“I really wanna live in America,” Key says at some point during the conversation. “I’m 31. I can be 29 there.” He leans back in his chair and laughs – it’s as easy, hearty and open in person as it is on screen, but you would expect nothing less from Key. At the time of NME’s conversation with the K-pop star, he was about to turn 31 years old in Korean age in a couple of days – but his reservations about age are superficial. For Key, his 30s did not come with the classic Hollywood despair about running out of time to do things. For Key, age brings with it a quiet confidence in the path he is on and the man he is.
“Nothing changed [after I turned 30]. I made my ‘Bad Love’ album [but in some ways] it’s totally different,” he tells us of his second solo project over Zoom from a nondescript room one fine morning in South Korea. “I finally became ‘me’. I have a chance to show the audience that this is me. This album is the album-version of Key.”
One doesn’t have to be a super-sleuth to arrive at the truth of his words. In fact, a cursory look at ‘Bad Love’ would be enough to trigger a light-bulb moment. “Of course it’s inspired by retro themes! Of course, it looks like a horror-themed fashion show in space!” you’d think. Beyond the initial surprise and awe, is recognition, because a high concept work like this could come from no one else but Key.
Over the years, we’ve been exposed to Key’s personality and creativity, which has been peppered throughout later SHINee releases – be it their artwork, forward-facing fashion or music. In retrospect, then, ‘Bad Love’ is not as surprising as it initially seems. It’s as if the puzzle pieces are finally coming together and they’ve clipped into place with comfortable ease that leaves behind bubbling excitement.
Turns out, Key knew he wanted to make ‘Bad Love’ a whopping 14 years ago, as he disclosed to his fans on the interactive app Bubble. The idea had been gestating for years inside his head, so when the time and chance came by, he knew exactly how to bring it to life.
“[During] my first solo album, ‘Face’, [I was] involved in making choices, but those choices were laid out for me,” he says. “But this time, from the beginning, I was able to say what I wanted to do, what I wanted to create, and what my vision was.” Attribute it to the idea of the album being almost as old as Key’s career, but the man of the present day and the development of ‘Bad Love’ can be viewed as conceptual parallels.
“Without my journey, without my career and everything I went through, there would be no ‘Bad Love’,” Key points out “‘Bad Love’ is here because of my past and because of what I experienced during the past few years of my career.” If Key is an amalgamation of his experiences, ‘Bad Love’ is the culmination of his inspirations – a neat intersection of the things he thinks of as the epitome of pop culture and how they influenced him in his formative years.
“To me, the sounds [on the album] are the epitome of music and a [type of] culture. I wanted to relive and reemphasise those,” he says. “I wanted to bring back those sounds because they’re the peak of the culture of entertainment. That’s what this album is about: It’s not about creating something new, but more about bringing it back and reinterpreting it for today’s audience.”
From the energetic synths of the title track ‘Bad Love’ to the mood sampler that set the stage for this new era, the merger of old and new is undeniable on this release. In a call-back to science fiction films of old, when futuristic worlds were brought to life through elaborate set pieces and custom-made costumes, the detailed teaser images follow Key as he wanders a desolate, pink world, clad in a structured leather crop top and fitting pants.
He passes cages housing creatures of all kinds – some fighting to be let out, some resigned to their fates – until he happens upon one that is empty, seemingly meant for him. As is often the case in SHINee’s engaging worldbuilding – from the Halloween-themed ‘Married To The Music’ to their latest album ‘Don’t Call Me’ – all that glitters is not gold in Key’s world as well.
“That’s just me. I made that whole concept. I had like thousands of meetings.” His excitement is palpable as he dives into the retro-futuristic visuals of the album. “I still miss that generation when I got new figures from Star Wars and Star Trek, or just got a figurine from a supermarket store. That was really cool.”
“I wanted to recreate those elements that I kind of reminisce about. With the outfits, particularly the fashion, I wanted to bring that generation’s rockstar vibes to mine,” he says, then stops and laughs. “Isn’t it weird? I mean, people during those days… they’re wearing cotton uniforms in space! You’re going to blow up!”
Of course, Key would have opinions about the kind of textile you choose to wear to space. He takes his fashion very seriously – “I want to show my identity through my fashion,” as he puts it. From designing SHINee’s costumes for tours and releases to flaunting the latest bags in editorials, in Key’s books, fashion goes beyond just fulfilling a need: it’s a limitless, boundless language, a lexicon he spent years experimenting with and can now bend to his will to express what’s within.
“I was brought up in a very conservative, traditional household. My parents wouldn’t even let me pierce my ears. After I debuted, I started to notice that whatever we were wearing, our fans – especially female fans – would buy similar things and wear them themselves. That was a symbolic moment for me, seeing no need for boundaries.” he wrote in an essay for Allure earlier this year. “I’m wishing for a day when seeing women only wearing men’s clothing, just this person doing this and this person doing that, is completely natural and no one will bat an eye.”
“The only difference between men’s wear and women’s wear is size.” he says during our conversation. “They’re not separated in terms of design.”
The way he puts it – very matter-of-factly, as if it’s a cardinal truth – is enough to show that Key only looks at the world through the lens of his personal identity. The landscape of his life is dotted only by his personal beliefs, his own decisions and the things he decides reflect who he is today. As long as he gets to be himself, he doesn’t care about perfection and doesn’t need anyone else, as he explains on ‘Eighteen (End Of My World)’, a song that “means a lot” to him.
“[‘Eighteen’] is what I want to say to 18-year-old Key. Something like: ‘You go boy, you can do whatever you want. You’re going to fail sometimes, but don’t get hurt from that. You’ll be Key. So don’t worry’,” he says, before remarking that this introspection – the back and forth between the Key who was trying to find his footing and the Key of today – wasn’t easy.
“The song is really bright, but when I was writing the lyrics, it wasn’t really [pleasurable], you know what I mean,” he says. “I keep thinking about when I was really young, so I was kind of sad, very sentimental. I worked really hard in high school, so I wanted to cheer [that Key] up.” Despite that, he’s proud of who he is – both the adolescent version of himself and who he is now. “In the song, towards the end, I [sing]: ‘I would love to watch the end of my world with you’.”
It’s an almost terrifying level of clarity, clearly standing on a foundation of irrevocable confidence in himself, built year by year and one downfall after another. Hand in hand with that confidence, however, is accountability – the more aware he is of himself, the better the ride ahead. “There are two types of people,” he explains. “People who are, by luck or by fortune, able to accomplish big [things] in a short time. And then there are people who have to go through rough edges.
“They have to go through a lot of experiences, fall down a lot and get back up and then make those accomplishments. If I had to choose, I [would say] am the latter. During the last few years, I’ve gone through a lot of experiences. Now, I am able to enjoy the ride because I know that I’m responsible for my choices.”
Key’s new mini-album ‘Bad Love’ is out now.