The Melancholic Paradise of BLOO
The South Korean rapper opens up about his newfound viral fame with ‘Downtown Baby,’ the burden of mainstream success and perfecting the art of being true to himself
There was a time when Daniel or Hyunwoong Kim considered himself “the most underrated rapper in Korea.” Known better by the mononym BLOO, the 25-year-old made a name for himself in the Korean underground hip-hop scene with music that dances around poetic self-destruction, loneliness and lovelorn woes. He makes for a dark, broody and tragic figure that’s more rockstar than rapper and you’d be hard pressed to find a music video where he hasn’t got a cigarette dangling from his lips or a bottle of alcohol clutched in his fist. However the magnetism of the entire picture is undeniable. “Obviously, I’m trying to write songs after sad incidents but I guess that’s what I tend to do… Maybe I like that feeling of feeling,” he confesses when we connect for a conversation about his artistry.
That ‘feeling of feeling’ is probably the best way to describe BLOO’s work. I’ve often felt that putting on one of his records is like floating on your back in a pool of emotion with your eyes closed, an escape without an agenda. You don’t have to relate to his experiences to immerse yourself in the music–in BLOO’s world there is no search for a lesson, no breakdown of theories; its about letting it take you on a journey without pushing a specific message. “I don’t really want them to learn about something,” he says when I ask about what he wants to impart to the world. “I just want them to enjoy and feel it whichever way they want to feel it.” I haven’t ever gotten an answer quite like this from an artist before and suddenly what he describes as ‘that feeling of feeling’ is crystal clear.
BLOO moved from Korea to the United States as a child and grew up listening to American hip-hop. He started his career in rap early, going by the stage name Daniel Prynne and joining a crew within the Korean-American hip-hop community called Young Creation. “We all went to same high school and not a lot of people rapped back then, so we kind of knew each other and then later on we got together naturally,” he recalls. That’s how he would meet Korean rapper Nafla, his longtime collaborator and friend, as well as various other artists who would influence his decision to become an artist, like Young West. “[I knew I wanted to make music] when Young West sold his microphone to me.” Most of the members of Young Creation lived in the same neighbourhood, La Crescenta in L.A., and he credits them for inspiring him early on in his career. After Young Creation dissolved, he formed Crew42 with Nafla, Young Creation and other rappers like AP, Neil and the Forehead, eventually also meeting Loopy–another longtime collaborator and a prominent name in Korean hip-hop today. This would lay the foundation for the hip-hop label MKIT Rain, which he would go on later to co-found with Nafla and Loopy. “My Crew42 and Loopy were talking about making money through our music one day and then we were like, ‘Why not just make our own label?’ and Loopy made it happen.” The trio moved back to Korea in 2015, right around the time the underground hip-hop scene was finally taking centre stage in the music industry. Was the move back to Korea solely to pursue music? “Yes, that was the one and only reason,” he confirms.
In January 2016, they launched MKIT Rain, recruiting fellow rapper Owen Ovadoz as the fourth pillar of the label, and by August the same year they had released several solo singles as well as a collaborative track titled “Weathermen” which served as an official introduction. 2016 was the same year he took on the moniker BLOO and was the first to launch solo projects under the new label, making his debut with a swag-heavy trap offering titled “Fresh As F.” His first official album under MKIT Rain however was Tony, a six-track mixtape that featured blends of old-school hip-hop beats, soul and trap–definitively influenced by West Coast culture. He was still looking for ways to make the West Coast style his own, diving into moments of jazz and blues, especially on the lead single “Drive Thru” and it was the first taste of his heady aesthetic we are all so familiar with–broody nightscapes, neon lights and hazy slow mo. His lyrics revolved around his love for alcohol, cruising through the city at night and drinking to forgetting his troubles. Trap, girls and alcohol all made key appearances in a lot of his work, especially the dizzying 2017 single “Hennessy,” but there was an emotional shift on the way that no one predicted.
In 2017, BLOO dropped the EP Downtown Baby, a landmark moment in his career which saw him abandoning more aggressive blends of trap to dive into complex experimentation with acoustic riffs, decadent synth, delicate piano and soft vocals which he contrasted magnificently with gritty rap. With songs about broken relationships, longing and loneliness, it was gut-wrenching in its intimacy and honesty. It was an evolution like no other and marked the first glimpse of the artist he was meant to be: the voice that defined the ‘feeling of feeling.’ The lead single “Downtown Baby” was particularly outstanding in its simplicity and vulnerability and would eventually become the song that would change everything–but of course, nobody knew it at the time. In 2018, he dove further into the alternative R&B side of things, working with rapper and fellow Young Creation/MKIT Rain recruit niahn on an immersive and powerful record titled Bloo in Wonderland, similarly raw and honest in its lyricism. His sound developed a lush melancholy that became his signature, further solidified by his 2019 EP It’s not Love I’m just Drunk, a record that steps into alternative hip-hop territory with its intricate and haunting rock-based guitar work. Despite crafting this unique sound, he still wasn’t quite as ‘mainstream’ has he had hoped to be–BLOO remained more of a secret among Korean R&B fans, developing a passionate cult following that wasn’t quite ready to let him go.
Things changed in 2020 however, when veteran Korean pop singer Lee Hyori covered “Downtown Baby” on the popular MBC variety show How Do You Play? on June 13th. Korean audiences were immediately curious about the heartbreaking but beautiful song and began searching for it online. Keywords like ‘Lee Hyori Downtown Baby’ and ‘BLOO’ began ranking high on realtime popular search charts in Korea and BLOO expressed his shock on Instagram, posting screenshots of the track soaring on the charts along with words of his disbelief. “That night when Hyori sang that song it was unbelievable… it still did not hit me yet, but I’m thankful,” he says. What followed was a flood of charting success and attention from the media that was long overdue. By June 16th, “Downtown Baby” had grabbed the Number One spot on realtime charts of major Korean music sites like Genie and Bugs and then sailed past reigning K-pop acts to finally hit Number One on the country’s largest music site, Melon–nearly three years after it originally came out. Over the next few months, BLOO was splashed across the pages of GQ, Elle, Vogue, Dazed and more, while popular K-pop stars began dropping their own covers of “Downtown Baby,” sending new legions of fans his way. Comments under his tracks on YouTube exclaim, “I can’t believe I hadn’t found BLOO before” and suddenly, ‘underrated’ wasn’t the word anyone could use to describe him.
Unsurprisingly, he was embroiled in ‘sajaegi’ controversies almost immediately, with many unable to believe “Downtown Baby” was charting on its own merit and was instead a result of illegal chart manipulation. Lee was the one who reached out and told him none of the hate mattered. “I actually thought that you might be feeling pressure because of this interest from the public that came so suddenly,” she told him via an Instagram DM which he later shared on his profile. “I hope that this will be an opportunity for you to become a great artist who, no matter what jealous people say, is magnanimous and lets it slide.” She added, “It’s thanks to you that I’ve also learned that if you work hard at something with sincerity, heaven will someday give you an opportunity.” He admits the sudden flood of attention is overwhelming, but he’s determined it’s not going to change a single thing about his goals as an artist. “I’m not trying get ahead of this situation, I’m just going to go back to old BLOO making music. That’s all.” I ask why he thinks “Downtown Baby” was the track to make such an impression on the public, but he admits it has him bewildered, saying, “I still don’t know.”
If you’ve followed him on Instagram for a while, you’d probably remember his late night livestreams. He’d come online at nearly three in the morning and wonder why he wasn’t high up on the charts or more successful. Now that success is finally knocking on his door, he’s a little wary. “I don’t think I’m successful,” he says. “I’m thankful that I’m getting this kind of attention but I got so much more to show and go.” BLOO’s complex evolution has been a part of why so many have fallen in love with his artistry, but he explains it didn’t come from a need to outdo anyone else or chart at Number One–rather it was born from a need to carve out an identity that he could call wholly his own. “I don’t know if I’m growing… but I’m really trying make music my style, not trying copy from other musicians.”
His latest record, Hey, Go Smile which dropped in July is proof he hasn’t let fame change his art. It’s a beautiful but dark record, reminiscing about past moments with a lost love and honest in its staggering loss. The lead single “When I Smoke” is particularly heartbreaking, describing an attempt to hide his pain and loneliness under indifference as he says, “When I smoke/I write a love song/I’m just trying to let it go/I’ll learn these things later/Mute the other sounds/and keep drinking/The sun rises outside/I’m just trying to let it go.” It’s an extremely personal confession and listening to his work often feels like you’re intruding on his thoughts and his moments alone. He doesn’t shy away from letting listeners in and it’s probably one of the main reasons he built that cult following even before blowing up. “I made that song a while ago and making music for me is like writing a diary for me,” he says about “When I Smoke” and its B-side “Let It Go.” “I probably felt those lyrics that night I wrote those songs.”
A few months ago, he also caught the attention of fans in India when local K-pop sites began covering his viral success with “Downtown Baby.” As more K-pop fans began their first dives into Korean hip-hop after the 2020 Hallyu Boom, BLOO was now one of the key names they would come across. There was a noticeable increase in the number of comments from Indian fans wishing him well on his livestreams and YouTube videos, and when I share this information with him, it’s clear he didn’t see it coming. “I didn’t know I was popular in India,” he says. “But really it’s amazing how we all can come together through music.” This year has been full of surprises for BLOO but he’s ready to begin a new era with brand new music. He dropped a collaborative track with Nafla titled “Nae Tat” about fame and youth just a few days ago and he promises there’s a lot more left to share. “I made so many songs during quarantine and I can’t wait to put them out. Thank you. I will be back with my album, just wait a little more.”
With “Downtown Baby” pushing him to new heights, there are more eyes on him than ever–both Korean and otherwise–and expectations are high. Is this newfound fame a burden? “Maybe sometimes…” he admits. “But still I got to go forward keep walking and keep running.” We get to the topic of balancing originality within one’s artistry with writing for chart success, and he agrees that it won’t be easy going forward to keep everyone happy–there’s a bigger audience out there outside of his devoted following and there’s no telling how it will all go from here. But it’s not something that’s going to get in his way of making music the way he wants to–after all, being himself is what brought him down this road. “Writing the song I want, it’s not hard for me. Getting good results on music charts that may be hard, but I will change that.” The priority is and always has been, making music that doesn’t bend to popularity–it was a double-edged sword in a way, keeping him out of trending fads but also eventually winning him the audience he deserves. “I mean it got complicated in both good and bad ways but I really got no time to think about bad stuff. I got to focus on my next move, my next album.”