Thanks to the rigorous and multilayered training needed to debut, K-pop artists can embrace a kaleidoscope of concepts, sounds, genres and styles that can change with every album. As much as groups can creatively explore, the K-pop idols themselves tend to stay in specific, assigned roles: the rapper, powerhouse belter, the cute one, the mysterious one, the intense dancer, the center. While important in establishing a group dynamic, Monsta X‘s Joohoney looked to free himself from any previous expectations on his first full-fledged solo effort—and hopes other K-pop stars realize they can do the same.
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Introduced to the world as Lee Jooheon in 2014 before gaining significant interest while competing for a spot in the boy band reality competition No.Mercy, Joohoney stood out for his well-rounded abilities and earnestness in group dynamics. Eventually earning a place as one of seven in Monsta X, Joohoney served as a main rapper for the group but became increasingly involved in shaping their sound and direction.
Not only was he a credited lyricist since MX’s first EP in 2015, Joohoney eventually wrote, produced and arranged breakthrough singles for the group like “Gambler,” “Rush Hour” and “Love.” Joohoney was also the first member of his group to drop a whole, multitrack mixtape project where he took on a majority of the writing and producing. As Monsta X’s global ambitions grew with different U.S. labels and more Top 40 pop material, Joohoney adapted by taking more lead vocals on the band’s two Billboard 200 English albums, All About Luv and The Dreaming, with his admiration of Michael Jackson coming through in his ad-libs on Pop Airplay chart hit “Who Do U Love?”
For his first solo record to get a proper physical release and promotional push, Joohoney looked to pack all the different musical elements that inspire him into the concise, six-track EP titled Lights. But beyond bringing everything from his singing and rapping abilities to his appreciation for hip-hop, rock, jazz and Korean music into one project, Joohoney wanted to deliver a personal message to his fellow artists.
Speaking to Billboard ahead of the release of Lights from a video call in Seoul, Joohoney sees his eight years in the industry as groundwork to make a better support system for K-pop idols today. Joohoney says his early career’s unhealthy and intense hustle give him a new, more generous perspective for himself and his fellow artists.
Today, he isn’t afraid to question industry standards and wants to encourage K-pop stars to be more open and express themselves. That journey begins with Lights, his new single “Freedom,” and the new mindset and role he’s embracing in the industry moving forward.
Read on for more Joohoney on the makings of his first mini album and what comes next.
Congratulations on the release of Lights. You have credits as a songwriter, arranger and composer on every song, which is really impressive. What is your process like to handle all those roles?
Joohoney: First of all, I get inspiration for just the music itself. Whether I’m shooting a video or out on my day’s schedule, I’m always thinking, “How will Monbebes receive this music or this genre whenever my solo album does come out?” I type out lyrics on my phone and I sing into my phone to make my demos. When I finally get into the studio, I have my team—the production team who help make the lyrics and melodies—where we’re thinking about how to put together our stories.
The first thing that struck me was how many different genres and sounds there are on Lights. On one hand, K-pop is known for mixing genres but this felt more ambitious. How do you blend all of these influences?
To be honest, I don’t know how to blend the different genres—it’s about just being free, right? No matter what it is, sometimes it’s like, “I want to turn the drums up” or “I want to put drill there;” it’s free to me. I don’t want to ever have a fixed direction, I was open to every direction with the songs. I want to make a different way within the K-pop scene and the music genre itself.
Is that how you listen to music? Are your playlists all kinds of music genres and styles?
I enjoy listening to a whole mix of genres and imagining mashing them up. So, for example, I will listen to songs by Michael Jackson, and then I’ll start listening to Monsta X songs and he kind of imagining, like, the mashup of these [artists].
I think any of Lights‘ songs could have been the title track single, but you chose “Freedom.” Why?
I chose “Freedom” as the title track [single] song because the album title is Lights and I wanted to express that for anyone who wants freedom and to give a positive message out to the world. Out of all the songs, I thought “Freedom” was the one that expresses this meaning the best.
But I also hope that this song will kind of be a source of inspiration for other K-pop artists because it’s different from other typical songs. A lot of K-pop artists create songs based around their performances and they’re kind of made beforehand. But in my music, I want to especially express that I’ve been very raw and honest. And I want other idols to be comfortable with sharing about their hard times and able to express themselves confidently through their music in the future. The music and lyrics can really be a mix of arts.
No matter what the genre, a lot of artists sing about ideas around freedom and wanting to feel liberated. Why is it so important to speak about that?
As some examples, BTS‘ Jimin recently released “Set Me Free Pt.2” and TWICE came out with a song called “Set Me Free,” so I have been noticing that other artists have been expressing the different ways they crave freedom. I think that Korean artists and trainees can sometimes feel a bit restricted due to their companies and the different rules that they might have to follow. So, now, after I’ve grown and matured, I’ve been able to find myself and can express myself more freely now. There is an interesting difference between Western pop and the K-pop world right now. Many Korean artists have been writing about how they crave freedom but they’re also trying to spread positivity through their music—that’s been interesting lately.
Speaking of not being restricted, “Freedom” lets you show your singing and rapping. What’s your background in singing?
I actually started singing at church when I was younger. When I became a trainee, I was more interested in rap so I started going in that direction, but I would still practice singing by myself. Of course, I had vocal lessons then and learned about singing techniques, but I mostly just practiced on my own. I’ve always wanted to do both and show that a rapper can sing, and now I can.
“Hype Energy” opens Lights with traditional Korean singing and instruments before the hip-hop beat takes over. It’s very cool. Why start the album this way?
I first think about what kind of elements I want to incorporate and discuss that with my producing team before we make it come into reality. The reason why I incorporated more Korean and K-pop elements in the beginning is because I am a K-pop artist, so, I want to show my original image that I’ve had before the song kind of transitions into more hip-hop elements. And it goes there because I’m the most confident in the hip-hop genre, and I wanted to show what I do best as the introduction to the album.
“Monologue” with GSoul discusses your uncertainty before debuting as an artist. Was there a reason you chose a jazz style to tell this story?
Jazz was most fitting for a song telling the story of my pre-debut days because when I was younger, I did grow up hearing a lot of jazz around me. And I would actually find playlists and listen to all kinds of jazz, like Chet Baker. And when I struggled or had a hard time, I listened to jazz. So, when I was thinking about and remembering the past while writing the song, the memory came with the jazz sounds; it has a combined meaning.
I read that “Evolution” is you wanting to share how “reflecting on yourself is how true ‘evolution’ happens.” When you reflect on yourself and your career, what do you think about?
I think of how I was so busy; how I was running tirelessly and not able to take care of myself because the group was so busy with their different schedules. I want to emphasize that we weren’t even able to rest for like three days because our schedules were just completely packed with different things. For many artists, as soon as they debut, they have to tirelessly [work] and keep themselves busy with various promotions and schedules. So, I’m at a point where I’m now questioning, “Why do they have to be so busy?” I’ve noticed that being so busy affects the artists mentally. Now that I’m an older artist, I want to be able to kind of change or kind of improve the situation. Thinking about these things has made me “evolve” and change into the artist I am.
That answer makes me think about hiatuses you’ve taken for your mental health, which was a brave thing to share. When you say you want to change the situation, is it so other artists don’t have the same experiences?
I want to be a part of improving the situation that artists like myself struggle with and I hope they will be comfortable coming to me. The message in this album is also a message to those artists who are struggling as well. That’s why the album’s name is Lights.
You want to be the light.
Have any younger artists come to you for help or guidance? Maybe your label mates CRAVITY, who you’ve also produced music for?
I can’t reveal who specifically came to me for help and guidance, but I can say that they are younger artists who are currently working very hard. CRAVITY has also come to me for advice before, and I am always willing to help them if they need anything in the future. I just want to tell and advise younger artists that whatever they do is the right answer in the end, and that they should share a message from their heart in their music.
Releasing your first solo mini album sounds like it will be a busy time with very hard work. How do you find balance? Do you have more say over your schedule?
I have more control over some things now, but I work hard to do more and show more of myself for Monbebe. Listening to good music in the car helps me find balance and helps me maintain my rush of adrenaline too.
You became an MC for the K-pop show M Countdown this year. Why did you want to take on this role now in your career, and what has it taught you?
Taking on the role of an MC is honestly not easy because, as an MC, I always want to be a source of positive energy for the other artists. Something I learned with this role is that there are a lot of really great artists in Korea.
In what ways do you still want to evolve or improve yourself?
Now that I’ve found myself and who I am, I don’t want to keep running after a specific goal. I think that life is like a road where you can’t see ahead of you. I think you have to just keep moving forward, even if you can’t see what’s ahead. If you keep moving with the goal of moving up, you can always end up falling down. But if you just keep straight ahead like a road, you can keep moving forward and you won’t have to be afraid of falling down anywhere. I want to keep going forward over that road ahead of me and be a bright light.
What’s next for you and Monsta X in 2023? We saw you at We Bridge Festival, but will you be returning to the States soon? Anything else you want to share right now?
My plans are to just go with the flow now, but I know I will always be working on music for the rest of my life. As for Monsta X, the other members are also working on their albums so I hope you’ll look forward to their releases as well. If anything comes up for me in the States soon, I will definitely go! I have done interviews with Billboard many times before, but I am always very grateful for each opportunity to discuss my music with Billboard. I also want to share that I have bold aspirations of wanting to show who the artist Joohoney is at the Billboard Music Awards one day!