If you were to look into the eyes of 20-year-old Lee Joo-heon, you might have noticed a flash of determination in his hardened gaze. In 2015, he had just debuted as a rapper in the Korean idol group Monsta X, and he was single-mindedly set on one goal: fame. After years spent in the rigorous K-pop trainee system, he yearned for success and all of the riches that seemingly came with it. Now, he sees his adolescent arrogance as a form of self-preservation. “[That] Joo-heon,” he says of his younger self, “he was always angry.”
At 28, Joo-heon, who goes by Joohoney professionally, is no longer fixated on stardom. Instead, he’s adopted a calmer mindset, a new perspective that has shaped his first official solo EP, Lights (released this past May). “This goal is not important — it’s life that’s important,” he tells AP over Zoom. It’s just past midnight in Seoul, where Joohoney is wrapping up a round of press interviews for the release back at his label’s Gangnam headquarters. It’s been a long day of schedules. Earlier, he filmed a live taping of Mnet’s M Countdown, a weekly music show in South Korea where he is one of the current MCs.
But even in the small hours of Friday morning, Joohoney is all dimpled smiles and sincere niceties, lyrically weaving in and out of English and Korean: “Right now, everything is good.”
[Photo via Starship Entertainment]
It’s a stark change from the Joohoney who bared his darkest, most intrusive thoughts on his 2020 self-made mixtape Psyche. That Joohoney, he says, felt lost, and “Smoky” — with its blend of hazy hip-hop and punchy emotional intimacy — was an attempt to clear the murk, to find his true self away from the spotlight. Known for his biting lyrics and unwavering confidence, Joohoney possesses a powerful presence. Onstage, he’s incendiary, a blaze so enormous you can’t look away. In person, he’s magnetic, a force pulling you into his cheerful orbit. When he’s alone, however, he lets his mind wander, analyzing events and synthesizing them into ideas. Through the process of making Psyche, he learned to let go of negativity and embrace a new way of thinking.
Lights began with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” a feel-good acoustic song that serves as the EP’s sentimental closer. It’s the message Joohoney wants listeners to take away, that despite all of life’s hardships “the bright tomorrow of our love will come again.” He wrote it with his fans in mind, and it’s the only cut on the EP that made him cry. “My tears just dropped,” he recalls. “That was a surprise for me.” That moment of catharsis ultimately dictated what kind of project Lights was going to be. In the aftermath of Psyche, he envisioned this release as “a chance to spread a positive message.”
“We are the keys [to our own happiness],” he adds. “We all should be lights for our own selves.” Joohoney doesn’t let sadness linger anymore. He rejects negativity, choosing instead to see happiness as a passing guest you invite into your soul. Every day, he wakes up and says hello. “Of course, we all feel sad and endure hard things, but [I remind myself] it’s not everything. Working, making music, and talking to people gives me a lot of positive energy to move forward,” he says. Joohoney poured that attitude into “Freedom,” the EP’s ambitious lead single. On it, he roars, “Feel my freedom” — you can hear it in the dissonance between soft piano keys and thumping bass, sweeping vocals, and blistering rap verses.
He finds freedom in the chaos, something the Korean entertainment industry typically avoids. “In K-pop, many idols want to be free,” Joohoney says. “There are struggles and hard times, a lot of training and schedules. You’re always tired.” He had a particularly hard time in 2018. He was running on empty, hustling from one schedule to the next and barely making any time for himself. He recalls working for several days straight without stopping. He’s not complaining. He knows it’s what he signed up for when he chose this life, and working hard has yielded incredible results for Monsta X — a top 5 debut on the Billboard 200, sold-out arena shows in the U.S., and international collabs with Steve Aoki, Pitbull, and Snoop Dogg.
Yet, he was struggling to find enjoyment in the work. When he took a step back from promotions in 2020, he did some soul-searching, made music purely for himself, and picked up CrossFit. (“This is very TMI,” he laughs, “but while I was exercising, I realized that everything is hard, but as humans, we don’t die, even when doing CrossFit. That changed my mindset a lot.”) True to its name, “Freedom” is his purest form of self-expression. To match the energy of the song, he learned how to krump for its choreography from Trix, a South Korean world champion in krump.
“That kind of movement,” he says, demonstrating the sharp rhythm, “really stems from a place of extremes.” It’s how he wanted to express the sensation of breaking free — from anger, from convention, from anything that’s holding him back. “I believe that from the moment we’re born, we are not free,” he continues. “We’re stuck in a box of what we need to do. There are so many expectations [placed upon us]. Everyone craves this freedom.”
[Photo via Starship Entertainment]
Drawn to music at an early age, Joohoney grew up singing in church. When he became a trainee as a young teen, he gravitated toward hip-hop and dance, more vigorous elements of eloquence. Songwriting and composition came naturally to him. He released his first mixtape in 2015, just a few months after Monsta X’s debut. He’s most influenced by virtuosic performers and emotive storytellers, versatile artists who blur genre lines and exist on the margins: pop icons, poets, musicians, and rock stars like Michael Jackson, Chet Baker, and Kurt Cobain.
“I feel most free when I’m making music, [when] I can mix different genres and sounds,” he says. “That is the meaning of freedom to me.”
To reach that level of self-awareness, Joohoney spent a lot of time reflecting on how anger metamorphoses into acceptance over time — not by burying it six feet under the surface but by learning to see through it. It’s what inspired the song “진화 (Evolution)” on the EP. The track itself is a journey, an emo hip-hop fusion of 808s, crunchy riffs, emphatic drum beats, shoegaze-y guitar, and the occasional splash of Auto-Tune. It’s Juice WRLD meets Nirvana. The sound is familiar, but the intensity of its emotion comes from a deeply personal place.
“I was inspired by Nirvana,” he says. A friend in London gifted him a Nevermind LP a few years back, and it was the first time he listened with intent. “There’s a lot of emotion in their music.” It made him want to dig deeper, too. He started to question why work moves so quickly, and why he and his peers work tirelessly at the detriment of their own mental health. As a more senior artist, eight years into his career, he sees it as his responsibility to speak out and be a catalyst for change. He wants the entire industry to evolve with him. “I’m capturing my honest emotions in my music; this isn’t typical in K-pop,” he explains.
It’s why when asked if the word “idol” can contain all of his multitudes, a hint of his assertive younger self appears. He has a different word in mind. “I’m capturing myself as a whole in my music,” he says with a satisfied grin. “I can say confidently that I’m a pioneer.”