Life & Culture

Taemin: the Singer Stretching the Boundaries of K-Pop

From a shy member of SHINee to a confident solo artist in his own right, this 24-year-old Korean is fearlessly blazing his own trail

  • TextTaylor Glasby

The duality of Lee Taemin – a member of legendary K-Pop group SHINee, and a successful soloist – is well known to his legions of fans. His performances are intense and highly visceral experiences, heavily influenced by Michael Jackson: he sings hooky electronic pop songs like Drip Drop with a inviting, breathy urgency, while utilising cinematic instrumentals and vocals (Flame of Love) to showcase his skills as a modern dancer. In contrast to his stage persona, however, the 24-year-old is down-to-earth, sweet and sometimes shy – traits which, given that he’s been globally famous for nearly a decade, have become particularly cherished.

Yet TAEMIN, as he stylises his stage name, has long seen his public image as far more multifaceted. “I feel that there’s many different sides of me,” he says. “And there’s so much more that I’d like to show, which is why I try different and new things, things that others cannot do, with each release. All of my albums are who I was at that time in my life, and MOVE closely represents who I am today.”

As a long-standing artist with a rock solid fandom, Taemin does indeed have the fortune to experiment and thrusts forward with MOVE, his second solo album and a taut, bass and synth driven single of the same name. He released three videos for the latter (a main cut, an ensemble performance with female dancers, and a duo dance), all which visually stretch the clearly gendered boundaries of K-Pop. By combining male and female-centric dance moves, he blurred those long-distinct lines into one sinuous and powerfully sensual performance that disregarded gender entirely, while also challenging himself with a tighter and more primal choreography than he’s danced previously.

“There’s so much more that I’d like to show, which is why I try different and new things, things that others cannot do, with each release” – Taemin

Influential Japanese choreographer, Koharu Sugawara, is behind this groundbreaking step away from K-Pop’s norms. Having previously worked with TAEMIN on his solo material and on the dance TV show, Hit The Stage, their formidable presence can been seen on the duo version of MOVE. “The dance flows from her emotions. When I watch her, I can instantly interpret what she’s feeling at that moment rather than admiring her choreography,” TAEMIN says.

“Koharu doesn’t teach me the choreography, she tells me about it. Where I sway my hips in MOVE, she gave a long explanation: ‘I thought about how there would be girls surrounding you, and I was dancing like this because I want you to think that I’m the only guy here and I’m the best. I want you stand out even more’. I was able to understand what she wanted me to express, which cannot be delivered just by learning the choreography. She’s an amazing friend and she truly makes me want to become an artist who can express these deep emotions like she does.”

Although TAEMIN, who speaks assuredly and articulately about his work, received support from those around him, what he created with MOVE didn’t come without reservations. “I was definitely worried about trying something new,” he admits. “I could have chosen a safer route and done music that’s more popular in K-Pop, but I wanted to expand its musical spectrum, to stand out from the rest, and create something that could bring out my identity more.”

“I could have chosen a safer route and done music that’s more popular in K-Pop, but I wanted to expand its musical spectrum” – Taemin

From the teenager who, by his own admission, struggled as a vocalist to the point of not singing on SHINee’s earliest record, to becoming a confident, respected and well-rounded artist, his personal growth has often felt like public property. But behind the glossy, high-achieving exterior of awards, record sales, world tours and countless interviews, TAEMIN was attempting to map out who he was more deeply, and experiencing issues of ambition and confusion familiar to everyone.

“When I was 16 and 17 years old, I dreamed of becoming a perfect, a more complete artist by the time I turned 20,” TAEMIN recalls of his expectations. “However, I realised that you don’t transform into a completely new person just because you become an adult and, before I realised it, I’d already turned 20 yet still wanted to become a better artist.” Even now, as an influential and successful pop star, he spends plenty of private time considering the evolution of that public persona. “Before I fall asleep, I always think about how I could be more acknowledged as an artist, a good one,” he adds. “I think about how I could let people know more about my music and what kind of an artist I am. My head is filled with these thoughts nowadays.”

“Before I fall asleep, I always think about how I could be more acknowledged as an artist, a good one” – Taemin

TAEMIN may already be contemplating his next step, but MOVE commands your attention in the now as an impressively complete body of work that augments the ideas, styles and emotions begun on his first solo album, Press It. Drip Drop’s natural successor is Crazy 4 U, the complex rhythms of which TAEMIN says made it “the most difficult song to record”. The acoustic Back To You is a natural stand-out, with an aching vocal that’s the result of TAEMIN recalling “every sad memory or thought possible”. “There are times when I’m emotionally overwhelmed,” he says. “Since I’m now in my mid-20s, the way I sing and express the lyrics have matured. I remember trying to figure out how to make my vocals deliver a deeper emotion as I was recording, but this song really does express that maturity, especially from my tone.”

It also contains his first female duet, the light push and pull of Heart Stop with Red Velvet’s Seulgi. “We spent our trainee days together, she has very charming vocals and I thought that we should work on something like this one day,” he explains. Rise and Love on the other hand are the opulent, emotive songs he embodies so well, and Thirsty, with its creeping trap snare, pulsing bass and provocative lyrics is a statement of desire and adulthood.

While some artists might feel jaded after nearly ten years in the industry, TAEMIN remains continually fuelled to create. “I receive inspiration from everything, whether that be from art, fashion, or a book. I truly believe that art comes from the five senses,” he enthuses. “It’s important to really feel the sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, but to pick one, I’d say that I receive the most inspiration from what I see, like a landscape, backdrop or cultural symbols. Oh, and I get inspiration from my imagination these days. For instance, when I look at the interior of the building, I try to imagine how I’d like to design the overall look and feel of it. Or sometimes the clothes that people wear that day reflect their overall mood, so I imagine why they chose the clothes and what emotion they were feeling at the time.”

“I’ve pushed myself to create my own unique identity that differs from the standard K-Pop” – Taemin

He records what’s he’s discovered mostly through notes, but “there are times I just absorb and feel it then forget what it was,” TAEMIN continues. “When I say that I ‘forget’, it doesn’t mean that I really forget. What I felt doesn’t disappear, it’s like the emotions gradually build up then, one day when I think of a situation, the emotions that have been building up rush back to me.”

For TAEMIN, who, like most K-Pop artists, has embodied dozens of visual concepts when performing with his group, the ones behind his solo work have come to represent something more sustainable but, simultaneously, less constrained. “I believe MOVE goes beyond being a concept, the album cannot be simply defined. There’s actually more to it than it meets the eye, it consists of different elements within the concept itself. I wanted my album to have a consistency where the concept can contain personality and the mood that my music carries,” he says with conviction. “This is why I’ve pushed myself to create my own unique identity that differs from the standard K-Pop, and I will continuously challenge myself to find diverse ways to express my music.”