If Korean culture was already rising in popularity in 2020, then the last couple of years have seen interest in it – from the idol groups of K-pop and epic and emotional K-dramas to the inventive flows of K-hip-hop – go stratospheric. It’s a trajectory ZICO observes in his zipping comeback single ‘Seoul Drift’, weaving the line “Just watched Korea go global” into a verse about pandemic-era strife (“My bucket list still on its first line / Like a zipped file, I’m strapped at home”).
But the rapper, singer, producer and record label CEO has, so far, witnessed the latest explosion of the Hallyu wave mostly from the sidelines. “I watched Korea go global at an incredibly high speed as an observer, not a player for the last two years,” ZICO tells NME, referring to the break he took from music to complete military service. Now that he’s back, though, he’s ready to jump back into the thick of the action without compromising his artistry or ideas. “At my own pace,” he promises, “I will do everything in my power to become the pivot of the massive K-pop scene.”
ZICO talks big but has the songs to back it up, as his new EP ‘Grown Ass Kid’ proves. The record, released last week, is a strong first step in reconfirming his status as one of modern Korean music’s most vital stars. It adds to an already illustrious career – one that began with a rise through Seoul’s underground hip-hop scene to a debut with the boyband Block B in 2011 and then solo pursuits in 2018. His output in that latest chapter in his story has ranged from the poignant (like 2019’s heart-wrenching ‘Being Left’) to the colourful (2020 single ‘Summer Hate’, a team-up with fellow K-pop icon Rain).
ZICO’s latest record is similarly eclectic, from the instantly infectious title track ‘Freak’ to the Zior Park-featuring ‘Nocturnal Animals’, which finds the collaborators singing and rapping over a smooth, melancholy guitar melody. It races by in just 15 minutes, packing in ideas and commanding you to hit the repeat button once it’s over. “I can only explain it with one word,” he says of his state of mind when he started work on the record’s five tracks. “Fun. I literally felt the exact feelings I had when I first started making music.”
‘Grown Ass Kid’ with life with ‘Trash Talk’, a vintage R&B collaboration with rapper CHANGMO. It struts and snaps with a similar soulfulness to Silk Sonic’s 2021 album, but lyrically is far more barbed. “It doesn’t work, trash talk of the underdogs / Pros only use their titles on things with profits,” ZICO sings on the chorus, before CHANGMO adds scornfully moments later: “Waste of an effort, stop acting up, you.”
“When I started making ‘Trash Talk’, it was right before CHANGMO enlisted for military service [in March 2022],” ZICO explains. “I asked him to collaborate at once because I knew it would be difficult later on to work on something together.” He credits CHANGMO and ‘Nocturnal Animals’’ guest Zior Park with playing “a key role in making the tracks fun and [giving] a twist to the tracks”.
From there, the artist set about creating a whole – albeit bite-sized – world, with each song on ‘Grown Ass Kid’ linked by what its creator calls “an abstract concept”. “Each storyline of all five tracks is connected in one outlook on the world like an omnibus film series,” he shares. Title track ‘Freak’ takes delight in dystopia, ZICO commanding: “Every moment, climax / Blasting fanfare / Getting deranged, one by one / Enjoy, we’re the freaks.” “For ‘Freak’, I was inspired by the apocalypse stories that are often seen on OTT platforms,” he explains.
While, as he points out himself, ‘Grown Ass Kid’ doesn’t represent a shift in the star’s sound or style, ZICO has spent some time lately reflecting on the purpose behind his music. Instead of trying to make the ever-growing and disparate range of people who make up his listeners understand what’s on his mind, he’s decided to “devote myself to creating music that will represent people’s thoughts and feelings”.
“It’s almost impossible to deliver and get across one’s conveyed message and musical trials to the listeners and viewers every time someone puts out new music or any creative work to the world,” he reasons. “It’s because we’re all different individuals, before we can call ourselves ‘us’ and categorise us into groups.”
“I have learned someone who leads and runs an organisation cannot be driven by impetuosity or indolence”
Drastic changes to his music might not be on the agenda right now, but recently the rapper has experienced an adjustment in one aspect of his artistic endeavours – the way he feels on stage. He made his live comeback at Seoul’s WaterBomb Festival in June and was hit by a strange feeling. “I usually never get nervous when I am on stage,” he says. “But it was very different when I returned to the live stage this time. I still remember the nerve-racking tension that day.” Still, if that sensation was peculiar, as his set progressed, ZICO found familiarity in “my voice and gestures coming out stage, and the faces of the live audience,” which left him “full of joy”.
As well as working on his own music, ZICO has returned to running his label KOZ Entertainment, which he founded in 2019. It’s an experience that he says, so far, has impacted him in “every way, but in the most positive way possible”. “I have learned someone who leads and runs an organisation cannot be driven by impetuosity or indolence,” he notes. “So me being in this position always guides me to become the better version of myself and mature as a person.”
KOZ – which is also home to rising R&B singer Dvwn – is central to ZICO’s plans for his next chapter, which he says he has already clearly “lined up and planned out”. “It is to create a new boy group under my label,” he explains, adding that the project took up most of his time during his break, with him thinking and “agonising” about it for “hours, days” at a time.
Although he keeps his cards close to his chest when NME asks him about the process of putting the group together or further details about the future rookies, he agrees his own experiences as a Block B member – and beyond – can help guide them. “I’m doing everything I can to make the members of the group absorb what I have experienced and felt as an artist,” he says.
Refreshed and rejuvenated, ZICO’s next steps – in his own career and for the acts under his wing – look set to aid Korea’s rapid ascension to cultural superpower status. No longer will the star be a bystander, but a leader of the scene once again.
ZICO’s new EP ‘Grown Ass Kid’ is out now via KOZ Entertainment