“On that vague border between good and bad / You played the fool for me,” Taemin whispers on his newest single, ‘Guilty’. In the music video, faceless hands grab his neck, rearrange his body, control him in a suffocating atmosphere. But don’t be mistaken – he’s the one playing here. It’s his own hand who snakes underneath his shirt, shutting him up as he proclaims, “You got me G-U-I-L-T-Y.”
To fully understand Taemin, you need to see the artist as art itself. He is his own concept, even a “Taemin-cliche”, as he puts it. He enraptures the senses, beguiles the listener into his twisted world, only for them to find out that he’s been talking to himself the whole time. His releases are layered in metaphors and double-entendres, and his concepts often dive into humanity’s deepest questions, unafraid to explore their contradictions.
“A lot of my songs carry words that could be considered negative,” he tells NME through Zoom, a few days before the release of his fourth mini-album, ‘Guilty’. “And although positive words have power, I think it’s more attractive to make the negative look beautiful.”
Taemin, who is 30-years-old but has been a K-pop idol since he was 15, is considered by many as the blueprint. He is the role model to many of those who have come after (BTS’ Jimin, ATEEZ’s Seonghwa and SEVENTEEN’s Hoshi, to name a few) and a symbol of dedication, talent and overcoming limitations. When he debuted with SHINee in 2008, his voice wasn’t even featured on their first single ‘Replay’; now, he’s considered one of the group’s main vocalists. Aside from SHINee, he is also an accomplished soloist and member of supergroup SuperM, placing him as one of the main players shaping what an idol’s life can look like – from longevity to creative vision.
Throughout the eras, Taemin has been many versions of himself. He was a daunting rockstar in solo debut single ‘Danger’ and a kidnapper in ‘Press Your Number’. He played with genderless performance in ‘Move’, explored sin and desire in ‘Want’, and traversed through Hell and Heaven in ‘Criminal’ and ‘Idea’. His B-sides have enticing, inviting titles – ‘Sexuality’, ‘Thirsty’, ‘Wicked’.
Guilt is his current fascination. He believes that the emotion, which arises when someone feels that they behaved wrongly or immorally, is subject to people’s own interpretation. “Everyone is guilty, whether it’s a little or a lot, but it’s more truthful to show it, rather than hide it,” he adds. “[The single] ‘Guilty’ is about a selfish love that hurts the other person. It’s not coming from my experience, but I used it as a way to define what love is and express it on stage.”
“I like to separate the personas. It’s like actors, who separate the person and the character”
Which brings us to Taemin’s definition of love: “There’s different forms. There is love that you receive from your parents, the love from your girlfriend or boyfriend, and the love from fans. But there’s always a sacrifice, and pushing someone to sacrifice is also love.” Admitting to the shadow side of love, the side that no one wants or expects, is a wisdom that he acquired with time. “There are a lot of things I gain from being a singer but, at the same time, there are lots of things I have to give up, and these are the ones I emphasised in this single.”
While ‘Guilty’ is quintessentially Taemin – the orchestral drama, the cinematic flair, an art piece in the form of a song – the rest of the album takes a gentler route. Aside from the grim hip-hop of ‘The Rizzness’, its remaining four tracks are sensible meanderings on passion and pain, acceptance and peace. “I learned to be careful to trust someone, because it really hurts when someone suddenly disappoints you,” he says. “It’s very important in relationships to be careful about what you talk and what you do.”
These words reflect Taemin’s growth since he released his previous mini-album, 2020’s ‘Advice’, shortly before enlisting in South Korea’s obligatory military service. During that break from music, he realised that people learn from experience. “I found out that I’m interested in different hobbies, different food, different restaurants, different vacation spots,” he says. “Having moments to relax were an opportunity to feel like the person Taemin, instead of the artist Taemin.”
SHINee’s Taemin. Credit: SM Entertainment
The person Taemin, the one on the other side of the screen, is keenly aware. Barefaced, sipping on an iced americano, he speaks with the utmost clarity about his work, but never sounds conceited. “I like to separate the personas. It’s like actors, who separate the person and the character,” he explains. “Off stage, I think I’m more playful and simpler, like a little kid.”
While reminiscing about this dichotomy, he goes as far as to compare his life to the 1998 satirical drama The Truman Show. “In the movie, Jim Carey realises that everyone has been watching him at the end. I came to SM [Entertainment] when I was 12 years old, and the period of time when I was training, my debut, all the moments where I was growing up were shared and seen by a lot of people, so I relate to that,” he explains.
Upon seeing his personal experiences live streamed to the world, it is natural that Taemin would grow up with a desire to express himself more authentically, with more agency upon his choices. And if he’s not just an artist, but the artwork as well, he was so concealed in himself that he had to break free – and ‘Guilty’ is his escape.
“Like when you’re writing a journal, I find that I’m able to organise what I learned and what I think through the albums that I release”
In the many teaser photos for the mini-album, subtle hints to past eras can be noticed, like SHINee’s ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Press Your Number’. “If the fans know, they’ll know,” he says. The director of the titular music video, Byul Yun, posted stills of Taemin under the caption “Abraxas” on Instagram, referring to a quote from Herman Hesse’s book Demian, which is also on Taemin’s Instagram bio: “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”
In the final scenes of the video, Taemin is wearing a feathered headpiece that resembles said God, but that’s not the only inspiration behind it. “The music video was [also] inspired by this book called Eroticism, by George Bataille,” he adds. “It covers a lot of topics about breaking taboos, and I thought about how this can reflect on my music and the perspective I put into it. For example, showing skin is still a taboo, so when a male performer rips their shirt and the crowd goes wild, I wanted to understand and incorporate the concept of breaking that taboo.”
SHINee’s Taemin. Credit: SM Entertainment
He describes his albums as ways into himself. “I always learn something. Like when you’re writing a journal, you can organise your thoughts [there], but I find that I’m able to organise what I learned and what I think through the albums that I release.” And then, in order to apply his lessons, he pours all his “energy and passion” into performances, to the point of no regrets. “Because there’s some wear to any image, I always think of how to change and show different sides of myself.”
“I have a very different lifestyle than most people, and I realised that, because of my career, I receive a lot of love and support. I knew it in my head, but now I feel it in my skin. Many people my age are still finding their way, so I feel very fortunate to have found out what I love to do,” he adds.
With ‘Guilty’, Taemin breaks and builds himself anew. He’s the bird who flew from the egg, and the God awaiting for him. He’s grateful for his path, but defying its constraints, like a painting that reveals new meanings the more you stare at it. As the opening lines of the title track go, he welcomes us to his genesis: “Poison apple / Spellbound, you wanna take a bite?”
Taemin’s new mini-album ‘Guilty’ is out now
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