Time is warped when we enter a flow state. Fully absorbed in one activity, hours fly by like minutes and basic needs become secondary—every action feels so enjoyable that nothing else matters. A similar process happens when Monsta X, one of k-pop’s uppermost groups, create. "It’s more important to think about the process of making [an album], rather than thinking about how long it took," rapper and singer/songwriter Joohoney says.
Coming from Starship Entertainment, Joohoney, Shownu, Minhyuk, Kihyun, Hyungwon, and I.M have released eight studio albums, including three Japanese releases and an English-language debut, All About Luv, which ranked number five on the U.S. Billboard 200 Chart. They’ve also broken genre barriers through collaborations with the likes of Steve Aoki, French Montana and Sebastián Yatra.
Monsta X aren’t just one of the most prolific acts in the industry because of their innovative sound—a mix of hard-hitting rap, aggressive synths and soaring vocals that are immediately identifiable, yet never boring—but because of their commitment to expanding their work. "It’s a continuous process, we keep writing music, we’re always working on it," says vocalist Minhyuk.
As a group off stage, they are full of whispers, laughs, affectionate touches, and inside jokes. When asked, Minhyuk describes their bond as brotherly, something that’s apparent in a recent interview over Zoom with GRAMMY.com. At one point, Minhyuk begins to sing like his life depended on it and holds on to Joohoney’s hand for dramatic measures. When he is interrupted by Hyungwon who shows them a cover song on his phone, it’s not long before Kihyun effortlessly mimics a high note. Sitting in the middle, I.M, the group’s unofficial translator, has a front-row seat to it all.
Although countless challenges have crossed Monsta X’s path—from the departure of member Wonho in 2019 to Joohoney’s hiatus in 2020 to Shownu’s recent break to recover from a retinal detachment—their steady bond, playfulness and dedication to music-making is what allows them to move forward when the world throws a curveball. A few days before the release of their latest EP, One of a Kind, out now, the group (minus Shownu) tell GRAMMY.com about the challenges their new music brought, what people misunderstand about them and the inspiration behind some of their tracks.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Congrats on your new album! Monsta X has developed a unique identity throughout the years. What do you think makes you "one of a kind"?
Minhyuk: Our fans, Monbebe, screaming and shouting.
I.M: Our teamwork, our performance.
Joohoney: Our fashion, our faces.
Kihyun: Our music.
I.M: Everything, basically.
Is that what you wanted to express on this album?
I.M: Our member Joohoney made this album, so, that makes it one of a kind.
Joohoney: It was created to show the complete style of Monsta X.
You have a heist theme for the "Gambler" title track and talk about love as a mysterious bet. Why did you decide on that concept?
Joohoney: (to I.M) It’s an important moment.
I.M: [Joohoney] got the inspiration from [James Bond’s film series] 007, and he included the message that you need to gamble when you have to make an important decision.
Joohoney: In life, in love, everything. You always have to choose.
Do you think that applies to your lives as well?
I.M: Life is always a gamble. This side or that side? Left or right?
Joohoney: You want to eat a hamburger or pizza? That's a gamble.
After so many years in the industry, how do you keep creating while maintaining your essence? Do you ever hesitate in getting out of your comfort zone?
I.M: Since we are a team of six, we are never alone, and we talk to each other all the time. It’s our life. Through that, we give ourselves inspiration. If we hesitate, we move backward, so we can’t do that.
Many people look at Monsta X and only see your tough outer appearance. But through your b-sides, we can see that Monsta X is also very sensitive and thoughtful. Are you aware of this contrast?
Hyungwon: We are tough on the outside and soft on the inside. When it comes to music, we all get very thoughtful about it, and I guess that makes us have sentimental, moody vibes along with the toughness.
Joohoney: We’re not tough 24/7, we also have a child inside and emotions, too. That’s the reason why fans love us.
Your visuals also play a big part in the group. You express different perceptions of masculinity and often challenge the common definition of it. For One of a Kind, how would you define masculinity?
I.M: Masculinity is hard to define, and we don’t want to define [it] because each person has their own thoughts, experiences and environments. It’s hard to fit this definition to a person and this meaning to another person. But we want to say: Masculinity? Just define it yourself, define it your way. [For us,] it [means] being us. That’s it.
One of a Kind goes through the steps of falling for someone, seducing and being seduced. "Secrets" in particular is very straightforward in that message. What were your thoughts when writing this song?
Minhyuk: (to Hyungwon) Is it a secret?
Hyungwon: (Laughs) No! I wanted to depict the feeling that secrets create and the reaction of a person who wants to know those secrets. I wanted to try something new that I hadn’t tried before.
Since I’m Brazilian, the use of bossa nova in "Heaven" was pleasantly surprising. Where did that come from?
Joohoney: I think that there is a need for new challenges in every album. I’ve been into bossa nova recently, we went to Brazil when we were on tour and I studied it along with many other genres. I was thinking about what Monbebes want to hear, so I included it in the album. I want our fans in Brazil to sing along because they can identify themselves with this specific genre.
Hyungwon, you wrote the sweet "BEBE" for Monbebe. It must be an interesting sensation to be loved by people all over the world, yet most of them are anonymous to you. From an artist's perspective, can you talk about your relationship with fans?
Hyngwon: I wanted to give back all the love that I receive from fans, and I tried to convey the feelings I’ve had for the past six years as much as possible. I thought of this [song] as a letter to my fans, and I also wanted to include our wishes for the future.
I.M, you co-wrote and produced "Rotate." Could you take us through your thought process for this song?
I.M: To be honest, I couldn’t name this song until we decided to add it to the album. If you listen to the lyrics, there’s no "rotate" in it, but I made a situation that is like, boys and girls are having some feelings. They are not trying to meet yet, but feelings are rotating, kinda undecided, going back and forth.
Joohoney, you have written and composed many songs, but it's your first time producing a title track for Monsta X. Why is this only happening now?
Joohoney: I don’t know why. We go through a lot of steps deciding which tracks will be included in an album, and I want to say this was an optimal effort. I also wanted to cheer up my fans who are going through some difficult times [during] this pandemic.
Minhyuk, you recently mentioned in an interview that you went through a slump period. Aside from the ongoing pandemic, Monsta X has been through a lot in the past years, and you weren't the only member to feel the weight of it all. How do you navigate those hardships as a group?
Minhyuk: Our members are very close. We’re like family, we’re brothers. We always eat together, watch TV, play games, and live under the same roof. When I was having a hard time and feeling pressured, I shared my problems with the members and felt lighter, more positive thinking.
Kihyun, your bright vocal color is one of the pillars of Monsta X. How do you think you have improved since your debut? Do you have any favorite singing parts in this album?
Kihyun: I think [the part of my] vocal skills expressing emotions and lyrics have improved a lot. And my favorite part in this album is "Baby, baby" in "Gambler." I was almost like MJ [Michael Jackson] when I sang this part in the recording room.
What new beginning do you hope that One of Kind symbolizes in your career?
I.M: It’s hard to define. This album is a new challenge, but we don’t think it’s a start. It’s more of a process to progress.
What are you most proud of Monsta X so far?
Kihyun: Everything. Our relationship, our teamwork, our visuals, and [our] skills.
I.M: We are proud of our Monbebe. That’s the fact.
And what do you wish for Monsta X's future?
Minhyuk: My wish is to be rich. Honestly.
I.M: Me too!