How Lay Zhang Claimed The Throne of M-pop
The singer-songwriter and producer offers an in-depth look into his latest record ‘Lit,’ his evolution as an artist and finding the balance between East and West
When I last spoke to Lay Zhang in 2018, he was embarking on an ambitious but daunting journey to bring Mandarin pop aka M-pop to the world. “I hope they think, ‘This artist isn’t bad,’” he had said with some trepidation in his voice. “I hope that they find my music special and maybe… they’ll want to learn more about me and Chinese music.” The singer-songwriter and producer aspired to create a true hybrid of traditional and modern music, a sound that defines our generation’s ability to package the past for the future.
Zhang, more commonly known by his stage name LAY, first debuted in 2012 as a member of world-famous K-pop group, EXO. Although he remains a member of the group, he’s spent the last couple of years in China to focus on a solo career and spotlight his own country’s burgeoning pop scene. It’s a process he kicked off with his second studio album Namanana in 2018, but he was still some time away from realizing his dream of pushing Chinese pop to a global stage.
It’s been nearly two years since our conversation for Rolling Stone India’s November 2018 cover feature, and any signs of trepidation are a thing of the past for LAY. We could chalk it up to him being two years older and wiser, but I’d like to think it’s because he kept his promise to bring M-pop to the world. If Namanana was just a dip in the pool of fusion experimentation, his latest studio album Lit is the deep dive.
“It is the evolution of M-pop for me,” LAY explains. “I wanted to take it to another level. When you hear the Chinese instruments, you know it is a different sound and vibe. The style is more pop, R&B, and hip-hop influenced with the Chinese instruments thoughtfully mixed in.” Comprising a total of 12 songs (all written and co-produced by LAY) Lit was released as two EPs instead of one LP; the first dropped in June while the second made its appearance in July. Nearly every track presents a fresh blend of traditional Chinese instruments like the hulusi, guzheng, flutes and gong with modern genres like trap, R&B, soul, hip-hop, future bass, dubstep and more. It’s a complex, refined and intricate record, utilizing production techniques that clearly outline LAY’s growth as an artist over the past two years. In retrospect, Namanana comes across a slightly more naive record–innocent and optimistic with a hope that international audiences would embrace both M-pop and LAY. Lit however seeks to take a different path and carves out the future LAY envisions with cool confidence and fearless production.
The tracks seesaw smoothly from Mandarin to English and back, with LAY showcasing both his vocal and rap skills. It’s an extremely powerful and expansive album, hair-raising at some moments due to the sheer surprises the artist packs in (at one point I hear what sounds like the tabla on “Call My Name” and it catches me totally off-guard.) Some of the collaborators on the record include big names like hip-hop hitmaker Murda Beatz, Grammy Award-winning producer Scott Storch, composer and producer Mitchell Owens and Grammy-nominated songwriter Mike Daley to name a few. For the title track “Lit,” LAY recruited China-native Anti-General who created a vicious and chilling trap/dubstep beat to complement lyrics that decimate LAY’s haters, gossip-mongers and the media, challenging them to come forward and take him down if they dare. The track sees the singer-songwriter rightfully crown himself a ‘king’ and leader in the music industry.
If that wasn’t enough, the music video for “Lit” is without a doubt one of the best released in 2020. With hundreds of extras, dancers, impeccable CGI and a compelling storyline, it’s more movie than music video, portraying LAY as a warrior king who refuses to be defeated. As executive producer, music director and co-choreographer on the project, LAY pays homage to China’s rich history and culture with tons of historical references and traditional symbolism. I tell him I particularly loved the symbolism of a white lotus emerging untouched and pure from the black ink–representing LAY’s rise in the industry–and he shares that the magnificent dragon that appears at the end was his personal favorite. “It was super important that we added it in,” he says. “It represents my wishes, aspirations and my relentless desire to always pursue perfection in the works that I create. I want my dancing, visuals, and music to be the very best it possibly can be.”
Lit is also thematically more complex and layered than any of LAY’s previous works, exploring concepts that revolve around confidence, love, fame, the media, success and more. “The album continues to explore chasing your dream,” the singer explains. “This time it’s about more personal things in my life. Like hometown, family and self-doubt.” A phonetic play on the word for lotus (莲 / lian) in Mandarin, ‘lit’ is a clever pun used to describe LAY’s similarity to a lotus and his prowess as a musician. He named the album after the lotus because of the symbolism of it growing and blossoming from dirt or mud. The lotus also continues the theme of duality with Lit’s two-part release, and, according to LAY’s team, “represents a new birth plus a new sound in the midst of all his past achievements.”
The album’s success more than speaks for itself– when the pre-order for Lit went live on China’s QQ Music streaming platform, nine certification records were instantly broken as it surpassed 1.5 million pre-orders within seven minutes and 19 seconds. This immediately pushed the EP to Number One on QQ Music’s daily and weekly album sales charts. Lit has also made LAY the best-selling artist in China in 2020, with a whopping 2.5 million records sold. It’s a testament to his drive and determination as an artist, the attention to detail and refusal to back down. The record’s international success was no less, hitting top 10 positions on iTunes charts across 32 countries, bagging 21 Number One spots and firmly cementing LAY’s position as the global megastar that he is.
Some things however, never change; brand deals, TV shows, multiple singles, EPs and collaborations keep his schedule completely booked and– just like back in 2018– it’s extremely tough to pin him down for a conversation. He’s currently in the middle of filming a reality show and has several other projects in the pipeline, but still makes the time to catch up and answer a few questions for Rolling Stone India. In this exclusive interview, LAY details his most successful record yet, the journey of finding the balance between East and West, dealing with the dark side of media attention and why the relationship between an artist and their fans needs to be a two-way street.
Congratulations on the release and tremendous success of Lit! It is an absolutely phenomenal record and I was thrilled to see you explore so many new streams of production. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of making this album and do you feel you met your own expectations for it?
For this album I wanted to mix in Chinese traditional instruments and tell Chinese stories. It is the evolution of M-pop for me. I wanted to take it to another level. When you hear the Chinese instruments you know it is a different sound and vibe. It is hard to say if I met my own expectations. As an artist you never ever feel your work is perfect. You can always find spots where you can improve. But I think what I was able to do with my team in the time we had was great.
You dove deeper into the fusion of tradition and modernity on this album than Namanana—there was a larger variety of Chinese instruments used as well as bilingual wordplay with language in the lyrics. In what ways do you feel you’ve evolved as a producer and songwriter since that album to Lit?
I am still trying to find the right style and combination to share my music and Chinese culture with the world. Lit was an example of my growth. I had this desire to include traditional stories and instruments from Chinese culture. Trying to find the balance with the Western music was challenging. I had to think and spend a lot of time arranging the chords around and fitting everything together. Also with this album I am talking about things in a more personal level and taking time to explain with more of an artistic style. I feel like I am growing up on this journey.
Lit is the first part of a series of EPs which will make a whole LP—why did you want to release it in this format and when did you begin working on the record?
I split it into two parts to give time to people to listen to it. I feel like if I released 12 songs at once, people may not give enough time to listen to each track. But when there are just six tracks each time, then it gives people time to listen more carefully. I started this project maybe early 2019.
The title track “Lit” is about your battle with the media, hateful netizens and malicious comments/rumors. Does it get easier over time to deal with this obsessive analysis of your life or does it never really ebb away?
It will always bother you, but over time you learn to deal with it. You focus on it less and less and back on what you love doing. When I make my music or learn dance or do anything I love, I kind of forget about it. Just focus on your goals and dreams and everything else becomes background noise.
The music for “Lit” is, in my opinion, the best of 2020 so far. Can you tell me a little about your role as the executive producer and music director on this project? How did the concept come about?
I was very involved in the project. I oversaw a lot of things that happened and discussed with almost everyone on the team on how to achieve my vision. When I was making the song I was thinking about how do we share Chinese culture. I thought filming in an ancient palace would catch people’s attention. It took off from there when discussing with the director. We started adding more and more elements of Chinese culture. We were trying to tell the story of Xiang Yu, a warlord who rebelled against the mighty Qin Dynasty but wasn’t able to conquer China. I’m Xiang Yu, but I’m trying to change my fate and succeed in my goal.
You incorporated Chinese Peking Opera in the music video version of the track and visual elements of Peking Opera in the album art for “Jade”–What was the motivation behind that decision and is there a particular story that the opera section references?
I wanted to bring people back in time to ancient China. I reference the traditional Chinese story of Xiang Yu and his love, Concubine Yu, so then I added in select passages from the Peking Opera Farewell My Concubine which tells their tragic story.
You displayed your incredible skills in dancing in this music video and you recently talked about how dancing was a way for you to show the audience who you are. Did you feel a sense of relief that the audience can see you or understand you a bit better after the release of “Lit”? Can the audience ever truly understand an artist?
It feels good to know people can see me and understand me more. I don’t think people can ever understand an artist completely. But they can relate to many things. I think that is a challenge for an artist to see how they can use their music to connect with people. It is a worthy challenge.
How do you hope that the artist you are today crafts the Lay Zhang of tomorrow?
I always believe in working hard and improving. I hope that the Lay Zhang of tomorrow continues to keep looking for ways to improve his art. I hope he never gives up his dreams.
Last time we spoke, we talked about Asian traditions represented in global mainstream pop culture. Now as you’ve grown as a megastar, you are one of the leading names in pop filling that space, bringing your heritage to the stage. Why is it important for our generation to see ourselves and our histories represented on these platforms by artists?
It is important for people to remember where they come from. They should know their own history and how their culture came to be. Also, it lets other people know another culture and have a deeper understanding. It can stop miscommunication and it helps people be closer to each other.
Why do fans need to see themselves in an artist? Does it work the same on the other side, do you as an artist see yourself in your fans?
I want fans to be able to relate with an artist. It is important for a fan to see themselves in artist and an artist to see themselves in a fan. When you can see each other you are able to understand each other better. You can connect with each other and really feel things.
I absolutely love the ‘Re-Reaction’ videos you have been doing for years and it means a lot to your fans that you take the time to do it. Why did you want to do this series and what does it mean to you to be able to connect with your fans like this and see them react to your work?
I am curious to know what fans and people think of my work. I want to know where I can improve. I want to keep growing as an artist. But also I want to let my fans know that I am reading their comments and I see everything they say.
Other than releasing more music, what are the rest of your plans for 2020? Do you have any film projects that you’re looking at taking up or are you planning on doing something completely different?
I am busy filming a TV drama and a few reality TV shows for the rest of 2020. A very busy schedule.
Stream LAY’s ‘Lit’ below: