“Oh I’m sorry, did I make you anxious?”
Monsta X rapper Joohoney’s cheeky question at the top “Love Killa” — the lead track from the Korean group’s November 2020 album Fatal Love — is definitely rhetorical. Monsta X know how intimidating they come off: after all, it’s been their signature ever since they made their 2015 debut.
Back then, they led with loud, in-your-face intensity. Five years later, however, their ferocity is more subtle — and in many ways, more potent. You can see it in “Love Killa.” It’s in the way they loosely shake their wrists in the air, and in their knowing smirks as they strut. Few things are more subversive and unsettling than seeing someone completely at ease with themselves, but it didn’t happen overnight.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like shocking people a bit,” the group’s youngest, I.M., tells Refinery29 over video call from Seoul, a sly smile playing on his face. The husky-toned rapper is especially well-known for pushing boundaries in recent years, from broaching what K-pop considers taboo topics in interviews to writing sexier lyrics — I want you to eat me like a main dish, he spits on “Love Killa.” But he maintains that his attitude isn’t meant to be disingenuous; time has emboldened him, and he feels more at ease with himself than ever before. “It’s just who I am as a man,” he says, brushing back a strand of jet-black hair from his face. I.M. talks with his hands, and at the moment they’re laced in contemplation. “I’ve been revealing more of my inside, maybe? I’ve maybe gotten more confident than before because I’m getting older. I’m more mature. I’m almost 25 now, so sharing these thoughts is very comfortable for me. I don’t really care about people being appalled or anything. I just want my lines to be very straightforward and it’s very fun when I see [people’s] reactions. I enjoy that.”
If you’re wondering why a 25-year-old pop star would act like he’s about to collect Social Security, it’s because I.M., and the rest of Monsta X — Shownu, Minhyuk, Kihyun, Hyungwon, and Joohoney — are on K-pop Time. All Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve in the military for about 18 months, so once members start splintering off to enlist (Shownu is up first, likely in the next year), it usually halts a group’s momentum. Few complete groups have stayed together with all of their original members after the fact, instead opting for solo careers, TV hosting gigs, acting, or life out of the spotlight. As a successful group of men in their late twenties, Monsta X is somewhat of a rarity in the industry. By all accounts, it would make sense if the sextet were feeling anxious about it all — not only about what their individual futures hold, but how to continue building on their success — but, instead, they emit a sense of calm and introspection. Their ability to balance a rigorous album promotion cycle in the midst of a giant, looming deadline is a testament to this season of Monsta X.
In K-pop, releasing an album is the easy part; from there, it’s weeks of performing one or two lead singles on various TRL-like competitive music shows, all the while praying that fans will vote for your performance to “win” the best of that week. But this is a clear example of something that doesn’t feel as dire as it used to be to the group. “I used to be fixated on ‘the score,’” I.M says. “Oh yes, the numbers!” vocalist Kihyun interjects with mock exasperation. “I got stressed about that, but now I really don’t care about it,” I.M. continues. “I care about my health, my mental health, and the things I love.” As the youngest says this, vocalist Minhyuk tears open a pouch of cookies and waves one around, gesturing in agreement and nodding his head like a churchgoer listening to a rousing sermon.
In January of last year, Joohoney announced that he would be taking a brief leave of absence from the group due to his anxiety and focus on his mental health. His transparency with fans was a huge step since acknowledgment of mental illness is still heavily stigmatized in South Korea. During our interview, even though it wasn’t at all mandated, each member did their best to speak in English (Minhyuk seemed to enjoy using a translator app on his phone to express himself). For this part, however, the usually ebullient Joohoney decided it was important to speak in his native tongue. “I want the fans who are going to read this to know that it comes from a deep place in my heart,” the rapper says earnestly, through an interpreter. “When I was able to step on stage again, I wanted people to see that I’m doing better, but I most importantly wanted to cheer and support everyone who’s been doing the same for me. Even when I released my mixtape [October 2020’s Psyche], I aimed to express these feelings in detail and have people really understand how much I deeply appreciate their support. And now that I have the opportunity to perform again, I’m going to do right by them and crush it.”
Personal growth seemed to be Monsta X’s biggest theme in the past year. And it makes sense — the team has known its share of hardship. In 2019, prior to Joohoney’s hiatus, beloved group member Wonho shocked fans with the announcement that he was leaving the group after four years. It took dealing with pain for the group to truly appreciate the things that mattered most to them after years of performing together: love.
On Valentine’s Day in 2020, Monsta X released their first full-length English-language album, All About Luv, which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. Kihyun is immensely proud of it, even calling it a “masterpiece.” Minhyuk adds that it’s a classic album that “doesn’t really follow the trends, so people can enjoy it for years to come.” Then came Fatal Love later that year as the group continued to explore all of love’s nuances. “When you’re a kid or a baby you think love is a simple thing,” says I.M. “You think, ‘Love: that’s my family, my teddy bear, that’s my favorite thing!’ But as we get older, and we learn more about the world around us, you see how the world is complicated, and therefore love seems more complicated, too.”
This latest comeback showcased each member’s personal style and growth. Where I.M.’s came through his lyrics, that of 28-year-old leader Shownu came through his, well — body. When it came to peeling back layers, Shownu did it quite literally: The 5’11” former swimmer wore a cropped suit top for almost every “Love Killa” performance. But it was more than just his fashion that was revealing. His usually cool, stoic demeanor was replaced with a lightness — you could even call it an electricity — as he danced. Shownu flashes a shy smile and bobs his head as he ruminates on the thought. He admits that he’s really found his groove. “I tend to prefer when the song is more of a laid back and slowed down vibe,” he says. (You can see a glimmer of that joy in the way Shownu dances to the group’s 2019 house-pop hit “Play It Cool”). “This choreo was my style,” he says, “so it was comfortable for me and fun so my expressions reflect that naturally.”
The lithe Hyungwon, who has been moonlighting as a DJ since 2017, harnessed his own natural talents by writing, composing, and arranging a song — Fatal Love’s “Nobody Else” — for the first time. “I wanted to focus on capturing the members’ unique voices,” he says. I always wanted to express my musical direction to the world, and I’ve always wondered how it would sound when the other guys were to record a song that I composed. It was a lot harder than I expected.” He smiles, shaking his head as he half-whispers, half-laughs almost to himself, “so difficult.” Kihyun, known for his soaring belted notes, decided to challenge himself by expanding his range. “I strongly believe that as a main vocalist, I have to be strong in all areas,” he says. “These days, I’m trying to focus on singing the lower registers stylishly. Trying out different things and keeping practicing has contributed the most to my growth.” Minhyuk’s goal was a bit less tangible: “When we first debuted I was just receiving love, and now I feel like I can finally properly give that love back.”
Being a K-pop idol can often mean giving so much of yourself to your work — your time, your sweat, your every waking thoughts and concerns — sometimes at the expense of your own well-being. But after five years, as Monsta X have matured, they’ve been brave enough to invest in themselves, and focus on the things that truly matter. In doing so, they’ve evolved into a more confident, more authentic, and more at ease Monsta X.
“These days, when we think of our proudest career moments, they’re pretty simple,” says Minhyuk. “For me, it’s just whenever we release our album and our fans love it.” I.M. agrees. “In my case, it’s not very big or flashy, but it’s precious: when we are in the same space and laugh and just eat in the restaurant as members. That feels great.”