This article originally appeared on i-D.
Dean can’t walk down the street in Korea without being hounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. He’s that big of a deal. A bonafide K-Pop icon at 25 years old, he’s intentionally avoided the blueprint built for his peers and formed one all of his own. If you run outside of that industry’s bubble, you might be forgiven for not knowing him, but with a killer career in his homeland, sold out shows around the world, and collaborations with Anderson .Paak and Syd under his belt, Dean’s name is one you’re about to hear a hell of a lot more of.
“Back home, I can’t be anonymous,” he says when we chat backstage at Clockenflap Music Festival in Hong Kong, his ragged denim bucket hat pulled down over his eyes. “Too many people recognize me. But I like being free and walking around cities I visit. When I go to other countries I get to do that.” Even that isn’t a foolproof escape. After all, when Dean made his London debut at Koko earlier this year, tickets sold out in less than three minutes. “My fans [there] do recognize me and say hi,” he says, but he’s still humble about the hysteria. “I find it amazing that people are able to recognize me outside of Korea!”
Named after Hollywood idol James Dean, Dean— real name Kwon Hyuk — has skin so pale it’s practically pearlescent and a jaw-line that could cut diamonds. Unsurprisingly, the front rows of most of his shows are populated by teenage girls screaming so loudly they might bust a lung. At Clockenflap, one came with a handmade, light-up neon sign confessing her love to the star. Still, Dean says, he rarely gets pre-show jitters. He handles everything, including our interview, with the kind of cool, collected attitude that’s unique to seasoned superstars.
He might have only been making his own music for the past few years, but Dean has been in the business in one way or another for the best part of a decade. He first got noticed at 16 years old, when he used to run with a fellow Seoul native, the rapper Keith Ape, as part of his crew. Two years later, his pop career started as a songwriter under the moniker Deanfluenza. By 20, he was writing songs alongside Justin Bieber’s lyricists. All of this came before he’d even released any material of his own.
“When I was a kid, I was always listening to music,” he says, “but my thoughts were more ‘Oh, I’d like to do this professionally someday,’ you know?” Dean is definitely not the type to romanticize his goals: “It’s more than just a destiny for me. Music is what I love the most in my life — that’s the real reason I went down this path.”
Musically, Dean sounds like a dazzling mix of post-renaissance Bieber and early 00s Usher: a combination of serious rap and striking falsettos that come together to make a sound that’s hard to pin down. Frequently weaving in and out of pop and R&B, Korean and English, it’s almost as if Dean likes to be indeterminable, fighting to be remembered for a sound of his own.
I wonder how hectic it must be to live life in his shoes: spending most days in different countries — performing on stage one minute, writing songs the next — and still having to find time to switch off every now and then. On a scale of 1 to 10, I ask, how fun has the last week of Dean’s life been? “If you’re only talking about the way I’ve been feeling — it’s gotta be a one,” he says, “just because my new music has been giving me so much stress!” For a primed pop star signed to a major label, his candid answer is surprising. “The last week has had loads of ups and downs. My new stuff is much more experimental, so I’m going through a lot of trials and errors with it.”
The word experimental definitely means different things to different people. For some, it means a purposeful dive into fresh, unexplored soundscapes that nobody has tackled before. Others use the term on a personal level: stepping out of their comfort zone to toy with something new. We haven’t heard it yet, but it seems Dean’s next record deals with the latter. “Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of old band music, and that’s hard because I’m trying to mix up that with my regular R&B sound,” he says. And who does he listen to for fun? Canadian artists Daniel Caesar and PartyNextDoor, he says, as well as the Soulection-signed Londoner Tom Misch.
“If I was making the same music over and over again, it wouldn’t be as hard as it is right now,” Dean says, as if he’s keen to reinvent himself for the next record. “What I’m trying to do is not be stuck in my own sound. Recently, I’ve been denying the fact that I’m gonna do something similar over and over. That’s the reason my week was a one out of ten!”
He’s hardly a nostalgist, favoring the idea of looking forward over looking back at the work that made him so popular in the first place. His debut EP, the swaggering, soulful 130 Mood: TRBL, gained him a serious amount of chart success and critical acclaim, but he hasn’t revisited it while working on his first full-length album — one that could make him a bonafide, mainstream star in the west. “The EP is good in a way, but I feel like it’s missing something.” He backtracks, in case it seems that he’s dismissive of its success. “It still means a lot to me, of course. I just don’t listen to my old music much now, but I care about how people interpret my artistic language.”
2018 spells promise and growth for Dean; the opportunity to win over a massive worldwide audience with his next record could change his life even more. That being said, he isn’t too worried about what impact this fresh wave of fans might have on his sound. “It’s obvious that it’s hard to please everyone. I try to focus on my own feelings, cause I know that there are lots of people out there who feel the same way.”
He pauses for a second, and gleams a smile from beneath his bucket hat, as if he’s in on some pop music secret none of us know about. “As long as I express myself honestly,” he says, “I know that people will respond to it!”