Kang Daniel’s meteoric rise from obscurity to one of the most popular soloists in South Korea is the stuff of dreams. After a whirlwind 16-month-run on top of the K-pop world with boyband Wanna One, Kang went on to establish his own agency, KONNECT Entertainment, which he runs as CEO. He’s since sold over a million records sold in South Korea alone, scored three number-one albums on the Gaon Chart, and landed ambassadorships with global brands like Puma and Givenchy Beauty.
Of course, things are never as rosy as they appear. Kang is not cast in the same mould as other PR-preened K-pop stars; he doesn’t shy away from sharing his struggles. Whether it’s his experience as a victim of school bullying, his highly publicised legal dispute with former label LM Entertainment or his issues with mental health, the singer has laid it all bare for the world to see. It’s this openness – both in his music and real-life – that’s perhaps precisely what makes him so relatable.
All that experience has culminated in the exceptional mini-album ‘Yellow’, which the 24-year-old describes as his “most personal” release yet. Read on for NME’s conversation with Kang Daniel about telling his own story through ‘Yellow’, the importance of being candid with life’s struggles and his “endless” wishlist of future collaborators.
‘Yellow’ completes your popular ‘Color’ trilogy which began early last year with ‘Cyan’. How does it feel like to finally complete the series?
“It feels great! I started the ‘Color’ series wanting to explore not only different sounds but myself as well. I feel like the ‘Color’ project helped my fans, and people who may not have known who I am, understand me, my music and how I want to grow as an artist.”
You’ve said that the ‘Color’ series was a way for you to “find your true colours”. Where does your new album ‘Yellow’ fit into that collection?
“‘Yellow’ was an album that we saved for last because it was the most personal. When we first came up with the ‘Color’ series, I was just coming back from some time off and I think I needed some time to gather myself and everything that I was going through at the time to talk about some of [the] things that are touched upon in ‘Yellow’.
“The ‘Color’ series is all meant to represent different parts of myself at different points in my life. ‘Yellow’ is my most personal album because I wrote each song based on a difficult period in my career. Although it was difficult at the time, it has allowed me to really have a good look at myself and what was going on around me. It helped shape me into the person I am today, and I am thankful to everyone that helped me overcome those times. That is what this album is: the emotions and discoveries I made.”
For ‘Yellow’, you wrote every song with the help of your frequent collaborator JQ. Tell us what your working relationship and creative process are like.
“JQ is one of the top lyricists in K-pop and I had the honour of meeting with him very early on working on the ‘Color’ series, with mostly ‘Yellow’ in mind. Our relationship is great and we are very close on a personal level as well – [JQ is] like an older brother. This made it much easier to open up to him [about] some of [the] things that were going through my head or things that I felt. He guides me and treats me like one of his students.
“We usually write down all of [the] things I want to talk about, my feelings and come up with concepts to fit them under different songs. Since my team and I also work closely with our producers, it creates a very collaborative workflow. Once we have concepts down, I would just spend time at his house talking things out and going through different lyrical concepts.”
How is the title track ‘Antidote’ connected to pre-release song ‘Paranoia’?
“Both songs are very personal and serious in tone, but they differ in terms of execution. [We wanted to release] ‘Paranoia’ first because, sonically and performance-wise, it was more familiar to the fans and audience. With ‘Antidote’, it is more experimental and much more emotional than ‘Paranoia’. It’s a genre that isn’t used often in K-pop and the performance [was based] off of modern dance, which differs from my prior releases.
“In terms of connection, if ‘Paranoia’ represents the period going from happy to sad, ‘Antidote’ represents the period from sad to happy.”
Unlike many K-pop stars, you’ve been quite open about your life and the hardships you’ve faced. Why have you decided to take on this candid approach towards your personal life in your music?
“I think it’s one of the good things about being a solo artist. All I have is myself and my story. For someone in my position [and] with my audience, it’s important to tell your story and provide strength to people that listen to your music. Telling my story helps people know that they aren’t alone.”
This time, you worked with two K-hip-hop artists, Omega Sapien and Wonstein. How did those collaborations come about and what did this process look like?
“For a solo artist, I feel like it’s always fun to have a change of pace throughout the album. In the past, I worked with Simon Dominic, Jamie, Yumdda and Dvwn.
“For ‘Yellow’, because it was a more emotional album, I was actually really lost in terms of the type of artists I wanted to work with. My team recommended Omega Sapien and I immediately loved his vibe and persona. For Wonstein, he became so big from [the South Korean music competition series] Show Me The Money. My dancers and team would watch [the show] in the dressing room while we were doing award shows and we really wanted to find a song we could pitch to him. I am very thankful that they were able to take the time to work with me on this album and I am a fan of both.”
Who else would you like to collaborate with in the future?
“It’s definitely difficult to choose just one artist and it always changes. I think it’s one of the most fun parts of this job, to work with people you admire and are a fan of. At times it will be Marshmello or The Chainsmokers because I have always been a big fan. Or 88rising’s NIKI, Justin Bieber and Post Malone because I have been listening to them a lot lately. The list is endless.”
With the completion of ‘Color,’ what concepts and genres can fans expect from you in your next release?
“I am not sure yet. We have some music that we have been working on, we just aren’t sure where they will fit in.”
“This is also a very fun part of the process. Once promotions are done with ‘Yellow’ my team and I will be able to sit down and go back to the drawing board. I am actually really looking forward [to] it a lot, because it’s the first time since early last year that we’ve been able to do that from nothing.”
To wrap up, what are you hoping to achieve by the end of 2021?
“By the end of 2021, I think just satisfying my fans (also known as Danity) and slowly getting my music out to the world and growing as an artist. I am in a good place right now and just having a lot of fun taking on new opportunities and projects. My hope is that I can look back and just know I worked hard and did my best and the people closest to me are proud of me.”
Kang Daniel’s ‘Yellow’ is out now