Minho Finds The Missing Piece With Solo Debut ‘Chase’

"I finally had the opportunity to tell my own story..."

The concept of a ‘magic number’ holds many meanings. In programming, the phrase is used to describe a number that’s unexplaine but still holds a unique value. In science, they’re the fundamental building blocks of a strong and stable nucleus. In the spiritual world, a ‘magic number’ can refer to anything from regular re-occurrences of the same figure to a digit that signifies good luck or fortune. Numbers, many argue, hold weight simply by the way they mark our world and imbue significance over time. For Choi Minho, ‘magic numbers’ litter the career he’s built over half his life. 

Minho Finds The Missing Piece With Solo Debut ‘Chase’

On the 25th of May, 2008, SHINee made their official performance debut on the Korean music show Inkigayo with their first song ‘Replay’. Fresh-faced and sporting side fringes and bowl cuts for the history books, the fivesome harmonised and synchronised their way through lyrics that have now become a necessary touchpoint for anyone venturing into the world of K-pop. On that stage stood boys only just straddling adulthood, the oldest 18, the youngest 14 and in the middle, with a cheeky smile and glint in his eye, Minho, just 16 years old. Now, just days after his 31st birthday, CLASH speaks to him about the release of his first solo album, CHASE. 

Those numbers – 25, 5, 16, 31 – all fit together like a puzzle that builds to create a picture of Minho, someone who’s approaching more time of his life in the public eye than out. That length of time, then, makes his recent solo debut even more of a magical moment. “It was my first solo activity as an artist so there were definitely nerves, but it was mostly anticipation and excitement because I finally had the opportunity to tell my own story with this album”, Minho says over a video call from Seoul. 

The culmination of that anticipation is a six-track album led by the titular, pulsating lead single and infused top-to-toe with a kind of melancholic hip-hop vibe. ‘Runaway’, which he hand in writing, is a lo-fi collaboration with South Korean rapper Gemini. ‘Prove It’ lifts the mood with a plucky acoustic guitar backbeat, ‘Choice’ grabs you by the shoulders and rattles you with a husky rap Minho has become known for in his tenure and ‘Heartbreak’, which was released as a single earlier this year, sweeps you up in an expansive wave of harmonies and wistful production. But the highlight really comes in the album’s fourth track, ‘Waterfall’, a collaboration with singer Lim Kim. It’s sexy and intimate, like a whisper just grazing past your ear. He says he’s been enjoying listening to the album in Seoul’s recent rain, I mention it suits London’s surprise snow too. Clearly, a record primed for winter introspection, “and longer, hopefully!” he muses. 

Minho Finds The Missing Piece With Solo Debut ‘Chase’

Minho is the last of his SHINee bandmates to venture out solo, and though this is a chance to sprout more branches to an identity that already includes countless group albums, solo variety endeavours, acting roles and fashion ambassadorships, he has kept the roots of this work intertwined with them. The album is called CHASE, which is the final piece of yet another puzzle constructed by his fellow members’ albums – Taemin’s ACE, Jonghyun’s BASE, Onew’s VOICE and Key’s FACE. “I really wanted to come back strong and fill the level of expectation and the perfection that the fans have been anticipating”, he says about the choice to follow the titular trend, “and because I was the last piece of the puzzle, the last member to complete my solo activity, I also felt a little bit of ambition with the goal and drive to fully complete whatever that was left”. 

The Minho that sits opposite over Zoom is hardly any different from the Minho that choreographs his way through that first performance of ‘Replay’, though there’s slightly less hair and the split-colour blue and black leather trousers have been swapped for a crisp, oatmeal buttondown. A sense of peace radiates even through the pixels of a screen as he considers how his relationship to releasing music now has changed since he first entered the scene as a teenager. 

“It would be a lie to say that there is absolutely no desire for any kind of success in my work, as I believe that any artists who have released music of their own would want to be supported, loved and to have it become a something that everybody is very positive about”. He says. “But because I’ve been in the industry for a long time, I’m less stressed and less obsessed with charting numbers and more focused on the overall process and this continued support and interaction with the fans”.

Minho Finds The Missing Piece With Solo Debut ‘Chase’

The fans actually inspired releasing this solo album in the first place, which he says is something he had never been waiting to accomplish. It became evident it was something he should pursue, however, after receiving letters asking for it once he’d completed his mandatory military enlistement. Minho enlisted in 2019, the third of his bandmates to do so. 

“It was a huge moment and opportunity for new thinking,” he says about that period of detachment from the life he’d been inhabiting for over a decade. “I was constantly running towards my career and working very hard at it, and when I enlisted in the military it became an opportunity to kind of sit back, reflect and do a little bit of introspection. I learned a lot about more who I am and became more sure of how I felt about things.”

“Because SHINee’s anniversary is coming up, I wanted to showcase something of my own before then,” he says, the puzzle pieces never far from his mind. “And while I have been working for 14 years as an artist and as a singer, and I have been able to showcase the strength and skills that I’ve built up during my career, it wasn’t that I was waiting to be mature to release a solo album, it was more of a desire to tell my own story”. 

Time is never something promised to anyone, let alone those working in an industry where youth and recency bias are often favoured over the old guard. Add to that the pressure for men in South Korea that a chunk of their early adulthood will veer off course to enter the military and it’s no surprise that Minho approaches new opportunities and continued longevity with a sense of gratitude. SHINee are staple icons in K-pop, traversing highs, lows, tragedy and success to maintain status as a generation-defining and spanning sensation. At the end of 2020, following Minho’s release from the military, an announcement projecting his immortal whisper “SHINee’s back! SHINee’s back!” from the band’s seminal track ‘Sherlock’ signalled their return to the scene. The response was enormous, their enduring popularity inarguable.

May will mark the group’s 15th anniversary, another magic number to add to the sum of Minho’s life. It’s a milestone afforded to few of the artists SHINee would have shared that first Inkigayo stage with in 2008, something Minho is humbly aware of. “Definitely it is something that we never expected and could not imagine at the time, that the career and the love that SHINee have received for all this time has lasted so long. I am very appreciative of the longevity of the support from the fans”. 

The group’s youngest member, Taemin, will complete his military enlistment near that benchmark moment, and Minho promises that once the puzzle is finally back together, more SHINee is around the corner. “It’s definitely time to return stronger, comeback and reciprocate the love and support from the fans with better music next year”.

‘Chase’ is out now.

Words: Lucy Ford

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