HT Exclusive: Kino reveals K-pop's ‘strength & weakness,’ Pentagon's ‘lifelong commitment' on solo rebirth with ‘Naked’ - Hindustan Times
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HT Exclusive: Kino reveals K-pop's ‘strength & weakness,’ Pentagon's ‘lifelong commitment' on solo rebirth with ‘Naked’

May 31, 2024 04:04 AM IST

After years of showing the world his musical chapter as a Pentagon member, Kino is now the founder of a label and a soloist in his own right.

Kang Hyeonggu, better known as the beloved third-generation K-pop group Pentagon's KINO, embarked on a one-man adventure in December 2023 when he established his own label, NAKED. Starting afresh after dedicating several active years to a group that delivered some of the most cherished hits of the industry, like ‘Shine’ and ‘Daisy’, KINO is finally and artistically the boss of his destiny in his own right.

After dedicating seven years to his previous label, Cube Entertainment, Pentagon's Kino entered his "CEO era" in December 2023, heralding the inception of his adventure as a solo artist.(Naked)
After dedicating seven years to his previous label, Cube Entertainment, Pentagon's Kino entered his "CEO era" in December 2023, heralding the inception of his adventure as a solo artist.(Naked)

Pivoting away from his former management agency, Cube Entertainment, responsible for bringing together ten (originally) lives under one roof, the ‘98 liner bolstered the foundational roots of his solo music career in early 2024.

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Speaking his heart out, Kang Hyung Gu, who stepped into the gruelling K-pop training period after passing an audition at 12, laid out all his cards about being reborn as KINO, the solo artist in his mid-20s, in an interview with HindustanTimes.com. Before we get into it, here's an appropriate spoiler alert for Pentagon's fandom, Universe. The members continue to walk down the thorny competitive road of the K-industry as each other's “biggest supporters,” sharing a “lifelong commitment” to that banner despite multiple members cutting ties with Cube Entertainment in 2023.

Kicking off his new-found journey with the reassuring first single under NAKED, KINO reinforced the beauty of self-worth with ‘Fashion Style’ in January 2024. This ultimately paved the way for his debut solo EP, ‘If This Is Love, I Want a Refund,' in May 2024. Collectively, the five-song tracklist (Broke My Heart ft. Lay Bankz, Fashion Style, Pose, Freaky Love and Solo) represents the “full cycle of a relationship,” portraying all the good and the bad about love.

Kino released his first EP, 'If This Is Love, I Want a Refund', under his one-man label, Naked, on May 2, 2024. (Naked)
Kino released his first EP, 'If This Is Love, I Want a Refund', under his one-man label, Naked, on May 2, 2024. (Naked)

=The mastermind musician, who refuses to box up his identity as an artist, is a versatile jack-of-all-trades. Having ventured into fields outside the familiarly comforting horizons of his musical chapter, KINO is no stranger to the world of fashion or even fine art painting. The multihyphenate songwriter, producer, and dancer has done it all but is still far from the end of his journey; instead, he's just getting started.

KINO on going solo, back-breaking competition in the K-pop industry and visiting India

HT: You’ve recently wrapped up your solo tour and released your new album (If This Is Love, I Want a Refund). How has transitioning into a solo artist affected your artistic process? What ultimately inspired you to tell the stories of different shades of love with this album?

KINO: In the process of going from a member of a boy band to a solo artist, I started to think more about “my identity.” And naturally, it leaned towards ‘pop music’. It was a huge change. It was also my first chance to share my new music style with people while I was making this album.

With this album, I wanted to reveal the side of love we tend to not show much in pop culture, as the title indicates—love is not all sunshines and wonderful, as they say. If this is what true love is, there is nothing much to it; I want it refunded. So the lyrics are very witty and express real emotions we feel inside that we were embarrassed to say out loud.

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Unravelling KINO's “musical identity” and unexpected collaboration with viral American TikTok rapper Lay Bankz

HT: Couldn’t help but notice that all five songs on your latest album offer a very "easy-listening" experience, powered by a synthpop-inspired sound, despite expressing different emotions lyrically. Would you say that this sound choice defines your identity as an artist? Or would it be wrong to box you up like that? Do you want to be associated with a particular genre of music, or do you want to leave that aspect undefined and open to more interpretations?

KINO: I don't want to define my artist's “musical identity” to one single thing. But it's this "pop” sound that's taking a big part of my musical component. So. I hope you think of it as my main thing, but at the same time, I am very open and there will be a lot of experiments. I hope you look forward to what’s to come.

HT: More on your unexpected collaboration with Lay Bankz for 'Broke My Heart': How did this happen? Could you share what it was like working with her? What did you learn from this collaboration, and how did it influence your music? Do you have a personal favourite song from the album?

KINO: It was a coincidence that I got to know her. I got drawn into her Spotify Canvas, and I immediately emailed her, and we collaborated. I had a lot of fun filming the music video with her, and I was able to see her sincere enjoyment on the set. I also had a lot of fun filming it, and when I saw the emotions reflected in the final product, I realized, "Nothing can beat the energy that comes from joy." That's why I like Broke My Heart the most.

HT: Along the lines of your music direction: with TikTok emerging as a hub for significant Gen-Z interactions in today’s age, how important is this platform to you as an artist? Apart from the growing demand for dance challenge videos that allow artists from across labels to connect on a shared platform, what other ways are you looking at to reach out to your fans on a more relatable scale on social media?

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KINO: TikTok is a well-used platform, not only for me, but for many artists all over the world. People are now able to enjoy music with their eyes as well and I feel like it's optimized for promoting music to people. It's actually very easy to intuitively convey the emotions I feel through music. I share more of my stories on socials now and ask fans to share their stories, so we can understand each other better. There are other ways to promote various music, such as festival appearances or Instagram background music. There are many outlets, it’s up to how artists utilize them.

Divulging the “most important thing for a musician”

HT: It's evident that you’ve significantly shifted your musical direction by releasing more English songs. In the era of TikTok, where songs can gain popularity through dance challenges, do you feel compelled to tailor your music to fit these trends? Or are you more inclined to stay true to your creative vision and personal stories, regardless of the current fads?

KINO: Of course, the most important thing for a musician is to tell people their story, their values and their music. I also put that first. But being sensitive to and following the trends is also an important virtue for artists living in this day. We all need to keep this balance.

K-pop star breaks down the perpetual cycle of comebacks and competition in the industry

HT: As a fan, one may be overwhelmed seeing the number of comebacks (from various artists) stacked up every month. So, almost every day, we see new music being released by K-pop idols, which is significantly higher than how much music most Western artists put out in a year. One can’t help but think of the strong sense of competition bubbling up, but obviously, as an outsider, one can’t speak for the artists. Do you, as a singer who’s been associated with the K-pop brand for over a decade (including your training period), view this sense of competition as something negative? Or does it motivate you?

KINO: I think this is both a strength and a weakness of K-pop. Such competition has led to the rapid growth and perfection of K-pop, but at the same time, it has exhausted many singers and people in the industry. This is essential in a rapidly changing world, but we must not forget that companies and people have to take care of the minds of artists as well. In competition, there are always losers, and artists shouldn’t feel defeated for their work. We should not encourage competition to become a source of motivation. I try to look on the positive side and take what I can from it, but also find the balance from it.

HT: Speaking of comebacks, I assume your calendar must usually be filled with endless schedules while preparing for new music. Is there any routine you follow during it all to ensure a healthy lifestyle, prioritising your well-being so that you don’t get sick amid all the sleepless nights and immense hard work?

KINO: There's nothing special. You have to eat well and take nutritional supplements. Taking care of your physical and mental health is the top priority. You have to be healthy to keep a healthy mind. It’s the strong mental health that makes the big difference, after all.

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HT: Having spent nearly all your early formative years of life preparing for your music career, what ultimately keeps you going despite the breathlessness of the K-pop industry?

KINO: It's an obvious answer, it's fans’ love. The constant love they show keeps me moving. Sometimes I want to give up, but by talking to them I wake up and get going again. They are always my biggest driving force.

Transitioning from his role as a member of a K-pop boy group to a soloist

HT: Delving deeper into your transition from being a PENTAGON member to now being a soloist: How did you adapt to this jarring switch, especially since you’re not sharing the stage with anyone else? I presume that having the members around you would offer a sense of security and comfort, but now that you have to push through it alone, what’s that experience like?

KINO: I'm used to being alone, so I mostly can get by, but there are times when their absence hits me. It's a little sad that I don't have members who I call a family around me, who can help me, or [I can] lean on to when I'm struggling. It's hard, but I think it's a moment, of course, to go through. And most importantly, I'm OK because they're still my biggest supporters.

HT: Would like to paint you a hypothetical situation. Consider if, in an alternate universe, you were offered a guaranteed entry into the K-pop world without having to put yourself through several years of rigorous training period that you went through before debuting (which I assume would have called for many sacrifices and pains), would you have picked that shortcut or still chosen to have undergone all your training despite how painful it may have been?

KINO: I don't want a free pass, coming from something no efforts have gotten into it. It's the same now, and I don't think anything will change if I go back to that time. I know I'm grateful for the time in the past, and I like who I am now. The long trainee period has been difficult, but it has been worth it. It made me who I am now.

KINO on the importance of his one-man label, NAKED, and his viral guerrilla marketing tactic at Coachella

HT: Speaking of your exclusive label, NAKED: You’ve previously talked about what that name means and how it meaningfully correlates with your new journey as a soloist. Did you come up with it yourself? On top of that, you also promoted your latest comeback on your own by pushing for the guerilla marketing strategy at Coachella 2024. How did this self-marketing tactic come into existence? Was it a collective decision that you and other creatives at NAKED came up with, or did you particularly push to go this way yourself?

KINO: I chose the name NAKED simply because it's the word I love. It's bold yet beautiful at the same time. I've thought about a lot of other options when naming the company, but I haven't had a good choice as NAKED. I think it was the best choice.

And the self-promoting idea started with a very small conversation. On our way to Coachella, we were thinking about ways to promote our music, and this idea was something that we could execute if we had the courage to carry out the ideas ourselves. We immediately bought the materials at a mart, wrote and carried it around. It was interesting to see how strangers reacted to my song and I gained more confidence with the high rating they gave out. I encountered Simu Liu, which was also a coincidence. I couldn't believe he was right in front of me, and I went up and also got him to rate my song.

HT: Having founded this company, you’re like your own boss now. Has it been difficult for you to balance the multiple responsibilities of a singer/performer and the founder of this label? Or do you feel more in control of your destiny as an artist going forward?

KINO: It's not easy to balance out what I want to do as an artist and what I need to do to run a company and find the middle ground. But whenever I have a situation where I have to make those difficult choices, I have NAKED, who helps me make good choices. That’s how I don’t mess things up.

HT: From a more business viewpoint, NAKED is a relatively new label. Are you actively looking at opening your company to other artists in the future, or will it just be an exclusive venture centred around your projects moving forward?

KINO: Of course, NAKED will be with great artists in the future. The company’s goal from Day 1 has been becoming “the artist collective for the trendiest, most individualistic artists," and that hasn’t changed. We're going to recruit the best artists and make the best groups. But right now, our top priority is to take KINO to the next level.

HT: Returning to questions about your artistic self: Even before officially debuting as a soloist, you’ve also worked on some tracks as a PENTAGON member. Are there any songs (on both of these journeys) that are the closest to your heart? Is there a particular track that was the hardest to work on?

KINO: My favourite song is Spring Snow. When I was working on this song, I felt a great love for the fans and the members, and I think that feeling actually was well delivered to listeners. It's the most important point when making and releasing music, and I'm proud that the song did that. At the same time, it was also the most difficult song to make. I had nearly 200 tracks, and it was a genre I'd never tried before, so I had a lot of failures until the final result came out. I held on to it for almost half a year. But the result is very good!

Dreams of conquering a new artistic format

HT: You’re a multifaceted artist - an exceptional dancer, singer, songwriter, and so much more - who has also openly explored other art forms, like painting and fashion. Is there any other field of art that you would like to pursue in the future?

KINO: I always thought that I wanted to act someday. Acting is similar to what I do on stage, but it has a very different expression, and for some reason, I think I can do it well. If there is a good opportunity for me, I really want to try it!

HT: Moreover, you also found an artistic breakthrough at the Art Road showcase. Could you introduce your personal experience? Not many people are fully aware of what that moment was like. How did this opportunity help unlock a new chapter of your artistic identity? Did you learn something new about yourself as an artist or even as a person while pursuing this project?

KINO: The Art Road show was a wonderful experience that broadened my artistic view. To briefly describe the project –creating a performance that combines music and art, and everyone in the industry who saw it said, “I've never seen a performance like this in my life!” It was a new attempt and became a huge inspiration for me. I saw a new possibility. It also made me think that future performances don't necessarily have to be focused only on "music”.

HT: At the end of the road, what do you wish to be remembered for the most? How would you describe KINO to someone fairly new to your music?

KINO: To people, I want to be remembered as “a human being who lives the same life like themselves” rather than a celebrity who is living in their own world." I want to become an artist with whom they can empathize, share the same feelings, and lean on each other. My goal is to represent their feelings and make music that is always lingering in their ears.

What's next for KINO and Pentagon?

HT: Although you’ve just blessed your fans with new music, what can they look forward to next? As for all the PENTAGON fans, can they hold on to the hope of the group’s reunion sometime in the future, even if just for one song?

KINO: I will continue to pursue a solo artist career as I am doing now, and at the same time, we are all contemplating and planning our future together. PENTAGON has a lifelong commitment and means more than a “team” to us. We will reunite and work together no matter what. There is not a single thing to worry about in this area.

KINO and his connection with India

Following its early May debut, the Broke My Heart hitmaker's first EP was #1 on the Indian iTunes Albums Chart. On top of that, India was the third “most-viewed” country for his music video.

HT: Finally, especially since it’s been brought to our attention that Broke My Heart topped the iTunes chart in India, and a great many viewers also joined in to stream your music video from here, do you have any plans to visit us for a show in the future?

KINO: I just want to say “thank you so much” to the fans in India who gave me so much love. I'm constantly trying to find a way to meet all of you in person. So, if you wait a little bit, I'll be right there. Also, if you are a music industry insider and reading this, if you have a good opportunity for me, please reach out to me anytime!

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