Joohoney, clad in lily-white garments, slowly trudges up the stairs toward a pedestal, a structure that almost resembles a mountain. The breeze hits him, casting his hair and clothes back as he tilts his head up towards a dark, foggy sky. The opening verse to ‘Freedom’ begins like a prayer, as he croons that same word over and over again, his raspy voice laced with traces of desperation and desire.
As the music video to the title track to his debut solo record, ‘Lights’, chugs on, we watch as the MONSTA X member’s forlorn disposition gradually twists and morphs into his signature assertiveness. In some scenes, he’s locked in a cage, the words “trouble” and “struggling” written in neon ink across his cheeks. In others, he’s trapped in the middle of a rotating circle of lit candles. ‘Freedom’’s accompanying visual may be a hodgepodge of imagery, but they all share the same motif: Joohoney as a prisoner.
“Everyone has a dark side,” Joohoney says of ‘Lights’ during a video call with NME, a week before the record’s release. He points out that this darkness usually manifests itself as negative thoughts. “We [need to] always shine lights on ourselves, to always think and see positivity. Then [can we become] lights to the world.” The confidence – not only in himself, but also in his work – he radiates is perhaps one of the first things you will notice about him. He leans back in his chair, arms crossed, as he speaks about ‘Lights’ with an unmistakable sparkle in his eyes and a warm smile. “I’m always thinking about how to spread positive energy, positive messages and positive songs, so that’s the reason behind this album.”
The multihyphenate is recognised in the K-pop industry as a dextrous rapper, but on ‘Lights’ he dares to explore uncharted stylistic territory and unapologetically subverts expectations by placing focus on his ability as a vocalist. “Just like the meaning of the word itself, I wanted to be free with all the things I wanted to do for my music,” Joohoney explains. Even the layering of instrumentation in each song is incredibly nuanced as he ventures into new genres. “Everything is free [for me]. I just want to [defy] these boundaries in my music.”
Nearly every aspect of ‘Lights’ was made with careful, crafted intention, as expected when Joohoney himself was behind its writing production. The six-track record is stacked with layers upon layers of storytelling that demand to be peeled back in order to understand his philosophy as a creator. It starts with ‘Hype Energy’, an opener rife with trap and hip-hop beats that harken back to his early days as an “amateur”, as he puts it. Even ‘Voice’, the follow-up track, is sharp and punchy. It acts as this album’s war cry, as a choir of voices soar beneath Joohoney’s powerhouse flow.
“My trainee days felt very dark and unending because I spent seven long years”
“I included a lot of high-energy sounds in the beginning, because that’s what I’m already known for and the image that most people have of me,” he says. He suddenly snaps his fingers as he recalls something, his smile growing even wider. “You know No Mercy? My performance, ‘Yessir’?” For the uninitiated, No Mercy was the Starship Entertainment-produced survival show that determined MONSTA X’s final line-up, and ‘Yessir’ was Joohoney’s first-ever solo performance as a trainee on the programme. “I wanted to [call back] to that stage. I will always [remember] my first stage.”
As he explains the thought that went into the tracks’ arrangements and influences, it becomes increasingly clear how sentimental he really is, and how much his comfort with his own emotions has forged him into a better songwriter. “My music is something that’s alive and breathing for me. So I always want to be sincere in whatever I put out into the world, so I included everything I experienced personally and I think that writing about that makes it more meaningful.”
Once the hype calms, Joohoney starts putting his vulnerability on display. ‘Evolution’ and ‘Monologue’ (which features GSoul) take on softer approaches and lend more focus to his vocals – something we have only gotten to witness more frequently in more recent MONSTA X albums. “[When I moved on] to more emotional music towards the end of the album, I wanted to express my personal experience and memories through it.”
When the topic of collaborating with GSoul on the jazz-influenced ‘Monologue’ comes up, Joohoney – who had already been energetic and affable despite it being 11pm in Seoul at the time – beams with pride. “One day, I was meeting [one of] my friends who personally knew GSoul. I was like, ‘Oh, really? Can I get his phone number?’” He pauses to let out a chuckle. “So I called him and said, ‘I want to meet you!’ He then came over to my studio and we talked about how we wanted to make a song that would be famous in pop or K-pop. So that was how ‘Monologue’ came about. I respect him!”
“I wanted to [tell] listeners that they shouldn’t fear future scary situations or struggles that they may have.”
Despite its relatively arcadian instrumentation, ‘Monologue’ details a difficult chapter in his career as an artist. “My trainee days felt very dark and unending because I spent seven long years and I was able to withstand all that time,” he recalls. “I think because I had that time as a trainee, I was able to finally release a solo album after eight years with MONSTA X.”
As the closing track on ‘Lights’, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ is the culmination of the album’s narrative. “I don’t have a favourite on ‘Lights’, because they are all my songs, right? I produced every song, so I don’t have a favourite… but if I had to pick one song, it would be ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’,” he says after some thought, referring to it as a song he wrote in dedication to MONSTA X’s fanbase, Monbebes. “[While I was] writing the lyrics, tears fell. Because I recalled our first fanmeeting, where we were all face-to-face. I have very emotional memories about that moment.”
Joohoney recognises how important it is to be candid and vulnerable through artistic expression, especially when he is privy to a platform that allows him to spread the positivity he has always championed. “This album is for people who might be struggling or having a hard time,” the rapper-singer acknowledges. “I wanted to [tell] listeners that they shouldn’t fear future scary situations or struggles that they may have. I wanted to emphasise that the light shines brighter in the dark, so sometimes we need both. I really hope whoever is going through a hard time will be comforted and willing to gain the strength to keep living on after listening to my music.”
What will be the next chapter in Joohoney’s journey as he continues to expand his horizons? “Whatever comes next, whatever that may be, it will be something new. Just like how ‘Lights’ encompasses my own style and genre, what comes next will also be something that is completely my own.” For now, though, he just wants the best for himself and this milestone record. “As Joohoney, [I’d really like to have] ‘Lights’ charting on the Billboard charts,” he tells us after mulling over it for a moment. But on a personal level, as Lee Joo-heon, his wish is surprisingly simple: “I personally would like to have no schedules and go on a trip.”
Joohoney’s debut solo record ‘Lights’ is out now