Content warning: This article mentions suicide, suicidal thoughts and depression.
On Dec. 18, the K-pop universe was shocked by the sudden passing of Kim Jong-hyun (Jonghyun), who took his life in an apparent suicide after having battled depression for many years. Jonghyun was one of the lead singers of the popular five-member boyband SHINee, which made its debut in 2008. Jonghyun made his solo debut seven years later with an extended play titled Base (2015), which confirmed his place as one of the industry’s leading singers, songwriters and producers. Jonghyun has also worked extensively with other K-pop artists, having written songs for popular boyband EXO, Lee Hi, IU, fellow band member Taemin and more.
In his final album, aptly titled “Poet | Artist” (2018), Jonghyun reminded the world of his exceptional abilities one last time. The album was released posthumously and charted at No. 1 on the iTunes Worldwide Chart and on other individual iTunes charts across the world. It also charted at No. 177 on the Billboard Hot 200, a testament to Jonghyun’s global appeal.
In “Poet | Artist,” Jonghyun builds on his previous albums, namely “She Is” (2016) and “Story Op. 2” (2017). In memory of Jonghyun, who was often vocal about issues of equality, profits from the album will be given to his mother and used to found an organization to help those who are living in difficult circumstances.
The 11-track album is led by the main single “빛이 나 Shinin’,” which will remind many SHINee fans of the rhythms heard in “View” (2015). The track is easy to groove to given its house-like nature and simply written yet catchy hook and chorus. The track is accompanied by a lighthearted, neon-filled music video that features many playful close-ups of the singer, adding to the overall up-tempo, feel-good nature of the song. Other songs of this nature include “사람 구경 중 Sightseeing,” a track that incorporates various sounds such as jazz, car screeches and cat sounds, evoking a nighttime stroll down the street.
Jonghyun’s incredible talent across genres and his emotionally impressive vocals are also demonstrated throughout the album. His falsetto in both the EDM-fused tracks of “환상통 Only One You Need” and “Take The Dive” is particularly impressive, especially as it mixes with his deeper, softer tones throughout the songs. In a complete 180, Jonghyun then goes into an alternative, funk, house kind of mood with “Rewind” as we hear the singer whispering repetitive lyrics in a song fit for the runway.
Most of Jonghyun’s album focuses on the themes of love and relationships. “하루만이라도 Just For A Day” is an airy, trap-influenced track that calls out for a lost lover, and he wishes to be reacquainted with them at the end of the song, even if they have different tomorrows. In contrast, “어떤 기분이 들까 I’m So Curious” retains a softer nature, and the lyrics call out with a longing desire to get to know a lover better.
“기름때 Grease” is clever in its use of powerful imagery to describe the end of a relationship, as Jonghyun cries for the memories/grease to “now go away, cuz I wanna erase you, go away.” “Sentimental,” a song about a past relationship, brings us into Jonghyun’s jazz bar and is reminiscent of some of his older songs on Story Op. 1 (2015) and Story Op. 2.
One of the most impressive tracks is “와플 (#Hashtag),” which demonstrates Jonghyun’s reputation as a songwriter. The song plays on the similar-sounding terms of waffle (wa-peul in Korean) and hateful comments (ak-peul in Korean). The song is about Jonghyun’s personal distaste for malicious rumors that are often spread online in the entertainment industry, with Jonghyun himself having been targeted by such comments in light of his support for the LGBTQ community. Jonghyun discusses the issue in an almost casual nature; the song is filled with finger snaps as he asks listeners to “eat a waffle, you try it too, try eating the bad comments.”
The final song on the album is “우린 봄이 오기 전에 Before Our Spring,” for which parent company SM Entertainment released a music video to look back at Jonghyun’s career. And like in the video, the last track acts as a chilling reminder of the struggles that the singer faced prior to his death by aptly utilizing metaphor and imagery of spring. “Before Our Spring” is fundamentally a song about two lost lovers, but it also speaks volumes to the relationship that Jonghyun had with his fans. The song opens with, “Before spring comes, before it gets warm, shall we meet?” Jonghyun attempts to assure listeners to not “worry about what to do / I’m alright / Spring will come to me too.” Yet, one can only wonder how the forlorn lover/Jonghyun feels as the song ends ambiguously and painfully: “When I forget my tears and my sadness / when spring comes to me too, then, then, then, then.” Its simplicity and poetic nature make it all the more beautiful and perhaps serve as the best justification for naming the album “Poet | Artist.”
Unfortunately for K-pop fans, spring never came for Jonghyun. But as legions of K-poppers trended “You’ve done well, Jonghyun” in light of his passing, “Poet | Artist” serves as a final reminder to the devotion that fills the legacy of the talented singer-songwriter.