Meet WINNER: K-Pop's Exciting New Boy Band



The quintet's first single was revealed less than three weeks ago and now they have a No. 1 on Billboard's World Albums chart and a Top 10 entry on Heatseekers Albums.

It's an intrinsic property of the K-pop scene that its stars go through years of training before their public introduction. But for WINNER, the just-debuted boy band that joins BIGBANG, 2NE1, PSY and more at YG Entertainment, that process was rather atypical.

Instead of hitting the market with a debut single, the quintet were introduced on South Korean reality-survival show Who Is Next: WIN which put two potential boy bands from YG in direct competition to let the public vote which would become the act "WINNER." One hits the K-pop world, the other returns to trainee mode. The five-member outfit of Seungyoon (the band's leader as well as a singer/composer), Minho (rapper/composer), Taehyun (vocalist/composer), Jinwoo (vocalist) and Seunghoon (rapper), proved victorious in October 2013 with a debut imminent.

After nearly 11 months of silence, WINNER went full-force with their debut dropping a full-length LP led by two singles and accompanying music videos. The 2014 S/S album was a polished, eclectic 10-track set with melancholy, R&B/hip-hop hybrid singles "Empty" and "Color Ring" (see below). Last week, the LP made a strong Billboard debut, selling 1,000 copies and hitting No. 1 on the World Albums chart (this week it's at No. 11) and No. 6 on Heatseekers Albums, meaning a Billboard 200 debut wasn't far off.

WINNER's labelmates Akdong Musician and Lee Hi also earned well-received debuts (AKMU's Play hit No. 2 on World Albums, No. 20 on Heatseekers) as did newbie K-pop boy band GOT7 (a No. 1 on World Albums). But from a chart perspective, WINNER seems to be, well, winning. 

When the band was in New York shooting for their album jacket, Billboard met up with the guys to get their thoughts as 2014's most unusual rookies.

In a hotel cafe near Times Square, WINNER quickly points out their hope to be viewed differently from their pre-debut status in the reality show. "That was us literally practicing and not being pros," the band says via translator. "That wasn't even 10 percent. This is our image and this is who we are now as professional artists. There is so much more for everyone to see. And this is what we're going to show everyone from now."

While a sizable fanbase did fall in love with their persona on Who Is Next, WINNER debuted with a fresh supermodel concept; perhaps as a play to distinguish themselves from "Bad Boy" band BIGBANG. The guys went hardcore with the concept not only with the record's title playing off common fashion-world terminology, but WINNER even walked down a catwalk at the album's launch event.

While they can differentiate themselves from an aesthetic standpoint, WINNER admit to feeling pressured on how to be separate from YG's other boy band.

"One of the things that was our on our shoulders was the title of being 'the continuation of BIGBANG,'" the guys reflect. "That's why we're really making an effort to show our different color. Whether it be our clothing or style, we won't try to imitate. We'll really try to figure out what's different, what's really more our own, and show our own image."

It wasn't just BIGBANG comparisons stressing the guys out, either.

"We are a bit worried because Lee Hi and Akdong Musician succeeded greatly," WINNER add of their chart-topping labelmates. "We'd be so grateful if we succeeded to that level and got No. 1. We don't let that pressure get to us. We just want to make really good music, show that we're YG's next boy band and that we want to share our good music with you. If we can, as a new artist, show that and if people enjoy it, we would be grateful. We see that as succeeding."

Despite their victories, WINNER hasn't forgotten about those they came up with. When asked about their competition in Who Is Next, currently known as "Team B," WINNER is hopeful to compete against their past rivals again.

"After we won, we were able to go produce and get ready for our album," the guys explain. "Meanwhile, Team B had to practice again and go back to how it used to be. Though, through the YG Family concerts we were able to go on stage together and have an opportunity to perform with them again and that was great. We felt very emotional at that point because we work well together and we really help each other succeed...Even in the future, we hope we'll be competitors and friends. Family, but healthy competition to help each other grow."

Minho also shows love for another group he left behind, Block B, as the 21-year-old almost debuted as a part of the male outfit under a different label years ago. "I feel with WINNER, I found home," Minho says. "Block B was a cherished memory and a good experience with the practice. No regrets. But really, it's about WINNER. I found home with WINNER. So this is a real debut."

And with that real debut, WINNER is ready to hit the ground running after keeping fans waiting. While the guys eye solo debuts one day ("Every member really has talent, credentials and different appeals to come out as solo," says Seungyoon) and collabs with YG acts ("We've been able to work with BIGBANG onstage and do little collaborations. That was awesome and amazing"), it's WINNER's time to reconnect with the fans that watched them on TV and to find new ones.

"We prepared a lot between the debut and after the broadcast," Seungyoon concludes. "I really hope WINNER's music can be energizing to people, make them feel happy and hopeful and that they're really winners themselves. Thank you, we love you and thank you for waiting for us."