In the popular tarot book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, author Rachel Pollack says that the Devil card means that you obey “your desires, rather than acting the way you think is best.” The most common depiction of this card shows a man and a woman — reminiscent of Adam and Eve — chained to a block of cement. The Devil looms above, glaring. The couple, however, do not appear uncomfortable, and the chains could come off easily, if only they wanted to remove them.
“Destroy me more,” Taemin demands while staring at the camera in his new music video “Criminal.” He wears a studded eye patch, leather gloves, and a black jacquard suit. An impatient hand runs through his messy, silvery locks. In a set that recalls 1997 horror film The Devil’s Advocate, he is surrounded by dancers veiled in red, consuming him like living flames. What could be a moment of redemption is, instead, a surrender to the dark, twisty maze of his own artistry.
“I’m on a leash called ‘you’, it’s painful as much as I can’t breathe, but also magnificent,” he sings, per Genius translation. The newtro synths on “Criminal” create a moody, hypnotizing atmosphere to fit Taemin’s dance with the Devil: the elegant offender in the lyrics is none other than himself.
When he started to work on his double album Never Gonna Dance Again back in January of this year, he envisioned it as an inflection point in his career, a chance for a “great impact.” After all, it takes courage to name an album after one of your—and your fans’— worst nightmares.
“You can think of it as a movie and its sequels,” Taemin tells Teen Vogue. “They are unique on their own, but they all come together in the end.” Act 1 of the project dropped on September 7th, while Act 2’s release date has yet to be announced. “[It’s] a masterpiece that I’m very satisfied with.”
The Ace of Ace, as SM Entertainment once dubbed Lee Taemin, is only 27 years old, but his vision and craft contain wisdom beyond years. Born in Seoul, he debuted in 2008 with the group SHINee and has spent almost half of his life in the spotlight. He has acted in numerous dramas, such as 2013’s Dating Agency: Cyrano; showcased his charisma in variety shows like We Got Married and Hit the Stage; performed in Younique, a dance team formed by SM to promote “Maxstep”; debuted again in 2014 as a solo artist; mentored the survival show The Unit in 2017; and debuted for the fourth time as a member of SuperM, SM’s supergroup project, in 2019.
To many, he’s the blueprint, inspiring both younger and older idols alike who consider him iconic. Taemin is thankful for that reputation, but he also says that it’s mutual: “I'm very thankful to be considered as a role model for younger artists. I always get a lot of support and energy from them, so I’m glad to give back that positive energy.”
There’s an inherent ease in the way Taemin speaks, in the way his crystalline voice echoes, straightforward and confident. It’s the speech of a dancer — someone who first learned how to express the range of human emotions through his physical body, and who has now transformed this knowledge into part of his whole being.
Before Act 1, he released “2 Kids,” a prologue single meant to introduce this new era. “Two kids, too young and dumb. If I endured everything, would it be different?” he wonders in the lyrics, which he co-wrote. “Act 1 is about rebelling against the ordinary and the process of finding a new ego,” he says. “Since I wanted to make a cinematic story, I first chose the title track and, for the rest of the songs, I chose the concepts and picked keywords to name them.”
With titles such as “Strangers” and “Clockwork,” the keywords Taemin chose allude to themes of love, loss, and longing. Sonically, Act 1 is one of his most mature works so far — a versatile play that weaves through slinky synths, rolling trap beats, and R&B jams seamlessly.
“Fans already know a lot about me, but with this new album they will realize that I put a lot of time and a lot of energy into creating my music,” he says, though Taemints and Shawols (the fandom names for both Taemin and SHINee) will of course know how hardworking he is.
While looking at his effortless performances, it’s easy to think Taemin descended to Earth in that immaculate form. But as life often shows, appearances are only a fraction of the journey. When reflecting on his debut with SHINee in an interview with Sellev, Taemin admitted that his voice wasn’t even featured on their title track, “Replay.” He felt lacking, even though he was also the main dancer of the group.
In order to improve, Taemin practiced overnight and deprived himself of sleep until he could finally consider himself a complete artist. Thinking back to those times, he is gentle. “I would tell [my younger self] to not be afraid to recover from mistakes,” he says now. “To always keep his head up and always move forward.”
And so he did. In 2014, he was the first member of his group to debut as a solo artist with the EP, Ace. The introductory video for Ace featured black-and-white footage of Taemin’s growth since debut. “I’ll show you love, fights, sad goodbyes,” he sings, foreshadowing themes he’d explore in the next few years.
Taemin’s solo career was built with daring thematic plunges. Often tied up, masked, playing with dangerous instruments or simply teasing the viewer, there’s no concept too bold for him. “Danger,” his debut single, had smoky eyes, motorcycles, and a gun-shaped guitar — symbols that contrasted with his off-stage presence and angelic features. “Press Your Number” took Taemin’s introduction to peril to the external world, where he robbed a convenience store and kidnapped a woman, only to discover he was attacking himself. “Move” saw him break labels between perceptions of masculine or feminine performance, and “Want” furthered his exploration of desire and temptation through the use of religious imagery.
At the time of this interview, Taemin hadn’t yet seen the finalized music video for “Criminal,” but was confident that he would enjoy it. “Because I was heavily involved in every process of filming, I have a lot of affection towards it,” he shares. He personally chose director Jo Beomjin of VM Project Architecture, who worked with Taemin on “Press Your Number” and “Drip Drop,” to express the ideas he had in mind. “We click very well, and it was important for me to have that connection,” Taemin says. “He’s someone I feel comfortable with, someone who understands me.”
Beomjin wasn’t the only familiar face helping Taemin’s masterpiece come to life. To create the performance for “Criminal,” he also recruited long-time colleagues and choreographers Kasper and Koharu Sugawara. “You can see that it builds up to a very dramatic ending,” Taemin explains. “I’m tied up, then I’m free and I dance around, but not in a joyful manner. It’s very emotional, and I added an element of catharsis at the end.”
As if continuing from where the plot of “Press Your Number” ended, “Criminal” Taemin now pays for his sins. Stuck between hell and limbo, he’s either in The Devil’s Advocate set, dancing over a lava floor, or writhing in a sterile white room. The dramatic ending, however, does not offer a conclusion to his afflictions — that’s a mission for Act 2, where “the birth of a new self-identity” will take place, he says.
Although fearless and experienced in his work, he’s still the “baby cheese” to his hyungs. His face perfectly mimics the emoticon 6v6 when he smiles. His “magic hands” still wreak havoc on everything he touches. This endearing duality is part of what makes Taemin such a fascinating artist. “I’m curious, I love to try new things. I’m quite passionate as well, but since I’m very young, I’m still in the process of developing as an artist,” he says. And to fans who might be worrying, he is reassuring. “Of course I won’t stop dancing. I’ll never stop dancing.”
source: Teen Vogue