If there is anything you need to know about a Kai release, it’s that you can’t go into it anything less than prepared. Before he is Kai, before he is Kim Jongin, before he is a singer and dancer and actor, before he is a member of EXO – one of K-pop’s most revered boybands – he is a performer, and he demands the attention and respect the term accords.
“Forget everything about yourself from before you knew me,” he said on ‘Amnesia’, off his debut solo mini-album ‘Kai (开)’, and it’s an apt marker of how intensely he commands your everything. Since his debut, Kai has been a consuming performer – his gazes stifle and stun, his movements trap, his words melt, his voice enchants. He is the hunter and the hunt, the instigator and the crime, the spell and the conjurer.
It’s surprising, then, to hear him say that he wanted his second solo venture, ‘Peaches’, to be ‘easy listening’. For a minute, it sounds exactly like the beginnings of an elaborate trap. Clad in a dark blue cardigan, bangs falling into his eyes, he gazes through the screen, utterly deceptively relaxed – but he’s serious.
“I received a lot of tracks, and I spent a lot of time listening to each of them, kind of cutting down to see which one I would want to have included in this album,” he says of how ‘Peaches’ came together. In his own words, it took him almost a year to decide which songs would make the final cut for the mini-album’s six tracks.
“I really tried to think about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to show. The standard that I set for selecting these songs was to find ones that are easy listening tracks, ones that you can just feel good listening to as well.” he continues.
Turns out, it was more for himself than to spare us, really.
“If my first album was focused more on the visuals and the images, for the second, I wanted to be able to feel like it was very different from what I did previously for myself as well. It was a new challenge and it was my take on trying something new.” he says.
True to his word, ‘Peaches’ takes over the mind with fluvial ease. If Kai’s solo debut was one hard punch after another – the sex appeal of ‘Mmmh’, the intensity of ‘Nothing On Me’, the seduction of ‘Amnesia’, the cockiness of ‘Reason’ – ‘Peaches’ is a balm that soothes and sedates, with a lazy charm that pulls one in deeper with every track until we reach the core of the man who made it.
Take the soft, free-flowing title track ‘Peaches’, for example: the complete antithesis of last year’s ‘Mmmh’. On ‘Mmmh’, he was forceful and cocky; on ‘Peaches’, he is reverent and devoted. Where ‘Mmmh’ came packed with a futuristic sonic arrangement echoing the dystopian setting of the music video, ‘Peaches’ starts off with atmospheric synths much like stage performances in the ’80s, with a pink and purple-hued dreamy music video to boot. Where the dance moves on ‘Mmmh’ left nothing to the imagination, accentuating Kai’s lithe figure in form-fitting jeans and straight cut suits, ‘Peaches’ believes in teasing the imagination. Here, he comes wrapped in restructured, reimagined hanboks and the gat, all coming together, alongside the peach imagery, to become a traditional spin on the modern symbol of flirtation.
“I actually listened to ‘Peaches’ for a really, really long time. And while I was listening to it, I thought, ‘What do I wanna do on this track?’ The focus was showing something that’s novel in a sense.” he says, referring to the album’s artistry and visuals that peg him as the lead in a sageuk. “I think ‘Peaches’ gives off a very fairy tale vibe, and we wanted to include that as well.”
“The focus was to reinterpret that traditional vibe. We thought that would be a really cool take. That is kind of how the outfits turned out. I had all of these thoughts. I had all these ideas in my head, and so I gathered all the teams to kind of share that with them.” he continues.
‘Peaches’, however, goes far beyond reimagining traditional motifs, warping the age-old concept of love and lust in an intensely personal yet magnetic light. “Fairy tale” seems to be the right term for the fantasia that Kai builds on his second solo mini-album which, as the name suggests, comes seeped in double-entendres that feel scandalous and romantic at the time, emerging as a stunningly cohesive work.
On the slow, sensual ‘Vanilla’, Kai redefines the term that most of us have come to associate with boring and bland. “A drowsy song lingers on the tip of my tongue / As I’m holding you tightly, I melt and feel giddy,” he sings, and love never felt so sickly sweet. The same magic carries over to ‘Come In’, the refrained arrangement on which belies the intensity of the lyrics: “Even your silhouette’s blurry gaze is perfect, you’re quite good at breaking me down / I acknowledge and acknowledge these new emotions.”
It’s so sweet, so wholly reverent, that you almost miss the underlying tones of deception lacing the album like sweet poison – almost. That’s where the genius of the Kai we’ve come to know and love becomes clear – unlike ‘Kai (开)’, ‘Peaches’ does not show all its cards at the same time, but as he gloats about feeling good about being your “bad hobby”, you realize that this is all an elaborate venus trap to capture your attention. ‘Kai (开)’ and ‘Peaches’ are two sides of the same coin – and while we’re all busy guessing which side up it falls, we forget about the master manipulator who started all of this: Kai himself.
How does he do this? How does 27-year-old Kim Jongin – cute-bear-patches extraordinaire, doting uncle, dog-dad, walking disaster who gets so excited about drinking coffee that he ends up dropping the mug – turn right around and say things like, “I’d be as thrilling as cold wine or your lips”? The bifurcation between person and performer is one of the core concepts of Kai’s artistry – the internet is dominated with thousands of clips where Kai’s switch visibly flips on stage. In a split second, gone is the sweet, soft smile, as if forcibly removed by its badder, more sinister counterpart. Of course, it can be attributed to Kai’s absolute, irrevocable dedication to his art, but as is the case with him, it goes deeper than that.
“I would honestly have to say that on stage it really kind of goes with the concept of the track or the song that I’m performing. It’s just something that, I guess, just comes naturally when I’m on stage.” he says of his persona, but when asked whether he enjoys the difference between Kai and Kim Jongin (and the impact it has), he disagrees.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘enjoy’,” he looks down and muses.
“It’s not something that I do on purpose to make people have those sorts of expectations, because I’m really not great at that. I am who I am, I’m just normal,” he states. “I’m just a human being, but I think it’s those differences on stage and off stage, and being honest with who I am and kind of showing that to fans that people really like. None of it is on purpose.”
The two personalities, however, are not mutually exclusive, as he adds: “The comfortable energy that I give off as Kim Jongin can also be the driving force that really makes me work harder and pursue more as Kai.”
This acute self-awareness and mastery of himself becomes the last piece of the mesmerizing puzzle of his artistry. Kai’s personal approach to art is built on harmony, where one element flows into another seamlessly, binding the heart to the ears, to the eyes, to the mind in an immersive experience.
“I view [my artistry] as just one package.” he says, before taking ‘Peaches’ as a ready example.
“I know I said that [for ‘Peaches’] I focused on selecting tracks that are more so for easy listening. That was also because I was thinking about my concert. I wanted everything to harmonize with the rest of the tracks and the rest of the performances. If the first mini-album was more so on the visual side and had stronger performances, this time I kind of wanted to make sure that there are tracks that can continue that flow and have a bit more of a comfortable vibe that people can enjoy.” he says.
At the end of the day, however, this process is not a science. Kai, in fact, cannot do anything without infusing it with passion – without this key component, the magic dissipates and everything falls apart.
“I can’t really say that I only focus on the scene because people know me from my performances,” he says. “I can’t say that because to me what’s important is my feelings, how I feel, my emotions. It’s really not about only providing songs that I like – it’s about what I feel in that moment and what I’m thinking in that moment and in that process. And that’s kind of how I extend it to create my albums. Moving forward from here as well, that’s what I plan to do. I really want to be able to use this as an outlet of expression.”
Kai’s new mini-album, ‘Peaches’, is out now.