SHINee's Key On His Solo Evolution

SHINee's Key On His Solo Evolution

"I don’t think I’m different from anyone else, but I have that freedom to express myself..."

The first thing you need to know about Key is that he is a shapeshifter. The kind of rare artist who can bend and multiply into a million different versions, yet maintain his spirit in each one. “I can be a comedian when I’m on a variety show, I can be a singer when I’m on stage, I can be an actor when I’m in a movie, I can be a model when I’m in a magazine,” he tells Clash over a Zoom call, leaning closer to the screen. “I’ve never seen this kind of person before, so I’m just being me everywhere.”

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Recently turned 30, he was born Kim Ki-bum in the city of Daegu, South Korea. He first debuted with legendary K-pop group SHINee in 2008, and aside from his original roles as a singer, rapper, and dancer, he has since grown into an accomplished soloist, songwriter, model, actor, fashion designer, television presenter, creative director, academic, and philanthropist. This isn’t an exhaustive list — looking at Key’s career is like looking at the stars, each glimmering light is a universe of its own, coming together to form a galaxy of art, wisdom, and life.

It might seem otherworldly, but Key harnesses that quality. Like he could have just arrived to this interview straight off a spaceship from the cosmic teasers of his newest EP, 'Bad Love', out today. His platinum hair complements his delicate features in an ethereal look. Brick-colored eyeshadow blends seamlessly into black eyeliner, sharpening his gaze. “I don’t think I’m different from anyone else, but I have that freedom to express myself. I’m able to portray who I am inside,” he reflects. “Everyone has that, it’s just a matter of whether you’re able to bring it out. I think that’s why I’m always getting these comments saying I’m sassy, I’m honest, but I’m really just being myself.”

A buoyant personality with a dry sense of humor is often what comes to mind when people think of him, but Key’s most prominent feature today is his sweetness. He talks openly about 'Bad Love' — his first solo comeback since 2019 — and how personal it is, switching between English and Korean with ease. There is a willingness to dive into the questions and search for thoughtful words to weave his story and artistry, aided by eloquent hand gestures. Even with a translator facilitating the conversation, Key adds his own insights, like personal footnotes, after each answer.

He defines the concept of this new album as “retro space.” Inspired by ‘80s and ‘90s sci-fi movies, he created a pink-hued, interstellar adventure. Aliens and clones roam free, while a love gone wrong serves as the theatrical (and metaphorical) background. It’s a theme he has loved since childhood. “I wanted to bring it back, you know? I really love those generations. It came naturally because I always had it in the back of my head. It wasn’t something forced. I’m very happy that it’s finally going to be revealed,” he says.

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As the creative director for the entire project — from choosing the songs to overviewing the playful album design — Key worked on this release as if it was his last. “It’s not, but that was my mentality. That’s how much I poured my entire energy in this,” he says. “For the title song, it’s really difficult to choose. You know, economy, business, fans,” he scrunches his nose at the struggle. “But if I’m choosing other songs, it’s easy: I like it, or I don’t like it.” Fashion, a medium where Key is both a natural and a trend-setter, was also important to express this concept. “To be honest, there is a little bit of a pressure in terms of trying to showcase a different kind of fashion that isn’t common,” he explains. “So whether it’s patterns, colors, accessories, or details, I wanted to highlight and magnify them.”

The final result is not only one of the most ravishing releases of the year, but also one that is inextricably Key. Filled with retro sounds and stirring synths, the six-track collection evokes his lush character, his theatrical wit, and his avant-garde vision of the world. “The most important message that I want to showcase in this album is my identity as a singer, as an artist,” he says. “I’ve told the fans and media that this album is truly a reflection of myself, all my preferences and things that I love combined.”

He wrote the lyrics to two songs in the album — 'Saturday Night' and 'Eighteen (End of My World)' — opposites in a thematic spectrum. “‘Saturday Night’ is fiction, and ‘Eighteen’ is my story,” he explains, adding that the former is about a breakup during the current COVID-19 pandemic, while the latter is a story he’s telling his younger self. “When I debuted, I was 18, so I just wanted to cheer up 18-years-old Key. At the end of the song, [the lyrics] turn to, ‘I would love to watch the end of my world with you.’” He looks down, pausing to think for a second. “It’s like, if the end really comes, I can just watch [it]. That’s not a sad thing for me. I’ll be there with you, so you don’t need to be scared for whatever it is at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “It’s also about living in the moment. 18 is 18, and 30 is 30. I don’t make specific plans, it’s more about following my heart.”

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While Key, the person, prefers to live in the moment, the artist travels in time. Since his solo debut with 2018’s Face, he transits through themes of nostalgia and heartbreak by looking at what once was ('This Life', 'One of Those Nights') and what can still be ('Imagine', 'I Wanna Be', 'Forever Yours'). It’s not surprising that he chose to look at the timelessness of stars for this comeback — a canvas where past, present, and future can coexist.

In the music video for pre-release single 'Hate That', featuring singer and close friend Taeyeon, the alienation of space mirrors that of a painful breakup — feeling so isolated that you might not be part of this world at all. This idea reappears in the single 'Bad Love', where Key, portraying a tormented actor who is living a nightmare both on and off screen, once again is stuck inside a doomed spaceship.

After all, to recall a bad love, or generally bad situations in life, is to confront all that wasn’t. The rockets that didn’t shuttle, the aliens who never showed their true heart, the gloomy silence of a vacuum. But by shedding light into the darkness, Key dares to imagine what else is in store. “I blinked, and I was 30 years old,” he laughs. “Sometimes I think ‘how far will this go?’ Not in a bad way, but more like, how will this go about? What’s going to happen next? I don’t know.”

That doesn’t scare him. Key’s most poignant lesson so far is that the world doesn’t go the way you want it to. “Never! Not even once!” he bursts, enthusiastically raising a finger. He knows that there are many stars yet to come alive in his galaxy, most of them unfathomable right now. “Even if something better comes up, it still wasn’t part of my plan. But you can learn how to figure out everything. I keep that in mind.”

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'Bad Love' EP is out now.

Words: Tássia Assis // @_tassia_a

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