On 'Duality', the debut solo EP from MONSTA X rapper I.M, the five songs resemble not a collection of grand confessions but the pages of a private journal left open for people to read. "I’m complicated, I don’t even know myself well" reads the lyrics on 'Burn', a sentiment similarly repeated on the love-drunk 'Happy To Die'.
The twenty-five year old began exploring the subject of identity on his 2016 mixtape 'Who Am I', released one year into life as a rookie idol, on which he asked “what was I born for?”. As Socrates famously said, “An unexamined life is not worth living”, so although I.M channels both an inward and outward gaze into his writing, it’s still the former, aglow with the flame of existentialism, that burns most fiercely.
“Questions move people, that's why they’re always trying to discover something new,” he says of his dedication to self-discovery. “I, especially, have a lot of curiosity about myself. [Maybe] the reason is that I’m young. Like, I don’t know about myself but I don't want to define myself as something either. I just want to keep on moving and being curious.” He shifts in his chair, in the fuzzy white jacket he’s wearing. He smiles, with a glint in his eye. “Do you know yourself 100%?”
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I.M (real name, Im Chang-kyun) is playfully wily when it pleases him to be so. He’s canny, contrary, and as genuinely close to an enigma as you’ll get in mainstream pop. On 'Duality', which took around 18 months to complete, he was looking for himself but whether he had any great epiphanies during its making remains unsaid. “I put a lot of stuff about me into it in a very natural way. That's the best answer I can say right now,” I.M replies.
Having long introduced himself as “I am I.M, I am what I am”, it’s no great surprise either that he sidesteps how he currently perceives himself. “That was me then and I am me right now,” he replies noncommittally, the corners of his mouth twitching. This is our eighth interview in under four years: he knows he's being very I.M-ish, and I know he's enjoying it.
What he wants is to make a clear distinction between I.M the soloist and MONSTA X member. As part of the band, “I show myself in a cute way a lot. Or onstage as sexy or powerful,” he says, but with 'Duality', he’s stepping back. “I don’t really want to dictate how I appear to my fans or to the public. My wish is that they discover something about me through it if they want to. It could be in a good way or a bad way, it doesn’t matter.”
As 'Duality' feels its way through the minutiae of relationships - the love, loss, passion and intimacy - I.M’s stories run deep behind each line. Delicately tender, “시든 꽃 (flower-ed)” is “deeply personal”. “I was just looking around my studio, even at the tiny stuff. I saw a flower that had died, so I wrote a song in the opposite view, as a flower looking at a human. I was the flower who came to life.”
On 'God Damn' he refers to the pretence of telling people all is fine when it’s not.“I think everybody’s like that,” I.M laughs. “Let’s go back to 2015, like, it was over one or two years that I worried about people’s view of me.” He still recalls each nice and not-so-nice comment received. “That I’m cute or I have an ugly face, this or that. But now I really don’t care about what they think about me. I can’t control all of those [opinions]. I know I’m not perfect and I lack something but I’ve learned to accept it because it’s part of me too.”
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On 'Howlin', he professes to be “Burning like a fire, but I don’t feel myself enough. What’s my desire, but I don’t wanna feel enough”. “The first line means I don’t want to get satisfied with myself,” he explains. “If I did, I think I’d become old-fashioned, there’d be no development.” You’re afraid of becoming creatively complacent? “Yeah, but not in the view of the public. In myself.” The desire to not get too comfortable has trickled over into other parts of his life where it’s become a flood, mostly of sweat. “I promised myself that I’d start working out when I was 24,” he says in relation to his well-defined torso, which is appearing in photoshoots with increasing frequency.
“I wanted to change not only physically but in everything,” he explains. “If I only sit in the studio and make music and go to the schedules, I thought, ‘I won’t become a better person’. I wanted to have something, a point that I could change.” It’s a goal that's 100% his to control in a life frequently steered by many hands. “I wanted to be satisfied, to be in the best condition. I thought, ‘If you have a nice body, that will be great’,” he deadpans.
Aware of the fandom’s explosive reaction to this newly acquired buffness, he chews his thumb to hide a grin. “I’m enjoying it,” I.M laughs. “I’m trying to be a better me than before.” The strict fitness regime may have boosted his general confidence but some things never change: he’s still a self-confessed loner.
He leans in, chin resting on his hands. “I don’t want to be around a lot of people, except at a concert or with fans. Sometimes I miss people and feel lonely, but I like being on my own, I’m able to concentrate.” The solitude isn't just for his solo work but downtime, too; “I play PS5. Hitman 3. PES 2021. Or I go somewhere random. It could be a lake, it could be the Han River.”
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I.M needs these moments of being able to look up at the sky, to stop and decompress. When MONSTA X has wall-to-wall schedules, he describes life as “wake up, brush your teeth, eat something, get in front of the camera, say something, go to bed. You have no time of your own.” He uses it as an incentive - “I go to the studio, even though I don't have enough time to sleep, just to have that for myself.” While working on his record in those early hours “I was trying to balance myself, you know what I mean? Be imaginative and not lose a sense of the music but keep thinking about reality.”
The matter of ownership has played a quietly powerful part in this chapter of I.M. He may have had many meetings with his label about releasing it, but it’s here now only because the timing for him “felt right”. Immerse yourself in Duality’s woozy trapwave and poetic imagery purely as an aural dreamscape or study it carefully as a map of physical and emotional experiences. Make of this EP, of him, what you will. He’s okay with that, able to let the record go because it was entirely his to pass on to the listener. He’s content in knowing that “I am just myself, and I wrote this record being totally honest.”
Amen to that, I.M.
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'Duality' is out now.
Words: Taylor Glasby
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