The Art of Being Mino
The South Korean hip-hop star wowed critics and fans alike with his solo album ‘XX’; but is he any closer to discovering who the ‘real’ Mino is?
Understanding Song Minho is kind of like catching lightning in a bottle; impossible to do but the idea itself is so dazzling, you need to give it a shot anyway. Tall and blonde with bleached eyebrows and sharp features, Song–better known mononymously as Mino–cuts quite the intimidating figure. He’s intelligent, polite and forthcoming on every answer and there’s an elegance to him that’s instantly appealing. There’s one little thing that proves to be more charming than any of this, however, and it comes in the form of a little note he sends on email after the interview; “Thank you for your interest!” it reads cheerfully, accompanied by a smiley emoji. “I hope we do it again when Winner’s back!” It’s simple but sweet and suddenly there’s yet another dimension to the chic, fierce rapper we’re used to seeing onscreen.
Before sitting down with Rolling Stone India for a conversation in December, the 25-year old musician’s schedule through 2018 included the release and promotion of a full LP with his band Winner, a Japan tour, a more extensive Asia tour, a series of performances across his home country South Korea, starring roles in several variety shows and a feature on YG Entertainment labelmate and his senior Seungri’s viral hit track “Where R U From.” November was busiest for him with the release of his first solo LP XX, a 12-track feast of hip-hop, tradition, emotion and culture. December finally closed with yet another single with Winner and a series of year-end performances in Korea.
While a bit of a break is warranted after the whirlwind of activity, Mino confirms he has no plans to take it easy in 2019. “Winner will release a full album this year,” he reveals cheerfully. “I cannot talk about our plan in advance, but we are preparing a surprise gift with a great musician!” The four-member K-pop band are working on their upcoming third LP and have already begun their tour schedules in full force– they’re currently on a six-city run of the United States with stops in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and New York.
As an artist, Mino is full of surprises with an evolution that’s been thrilling to map. He started his career as a rapper in South Korea’s vibrant underground hip-hop scene back in 2010 (when he was just 16) but success took a while to come along. He debuted briefly in 2011 with a group called BoM before its premature disbandment in 2013, and then finally signed with leading music label YG Entertainment as a trainee. In 2014 he got his big break after participating in TV channel Mnet’s reality-survival program Win: Who Is Next and ending up as a member of the winning Team A–which would go on to form Winner and debut that same year. He shot to fame quickly this time around, gaining attention as a solo artist after finishing as runner-up on the fourth season of South Korean hip-hop survival competition Show Me The Money in 2015. With several eyes on him, he wowed with a more bluesy, melancholic persona on Winner’s 2016 EP EXIT: E. That same year he and YG Entertainment labelmate Bobby announced a duo project titled MOBB, which showed off a completely different, swag-heavy, fun-loving attitude, but in that EP he included “Body,” a solo single that blended sex and passion with angst and regret. Winner’s discography as of late has been bright, tropical and electronic-pop and he’s able to adapt to it effortlessly as well. His career trajectory spells ‘chameleon’ and even in times of trial there’s a sense of chill around him, as though deep inside he knows everything’s going to work out.
Over the past year Mino has embraced a life of avant-garde with ease, stepping away from his swag-heavy hip-hop image and slipping into a more elegant avatar. He seems more comfortable and willing to express himself in ways outside of music. He’s always had fondness for art but now seems to revel in it, regularly posting images of artwork he’s created on Instagram, participating in media projects, exhibitions and editorials. Last year, he displayed some of his own artwork at an exhibit titled ‘Burning Planet.’ The pieces were a combination of installation art with media and performance art which explored the idea of burnouts, stress and humanity’s exhausting pace of birth, work, death. It’s morbid, futuristic and almost prophetical in its warnings about the pressure society puts on young people and quickly gained critical acclaim. Mino remains modest in the wake of all the praise, saying, “I do not know if I have had any talent when I was young, but I painted as a hobby since I was a kid. So I have become interested in art naturally. It was a very good opportunity to exhibit ‘Burning Planet’ with [eye wear brand and collaborator] Gentle Monster. It was a good time to learn and experience many things.”
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It’s this artistic and emotional evolution which seems to have had the biggest hand in the creation of XX. “I wanted to give a tweak to my existing image, which I guess has been heavy with hip-hop and rap. I wanted to start afresh,” he stated at a press conference in November, according to a report by the Korea Herald. XX is an extension of his performance art–dramatic, creative with an ambiguous title to boot (he’s explained he wanted his listeners to have their own interpretations of it.) The video for the lead single “Fiancé” features imagery around birds, dreams, fantastical landscapes and more. In addition to being involved in the entire concept, Mino also contributed to the set design–there’s a giant mural of a bluebird featured in the video which he painted himself. Several fans as well as popular YouTube channels like DKDKTV have attempted to decipher the meanings behind it and he’s thrilled to see all the various discussions. “It is one of the things I enjoy the most,” he says when I ask if he ever watches these theories. “Making parts that can be interpreted in various ways… I love watching them in various interpretations.” Could he tell us which theory got closest to deciphering his work? “I will never tell which one is correct or incorrect for more diverse guesses!” he teases.
“Fiancé” has also been appreciated for its unconventional combination of trot, a form of Korean folk music, and trap. To do this, the track samples Korean veteran singer Kim Taehee’s 1969 track “Soyanggang River Maiden” and blends it with bass-heavy, rolling trap and Mino’s drawling rap. “There was no intention to use ‘Soyanggang River Maiden’ from the beginning,” Mino says. “When the song was almost 80 percent complete, [YG Entertainment CEO and music producer] Yang Hyun Suk gave me an idea of putting a part of ‘Soyanggang River Maiden’ as a sample source, and it fit perfectly into the message and vibe of this song.” The haunting sample had younger fans enthralled and searching through YouTube to listen to the original track while applauding Mino for putting a limelight on Korean pop culture and history. Because in addition to the retro sound, the music video for “Fiancé” is a fever-dream blend inspired by the Korean Joseon dynasty and modern-day angst. In the clip the rapper wanders between fantasy and reality, dressed as an emperor as he searches the past, present and future for his one true love.
“I was getting to love myself, and everything [about that experience] is in this album.”
Is it possible that with younger artists like him using older genres like trot or paying homage to their history in music videos, it can help young listeners appreciate tradition a little bit more? Mino reveals that wasn’t really his intention at all. “In fact, I considered this song for older people than younger people,” he says, adding his plan was to erase misconceptions about hip-hop and ‘young’ music in the minds of older generations. “Even if the genre of hip-hop is popularized, it is still hard to catch up with higher age. So it seems like sampling of ‘Soyanggang River Maiden’ was a good plan for this song.” “Fiancé” has indeed added to the buzz around rappers defying expectations and stepping into traditional musical and visual territories. Hip-hop no longer has one definition and inspiration can come from anywhere. For Mino, the ideas for “Fiance” and XX came from several fragments of art. “I have so many things inspiring me, so I do not know which one to say first,” Mino says. “Among them, some works of (Italian painter) Piero Fornasetti, various plants–especially blue roses– and the Japanese anime Devilman were in my mind. However, it’s my inner self that affected it the most. I stayed alone in the studio every time so I could be deeply involved in my work and I looked back upon myself.”
XX as a whole has been well-received thanks to its use of complex metaphors, puns and double meanings in its lyricism, but for Mino, making this record was about finding his true self. “I got down to work in earnest in the beginning of 2018 for this album,” he says. “It contains various songs ranging from a song written two-three years ago to a song written two weeks before the album came out.” The rapper has written and composed each and every track, taking a dive into his own psyche to unleash several different sides of himself. In a video teaser right before XX‘s release, Mino explained he’d made the album by “grating [his] soul into it” and the result is an LP that is diverse, clever, saucy and undoubtedly one of the best hip-hop albums of 2018. Lyrically, he tackles everything from waiting for a lost love (“Fiancé”) to calling out obsessive fans (“Agree”) and bold eroticism (“Hope”). He gets emotional on “Alarm” and “Her,” exploring heartbreak, his relationship with his fans and self discovery. “I was getting to love myself, and everything [about that experience] is in this album,” Mino tells me. “I got a lot of thoughts and experiences from it and I am so proud of the production process.”
It’s clear from the get-go that wordplay is key; in the vicious introductory track “Trigger,” Mino uses syllables in its Korean title to play on the curse word ‘shibal,’ blazing through verses of self-praise with swagger, while on “Rocket” he drops references to art, Korean mythology and more. It’s the realest taste of what he’s truly capable of and it surprises and delights in equal measure. The impressive roster of collaborators on the record include YG Entertainment’s biggest in-house producers Choice37 and Millennium, comedian and actor Yoo Byung-jae and up-and-coming vocalist Blue.D, among others. There was one artist, however, that Mino was particularly excited to work with. “It was all fun, but working with YDG was extremely impressive,” he says proudly of his collaboration with the Korean hip-hop veteran on “Bow Wow.” “It was one of my dreams from my childhood.”
With XX being his first massive solo effort, Mino confesses there were hurdles along the way that he hadn’t expected. “The toughest part was familiarity,” he says, adding, “When I listened to songs hundreds of times to make a song, I always got confused. That’s the hardest thing to me.” Working alone means more pressure and he says he finds it more peaceful when he’s working with the members of Winner– Hoony, Yoon and Jinu. “When I work alone… I get sensitive because I am dissatisfied with any result. When I work with Winner, it’s really a load off my mind. Each member has their own roles, and I think we fit in nicely with each other.”
Mino’s journey has been wild, difficult, rewarding and a little messy–we’ve covered a lot of it over the course of the interview, but it still feels like we’re scratching the surface. He seems to agree; there’s a lot more he wants to consume and learn and a lot more he wants to show all his fans, old and new. “I am always thankful to fans who have supported me from the beginning and everyone who has known me since yesterday,” he says. “I will try to put a little more of my own personality and style on next album, and I also want to challenge something that no one expected.” While the search for the ‘real’ Mino continues, XX is a chapter in his story that marks a significant turn; he’s found a balance between the sexy rapper we see with Winner, the exuberant hip-hop dudebro he turns into with MOBB and the expressive poet he is as a soloist. It might not be lightning in a bottle just yet, but it’s pretty damn close.
All images courtesy of YG Entertainment