“God damn it, I like it.” Those are the prophetic words that echo through the title track of Monsta X rapper I.M’s deeply personal mini-album solo debut, Duality. The phrasing conjures up boldness and self-assuredness, perhaps punctuated with a smirk.
It’s a trick. Or, at least, it’s a different, simultaneous reality.
The songs on Duality are profound and gripping, wholly due to the fact that I.M has laid himself bare. On stage he’s a ferocious, charismatic spark. Off it, he’s quieter, an ambivert with a disarming laugh and sharp sense of humor. Which is why it’s almost painful that the essence of “God Damn” is how sometimes you lie to yourself about being happy, even when you’re not.
It’s his favorite song off the album and one he says is most indicative of who he really is, or who “the me at that time [was],” he tells Teen Vogue from Seoul over a Zoom call. The time he’s referring to was a difficult one. “I was making my music and I was lying to myself, saying you’re fine. You’re good. God damnit, you like it. But inside …” He trails off. The inference here is that I.M was in a situation where he was afraid of losing himself. But there’s defiance in the face of bleakness. Consider that we expect idols to be pillars of perfection. No cracks are allowed to show. The reality, however, is that no matter who you are, and how monumental your celebrity is, there will be pain, sorrow, and doubt. Emotions have to be dealt with, sometimes by psyching yourself up to move forward, as he does on “God Damn.”
The 25-year-old, whose real name is Im Chang-kyun, is transforming that emotional process into his solo work, in the context of a wildly successful and immersive career with Monsta X. He’s a consummate artist and also the music industry’s version of a triple threat — a dexterous rapper, dancer, and more regularly now, vocalist (remember his cover of Dean’s “Instagram”?) He’s an adroit lyricist, whose writing credits span the breadth of Monsta X’s considerable discography, starting from their very first EP, Trespass which released in May 2015. As a producer, self-composed tunes like the straight-up jam “Mohae” from 2018’s album, Take.1 Are You There? come to mind. Or “Night View,” the lush electro-pop track from last year’s Fatal Love, which peaked at no. 13 on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales charts. It’s almost daunting to say that, last year alone, Monsta X released two albums and one EP (a slew of awards at various year-end ceremonies in South Korea followed). All About Luv, which is essential listening, also has the distinction of being the first all English-language album created by a K-pop group, and it debuted at no. 5 on the Billboard 200 Chart.
Given Monsta X’s intensely busy schedule (add global brand ambassadors for the cosmetics brand Urban Decay to their duties), you can see how full I.M’s plate is. But, and this is indicative of an integral part of his personality, he thrives when he’s steeped in various aspects of music. Only an extremely intuitive artist could have created Duality; I.M wrote every song, as well as helped with composition and arrangement. “I didn’t plan to do everything,” he says. “All of it, whether the composing, or writing lyrics, came very naturally to me. Because I wanted to, and I still want to. As I’m still a part of the music industry, it’s just a very natural step. I’m just trying to do my own thing.”
For someone as multifaceted as I.M, Duality is an ideal title. He only named the album after he had created all five tracks, which flow effortlessly between Korean and English. “That word just clicked with me because duality is kind of like my personality too,” I.M says. “Everybody has a lot of sides. You have lots of you. I have lots of me, whether sad or happy. You have a lot of different parts to yourself.” The dictionary definition of duality is, “the quality or state of having two different or opposite parts or elements.” Cartesian dualism talks about the fundamentals of the mind versus the physical. Various schools of Eastern philosophy speak of consciousness and matter. There’s the wave–particle duality in quantum mechanics. Then, there’s I.M’s take, which is a more metaphorical translation of the gap between an ideal world and reality, and the play between what’s on the outside compared to his innermost thoughts. What is I.M’s version of an ideal state of being? “I think everybody is the same. You always think about your dreams. You imagine lots of things. But reality is so tough that you cannot make time for yourself,” he says. “So, I’m not trying to lose myself. I think I’m here because I was dreaming. I have to keep on questioning myself. That’s the ideal world to me.”
Elsewhere on the album, like on the track “Howlin’,” I.M. contemplates the ups and downs in life. “I sometimes make myself lonely,” he says. “I isolate myself when I’m stressed or depressed. But when you are alone, sometimes you don’t want to be. You want to be alone but at the same time, you want to be with somebody. That is duality too.” There’s a promise that he’ll only celebrate when he’s made it, no matter what it takes out of him, and he affirms that he’s made for a big wave. It’s like a mantra, to push himself to improve, much like the process he’s using in the title song. The midpoint of the mini-album, “Burn,” sets the stage for the acceptance that settles in on the next song. The connection is intentional — ”Burn” is about cutting ties to the past, which then leads to peace. A natural mood progression as opposed to a straightforward storyboard.
The penultimate song, “Happy To Die,” was also the title (and spoiler) of his birthday letter, earlier in January. “When you say goodbye, bury me on your heart ... ” he sings to his shadowy past. He “wants to get lost here forever,” getting closure after the upheaval that made its way into Duality. At the moment though, I.M isn’t quite in that state of zen. “I’m not in the space right now,” he laughs. “But I hope I will be in that space after the release! After I feel everyone’s reactions.”
Those reactions will come, in droves, especially after people absorb the final song, “Flower-ed.” It’s a slower, rolling track with I.M singing in a way that yearns. For someone with such a deep voice, he hits wistful, higher notes effortlessly. “I realized that my voice is very unique. I didn’t sing at first, as you know. But lots of fans love when I sing so I got the confidence that I needed,” he says, almost shyly. The song is sung entirely in Korean, and the title directly translates to withered flower. It wasn’t actually supposed to be on the album, but I.M wasn’t satisfied with the original song in its place. As he was mulling over how to close the album, inspiration struck, and he wrote “Flower-ed” as a replacement in half an hour.
Altogether, the project simmered for over a year and a half. “I didn’t previously decide that I wanted to release it this year with the company,” he says. “I just wanted to release it any time, and so I would keep on preparing my own music. Not a mixtape or an album. Just my music. Then I thought, I was completely ready.”
It comes as no surprise that he was so prepared, because his past mixtapes have been a distinct indicator of his expertise when it comes to music. It takes clarity of thought to generate something like Horizon, in 2019. Or Fly With Me, in 2018. Each of these offerings provided complex lyrics and a more languid BPM (a sound wholly different from his group’s more high-octane vibe). He’s considerate about his identities as a solo artist and that of a member of Monsta X, given that he writes and produces for both, obviously. “If there is a big difference between working on my album and working on the team albums, is that if I’m working for the team, I need to match all of their colours and the views of the public,” he says. “But if I’m working just on my own, I can release myself in a very comfortable way. Because that is just me.”
Duality is a letter that details the triumphs and failings, and the contrarian nature of being human. Like the rest of the world, I.M spent a lot of time at home over the past year, watching vintage movies and observing all the little details around him. There was a sense of comfort in slowing down and just being, which provided inspiration. Prior to the release of Duality, only two members of Monsta X heard the body of work in advance — Jooheon and Hyungwon (“Their response was very positive. They said it was good.”). He’s waiting to see what the rest of the members think after they listen to the music as a whole, completed world.
When you’re with a group of people who know you inside out, he says, it helps you see yourself more clearly. “It gives me lots of blessings. I discovered things about myself that I didn’t know, because of the members,” he says. “You also don't have time to get lazy. It’s always noisy and energetic and that gives me a lot of energy too. Because when I’m alone, my personality is very calm and chill. I’m very grateful to them.” Having said that, six years into his career and he’s still not satisfied with himself, as a human being and as an artist. But that’s what fuels him, along with Monbebe, their diverse beloved fanbase.
After being in the spotlight for this long, there are certain truths I.M has found that are shared by human beings across the planet: “You are you. I am I. Don’t let yourself be at the same place. Make yourself take risks sometimes. You need to make a point to make yourself a better person.” That ethos is clearly working for him. If there’s one key takeaway from this current engaging adventure, it's this. “My musical life has just started, so keep looking on,” he says. “I have lots of things to show to you. For you. This is just the start.” Pause, a slow smile, and he ends, where we begin … “God damn it!”
source: Teen Vogue