At the end of May, 'Fantasia', Monsta X’s first new material of 2020 arrived with all their hallmarks - the high energy chorus, power notes, and a hook that worms deep. “Let me be your fantasy, let me give you what you need”, they tease in a video filled with bodies that writhe and reach for the six members like they are indeed a fantasy not quite able to be touched but, if they could, would greedily rip them apart.
This juxtaposition of desire and destruction, even if only theoretical, feels apt in the wider context. The past 12 months have been some of the most successful of Monsta X’s career - a world tour, a Top 5 US album (their English-language debut, 'All About Luv'), and a number one album in South Korea.
But even as they were going up, hands were pulling them back down. A misunderstanding over a video taken at a fan-signing caused backlash related to the #MeToo movement. Accusations flew around Shownu’s personal life. And serious allegations were made against Wonho by a former friend and roommate regarding historic marijuana use and debts at the end of last October.
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With Monsta X about to begin their promotions for their album, 'Follow: Find You', Wonho, faced with mounting press coverage in a country known for its zero drugs tolerance, announced his departure. The fandom, Monbebe, began a long campaign of petitions, hashtag trends, emails, and billboards in a concerted effort to have him reinstated, while, behind the scenes, stress evidently took its toll when, in mid-January, rapper Joohoney took time out, writing a candid letter to his fans about his mental health and treatment for anxiety.
Joohoney has since rejoined his bandmates but Monbebe’s demand for Wonho’s return went unmet. In March there was, at long last, closure and requital; Wonho was cleared of charges and, in April, signed as a soloist to a subsidiary of Monsta X’s parent label, Starship Entertainment. In spite of this, 'Fantasia X' is not Monsta X’s gaudy phoenix rising from the flames album or the big ‘fuck you’ to those who tried to derail them (though its mere existence is defiance). There lies within it some dark shadows but overall it’s familiar, an uplift and an anchor for a fandom that was united but lost in those uncertain months.
It’s an album, says vocalist Hyungwon, “with a theme of life and all of its resplendence”, and one over which vocalist Minhyuk says they’ve “agonized a lot together and made many trials and errors along the way.” Rapper I.M adds “that it represents our determination to move forward as Monsta X.” For all six members, it’s made special for the simple fact that it’s felt like a long time since they were on stage.
Even the delay to its release (as vocalist and leader Shownu recovered from back pain) couldn’t dim the thrill of returning. Rapper Joohoney shrugs off the extra wait as anything more than a mere hiccup: “I was just like ‘All good! Just go with the flow””, and Kihyun, the ever practical vocalist, says having the time made him “feel rather positive. If you get hurt during the promotion period, it's worse. I thought I should improve myself and show you a better performance.”
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At seven tracks, 'Fantasia X' is a distillation of Monsta X’s many parts. Light, breezy pop ('Beautiful Night') nestles beside sensual, bassy funk (“It Ain’t Over”), the record’s middle section reinforced by the commanding brass and EDM of 'Chaotic' and a thumping party track - “On the previous album there was 'Fallin' that makes everyone run around,” says Minhyuk, “but this time there is 'Zone', which I.M wrote, which makes everyone go crazy.” But for Kihyun, “it’s important that “Monbebe pay attention to the lyrics. Especially the message that ‘we don't kneel and move forward’.”
That message is the backbone of 'Stand Up' - a confession of pain experienced but also a rallying cry to prevail. Beneath its bouncy, trop-house beats, is what Shownu calls a “touching song” and, as the album’s closing track, he and Minhyuk admit it reflects the band’s journey through dark places to emerge on the other side. “We can't just sit back and cry even if it’s painful,” I.M points out, as Joohoney agrees, adding, “Whatever happens, try to stand up. If you fall, you can sit still for awhile as long as you don't give up.”
'Stand Up' is one of the two opposing album tracks written by Joohoney, its brightness the other side of the coin to the ‘man in the mirror’ self-realisation of 'Flow', a song inspired by a swan, and their everyday lives. The swan, one presumes, is those appearing to gracefully glide through life while out of sight beneath the water, legs churn frantically to exhaustion.
“That's exactly what it means,” Joohoney says. “We're too busy trying to express ourselves in a flashy way and pretend we don't. The whole social media thing is like that, too. It’s all about branding, like making up the ideal image. I’m not saying this negatively and I don’t think it’s bad. But we should always be aware of what we are showing to the people. It’s just not good to be immersed in it too much.”
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On the same song his lyrics explores inner conflict, denial, and the desire to let things go without overthinking it to the point of becoming ill; “I pretend like it’s nothing but actually it’s not, I just say “I’m fine” again today and live on/I wanna be brave, I want to be more honest with myself/How about, so what, just as it flows”. In recent years, the mental health of idols has become a more open discussion, with some artists willing to disclose their condition and treatment. Each of them play an important role in normalising mental health in a society that would still rather turn away from it.
Joohoney’s letter, posted online shortly after his hiatus began, was widely shared across social media. His reasons for writing it, he says, were two-fold. “As you know, I'm a human being, so I wanted to let people know that this could happen to me. Especially, I thought I should explain to the fans what I'm going through at the moment. It was really hard for me to see people misunderstand me who don't know me well, and leave me. When I revealed my condition honestly, I felt a lot of gratitude to the fans who kept supporting me, and I decided to do my best to the fans who love me. Most of all, I wanted my fans to get energy from my courage.”
In his own way, Minhyuk has also sought to block out the mental noise that distracts and overwhelms many of us at times. He paints and enjoys customising bags and shoes, and has, he said in a recent interview with Korean magazine, Singles, adopted a “rookie mindset”. This is something which isn’t “easy to have,” he elaborates. “The point of the rookie mindset is 'not knowing what's what' [in the industry]. Even though I already know what’s going on in general now, I try to work hard without thinking too much about it.”
In the vacuum of social media and 24/7 news cycles, where, throughout last winter, the rumours, negativity and opinions flew thick and fast, it was easy to fear that Monsta X might not make it through the storm. But the thought of having had enough, of quitting, never crossed Kihyun or Minhyuk’s minds, and their bandmates agree.
“It’s true that there were harsh times for me and our members, and I’ve had some negative thoughts,” admits Shownu, “but we hold out and enjoy our moments thinking about a bright future and our fans.” Minhyuk is adamant that the “reason why Monsta X is so strong is that we came together to overcome all the difficulties”, and Hyungwon recalls their combined opinion being, “‘For the fans who trusted us and waited for us, let's work harder. Let's do more now so that we don't regret it later.'”
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I.M, the group’s youngest at 24, refused to entertain any notion of throwing in the towel. “I couldn't even afford to think like that because of responsibility. I don't want to sit down just because I'm having a hard time because there are members, Monbebe, many staff and acquaintances who are going through this together,” he explains.
“It's a lie to say that I've never felt mentally tired,” Jooheon says. “Sometimes you want to stop, and even if you're afraid of people's eyes, still there are many other people in the world who live the same way. I'm just a tiny creature in this world, as everyone is. You can start again whenever you feel like it. That's how I stood up again.”
In May, Monsta X celebrated their fifth anniversary. From being formed through a reality survival show to releasing over a dozen solid albums, they’ve become more than just a team. “That's right,” says Minhyuk, “we've become one.” Joohoney adds, with gusto, “You’ll be sorry if you think we’re just [together] as a ‘group’. We're a brave and great family because we're great colleagues who can stand up on their own, even if we face some adversity.”
It is, however, the members with the driest humour who take the final word on if Monsta X are now closer than ever. “As time went by,” muses Hyungwon, “I became more attached to them. But,” he relents, “most of all, I feel more affectionate because we’ve been through everything together.” For I.M, closeness will have to remain a state of mind only. “I think it’s not bad to stay a little apart because it’s summer,” he quips. “I’m sweating. This is too close.”
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'Fantasia X' is out now.
Words: Taylor Glasby
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