progress, and Act 2 is the new ego, the result, that’s how the two are connected together.”
Act 1, as a whole, “has more of a retro feel…after recording, I paid attention to creating that balance and the mix of the songs.” Instead of labelling the sounds by musical genre, Taemin describes the album as “conceptual, so each song showcases a different kind of concept”. He name-drops ‘Waiting For’, ‘Criminal’, and ‘Black Rose’ as examples of songs that each have their own concept, something he’s very excited to share.
Taemin’s creative print can be found throughout ‘Never Gonna Dance Again’, so choosing a track on Act 1 most special to him was difficult. “If I had to pick one, it would be ‘Black Rose’. I collaborated with a rapper [Kid Milli], not only is it very nice to listen to, but if you also look at the performance visually it’s very alluring and captivating, and it’s something that you can’t take your eyes off of.” In addition to live performances of ‘Criminal’, he says we can expect performances of this special song very soon.
“I have felt a little bit of a pressure to showcase a different side of me and something that I haven’t done before.”
“For the previous albums, Want and Famous, I was playing with a genderless concept. With this album, I wanted to showcase more of the rough side of me.” His duality and fluidity is encapsulated through performance and styling, all while still managing to be “reflections of myself”, as Taemin puts it. While Want and Famous focused on his dramatic, androgynous aesthetic, ‘2 kids’ is more boy next door, and ‘Criminal’ has an edgier backdrop, the theme of which channels Taemin’s personal interests.
“I enjoy reading fiction on a daily basis, so I wanted to create something that’s not ordinary, that’s not just about falling in love but about a different side of that.” Diving deeper into ‘Criminal’, “It’s inspired by Stockholm Syndrome, so I wanted to incorporate that element into the music video. Through my music, I want to deliver a different catharsis, something that’s very refreshing. For example, you can feel catharsis through very upbeat music or by falling in love, but this is a different, unique style of catharsis.”
Taemin is his own genre, and experimentation is the norm for him. Flirting with various sounds and concepts throughout his 12 year career, it’s no wonder the star won’t let labels hold him back as he consistently creates music that demands attention. Using cooking as a metaphor, “For my previous album, it was very savoury, something you wanted to relish for a long time. With this album, it’s spicy, and has that impact as soon as you taste it.”
When asked about the highlight of his year, his SHINee members quickly come to mind. “We got to get together again and it’s been nice to catch up and reunite with them. I’ve also been preparing for SuperM as well, and I really enjoyed the process. It was good to catch up with the members and have an intimate moment together since everyone is in Seoul this year.” He laughs when I ask if hanging with his members is how he spends his free time, because outside of all his daily grind, of course he makes time for those closest to him.
His heartwarming response makes it clear that he values their opinions as well. “When they came out for a vacation day, they listened to the album and said it’s very you, it’s very Taemin-like.” He adds that they know him so well, so they found the album was a great reflection of him, and this seems to give him even more confidence.
Taemin’s humble nature consistently shines through, “I want to be an artist that is very relatable, someone that’s very comforting that you can connect to. I want to leave a very impactful and lasting impression.” As Taemin recognises, K-pop as a whole is growing and becoming popular worldwide, and he wants to take this chance to connect with fans globally. In this age, that means online promotions and concerts like Beyond Live, which was first showcased by SuperM. “I’m very excited for that and right now, it’s a very hard time for everyone, so I want to give that positive energy and I feel that’s very important as well.”
Passionate about his hard work, he emphasises, “If you look at all the teasers and the music and music video, fans will see that all the different elements that were showcased from the beginning all come together and tell a story, so that’s going to be a fun thing for them to discover and piece together.”
With this album demonstrating Taemin’s desire to dive deeper and push creative boundaries, he hopes that “Instead of focusing on just how to showcase more of myself, I also want to, with music, develop and see how I can change and how I can grow, and so it’s all linked as one with my work.”