With dozens of new groups debuting each year, the K-pop industry is a competitive one. For idols, this means a debut does not guarantee success, and many must persevere in the shadows for a success that will most likely never come — but thankfully, that was not the case for Lee Jinhyuk. At only 24 years old, the 6′ 1″ idol has had quite an eventful career.

Lee debuted in 2015 as part of Up10tion amidst fierce competition from at least 45 other boy groups, including some of the most popular boy groups today — iKON, Monsta X, and Seventeen. Up10tion remained relatively unknown until 2019, when Lee, along with his groupmate, Kim Wooseok, participated in Produce X 101. Lee’s appearance on the controversial survival show was indeed memorable. Years of experience allowed him to bring leadership, polish, and personality to the stage, helping him stand out amongst more inexperienced rookies, only to be illegally eliminated, despite having been voted into the final line-up of X1.

Nonetheless, Lee’s popularity on Produce X 101 proved to be a turning point. Now in 2021, it is clear that he has risen past the struggles of those early years. As he returns with his third EP, Scene26, Lee Jinhyuk spoke to Seoulbeats via email about his career, daily life and his latest comeback.

In contrast to my lengthy, somewhat starry-eyed introduction above, Lee’s self-introduction is much more modest, “Hello, I’m Lee Jinhyuk returning with my mini album Scene26!”

In fact, he is doing much more. Post Produce X 101, Lee has been building a successful career not only as a solo artist, but also as an actor, both on screen and in theatre. He explains his interest in acting, “I [actually] entered the company as an actor and worked as an entertainer in commercials when I was young. During tough times, acting gave me hope, so I think I naturally became interested in it.”

He debuted in primetime dramas in 2020 with a supporting role in Find Me In Your Memory. When asked about the difference between Lee Jinhyuk, the actor, and Lee Jinhyuk, the idol, he responds, “I don’t think there’s any big difference. I suppose actor Lee Jinhyuk is less playful than expected, whereas idol Lee Jinhyuk is more carefree.” Indeed, his role as a reporter allowed the idol to showcase a different, more controlled energy than on stage.

Lee also made his debut as a theatre actor earlier this year, with On Air – The Secret Contract. In it, he plays Aron, a superstar idol. “My character… ten years ago earned the nickname ‘Ongun-dong Lover’ because of his public confession to a woman (Shin Yuri), who lived in that neighborhood. Then, ten years later he meets his first love (Shin Yuri) again by chance while DJ-ing a radio program called On Air – The Secret Contract.

How did he prepare for the role? “It’s my first experience with a musical, so it’s a challenge.” He explains further, “We prepared for a week, and the songs and choreography changed with each rehearsal. It’s my first time working at such a fast pace, but I am doing well. The performance is very entertaining, so if you have a chance, please watch it!” The show runs until April 18th, 2021, for any fans that might be interested!

Fans will notice the overlap of the show’s run with his comeback. At the time of answering Seoulbeats’ questions, there were a few days left to the release of the EP, and Lee was preparing for the comeback — while also acting in On Air – The Secret Contract, performing in KCON:TACT 3, and maybe more! How did he fit all this in 24 hours? What did a typical day look like for him?

His reply is very revealing, “Before the musical opened, I rehearsed for it from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., then I would prepare for the album from 8 to 10, and even practice for K-CON from 11 to 12 a.m.! Then I’d start all over again from 9 a.m. the next day… and repeat!” That is some incredible time management. He goes on to say, “Now K-CON has ended, and the musical is showing (well), but I am still preparing for the next performance of the musical and the choreography of the songs on the album.”

No wonder then, that when asked what he’d like to do in his free time if he could take a holiday, all he wants to do is sleep, “I haven’t been able to think of resting much these days, so it’s a bit hard to say. But I imagine lying in my bed and sleeping until I wake up without an alarm.”

With that, we come to Scene26, and Lee’s career as an idol.

Introducing the EP in his own words, Lee says, “My mini album Scene26 introduces you to a Lee Jinhyuk at 26 [in Korean age] who has matured on both the inside and outside.” In addition to his musical side, Lee is also excited to show off different aesthetics between the two versions of the album, “The “Reel” version captures my mature side with an urban-chic, confident fashion pictorial while the “Roll” version uses analogue aesthetics to express more witty and casual vibes.”

A study of the album credits reveals that Lee participated in composing four of seven songs and in writing lyrics for all but the title track. When asked which songs best capture his personal style and sound, he answers, “From this album, “기지개 (Be half-awake)”, “끄독 (Wave)” and “환 (Coup d’état)” are all songs that I am fond of, so please give them a lot of love!”

Given his participation and the EP’s intent, it’s indeed a somewhat personal album. For instance, the pop/hip-hop “기지개 (Be half-awake)” comes from a place of empathy. Lee knows modern society is busy, and shares how he stays positive: stretch first thing in the morning and when taking a break from being busy. In sharp contrast, the electro-trap “환 (Coup d’état)” compares the bow of a string instrument to a weapon, declaring Lee’s ambition to go down his own path without being shaken.

Lee’s image is one of positivity, bright energy, and good cheer. This image is reinforced by the title track, as Lee elaborates, “By using the catchy keyword “5K” I could show off my positive vibes throughout the song.” It’s worth noting that “5K” itself is a pun, since 5 in Korean is 오 (oh). The title is pronounced “Oh-kay”, and not “Five-K” (or $5000 as English language users like me might think). Composed by Hey Farmer (PrismFilter), and Innerchild (MonoTree), it “uses an intense pop punk bass reverb with more minimal piano and guitars that fill the refrain to build excitement.”

We at Seoulbeats are fond of taking deep dives into lyrical analysis, and Lee breaks the song down for us, “In the lyrics, the moment of falling in love is conveyed through the feeling of being faced with 5k [quality] after living your life in black and white. Comparisons of “full screen wide” or “LED” were used in a witty and unique way.” Indeed, some of the funnier lines go,

Swelling LED beams like woo
My eyes focus on your masterpiece
Like a masterpiece
I think you can go in the L’ourve
On par with Mona Lisa

Cheesy pick-up lines though they may be, they are adorably cute coming from Lee. The MV is a colorful party with many Lee Jinhyuks asking you to follow your instincts and trust him. Fans may be interested in looking for a particularly special moment. Lee shares, “While filming the music video, I got to try lots of different things! [In the choreography] I had to try to imitate the statue of David while hopping on one leg. I couldn’t do it well, so the cameramen had fun watching me try — but I think they also felt proud of my effort.”

Lee is an expressive performer. His confident, straight-forward gaze and many smiles convey the sense that he is truly enjoying himself on stage, making his performances a joy to watch. What does he focus on most when preparing for a performance? His answer helps explain his charm, “I think “let’s make this more comfortable and enjoyable than during the rehearsal” because I’m always nervous on stage. When filming for a drama and it’s my turn, a sense of fear comes over me, so I tell myself to act as comfortably as I normally would [off set].”

He adds that with this comeback, “You can look forward to a more mature side of me! With the fun music from the stage, you’ll feel a bit closer to me!”

On Scene26, Lee says he is attached to all songs, but his favorite is “송행성 (Asteroid)” (“because it’s the only song without any rapping”). Indeed, Lee is a high tone rapper with a liking for the style of “Kendrik Lamar, from among foreign rappers”. Songs like Asteroid are rare offerings from him. He also recommends “끄덕 (Wave)” and “활 (Coup d’état)” (because “they are powerful, stress-relieving tracks”).

While he is clearly doing a great job as an artist, one wonders if there is something he would like to challenge himself with in the future, “I really want to study languages better to be able to communicate with my fans.”

But that’s not all. Lee has another wish for the future: “Also, I hope that as I continue to put out music, I can continue to receive love from my fans!” This earnest wish is especially meaningful given the many years it took for him to find success. It is thus almost unsurprising when he observes, “As a singer, being able to be on stage is always my happiest moment.”

We conclude the interview with a message from Lee to his fans, “These days are pretty hard, right? I know! We may not be able to see each other in person now, but I’m not going anywhere, so take your time! Even if you can’t come in person, don’t worry! I’ll be here.”

With his proven perseverance in a tough industry, tremendous on-stage charisma, versatile career, seemingly boundless energy and visible positivity, it is impossible not to “follow your instincts” and “trust” him. You’d best believe it — Lee Jinhyuk’s star is here to stay!

(KBS News, YouTube [1][2], lyrics via popgasa. Images via TOP Media)