The week before releasing his first album in five years, PSY is extremely cautious not to let the identity of his comeback single’s special guest star leak.
Speaking to Billboard on a video call from an office in Seoul, PSY refers to Suga as “that person” when discussing his new single, “That That,” produced by and featuring the BTS superstar. The precaution may seem over the top just days before the reveal, but a lot is riding on what the original viral musician deems his “second chapter.”
In 2018, PSY left Korean mega label YG Entertainment, the agency which helped him achieve his international success with “Gangnam Style” in 2012 and is the current home to acts like BLACKPINK and BIGBANG. At the top of 2019, PSY launched P NATION as the new label and management home for himself – as well as for a range of established and rising artists, with its current roster boasting nine acts.
The plan was always to return to music, with several cuts on his just-released PSY 9th full-length recorded years ago; “Happier,” featuring current P NATION singer-songwriter Crush, was created in 2018, a year before Crush joined the label. But once the 2020 pandemic overhauled the global music industry, PSY’s plans also needed to shift.
“Making a new song means that I want to refresh my concert — that’s it,” says PSY, who has more than two decades of music under his belt since releasing his debut album in 2000. “I am really lucky because I don’t have any deadline from nobody… and from time to time, even if I don’t release a new song, still, I’m living as an artist, let’s say, 100 days a year, at least. But in the last two years, I didn’t have a single day as an artist — that was a huge difference [compared to] my last 22 years. That was the only two years that I’ve never lived as an artist.”
Instead, PSY spent most of the pandemic home in Korea igniting new musical paths by taking an active role in managing his P NATION signees. Rapper Jessi rose to become one of Korea’s hottest MCs and personalities thanks to her viral single “Nuna Nana” (the 2020 video has more than 170 million views on YouTube); R&B singer-songwriter Heize scored her biggest track yet on the Billboard K-Pop Hot 100 (“Happen,” from 2021, peaked at No. 4 and is nearing a full year on the chart); and the label’s first boy band, TNX, was formed through a TV reality show, on which PSY helped whittle down a group of 75 K-pop hopefuls into the six-member outfit.
The 44-year-old was enjoying his time in executive mode, but last fall, when Suga reached out with a track, the fateful production proposition ignited a change.
“Right before that, I was a perfect manager,” PSY says with a slight laugh. “I was really into being a manager of the company for the last two years, before I met this track. He came with the track and he suggested me. He wanted to produce me.”
While Suga has been monumental in the writing and production process of BTS since its 2013 debut, the 29-year-old has lent his talent to some of Korea’s top stars like IU, Epik High and Heize, while also collaborating with the likes of Juice WRLD, Halsey and Japanese singer ØMI. PSY says that his sessions with Suga for “That That” were so transformative that they inspired him to write an additional five to six new songs in the following month.
“I was boosted with that incident, that young blood of that musician,” he says, still careful about using Suga’s name. “We worked together, it was fun and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is music; this was what I’ve been doing since I was young.’ When I saw what he was doing, improvising and his enthusiasm, I got literally infected from him. It was the right way: talking, chatting, laughing, and spitting and feelin’ it. Day one, we meet and of course, we talked about music, right? But the quote he said was absolutely the trigger – he said, ‘Hyung, regarding hip-hop, the ’90s were the bomb.’ But the boy was born in the ’90s!” PSY laughs. “He talked to me about Biggie and Tupac, I was like, ‘How do you know all that?’ He’s really crazy about ’90s hip-hop.”
One of the standout moments of “That That” comes in the second verse, when the two stars trade off lines as Suga crafts a prime opportunity for PSY to remind the public of his true spitting skills and go bar-for-bar with the BTS member. PSY was already inspired by the arena-ready production, but when he suggested Suga join him on the track, the process instantly came together: “We both were really into the track, and we finished that in literally three or four days.”
Suga’s thoughtful approach to collaboration nods to the respect that PSY possesses in the Korean entertainment industry. The scene’s biggest names bring their best to him not just for his past success but also for his ongoing vision — a trait he labels as him being “demanding.”
“If I say something to Zico or Crush or Heize, they are like the hottest artists right now, and also represent the youngest blood of the industry,” he explains of his collaborators, including chart-topping artist-producer Zico, who helped craft the PSY 9th track “Celeb.” “They might have some good memories about me, but it’s different if they have a good memory and want to work with me. I was kind of proud that if I approached some of the younger musicians, the way they are thinking of me is, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be cool working with him.'”
Ahead of the new album release, PSY previously shared that he would not have released his reinterpretation of Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora‘s 1984 single “When the Rain Begins to Fall” if top K-pop diva Hwa Sa hadn’t joined.
“Especially Hwa Sa, I hadn’t met her in person,” he explains of the starlet who counts Dua Lipa as a collaborator. “But I just approached her saying, ‘I have a track and I want to make a remake of this classic song between male vocal and female vocals. But the female has got to be powerful, so, I think it’s you. I’ll send you the track, but what do you think?’ And she says, ‘I’m going to do it.’ Without listening! So I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a huge fan of Hwa Sa, and she’s responding, on the spot, without listening.’”
As one of South Korea’s earliest global breakout stars, PSY achieved at-the-time unprecedented feats with “Gangnam Style,” including reaching No. 2 on the Hot 100, earning YouTube’s first video to surpass 1 billion views, and appearing at events like the Billboard Music Awards and Met Gala. His unique set of experiences and perspective can be intimidating for even the biggest stars to reach out for with advice.
“When they first experienced things, Suga was saying he and his members were talking to each other like, ‘Hey, should we call PSY [about] how to handle this kind of thing, mentally?’ They were so not sure what they should do,” he says of the new friendship — that’s also blossomed into a mentorship of sorts with Suga as well as BTS member V, who was photographed with PSY in September 2020.
“One time [V] was with someone who was a good friend of mine and passed the phone so we talked,” PSY explains of his linkup with the BTS vocalist. “He said, ‘I really wanted to ask you a lot of things,’ so I was like, ‘Hey, come to my office sometime, let’s talk. We talked a lot about things like when they do something good and are not satisfied with something; they barely have anyone to ask about that.”
A social butterfly since childhood, PSY has always connected with those around him in ways that defy norms in Korea. Younger people traditionally use formal language when first getting to know those older than them, but that quickly changes around PSY. “A lot of times when I first meet hoobaes [younger colleagues], they talk really super formal to me at first, but in like 10 or 20 minutes, we’ve become friends and they can be really casual — I think that’s why I’m still here.”
PSY labels himself an “icebreaker” in the industry, even helping Bang Si-hyuk — who is considered his sunbae, at five years his senior — and Scooter Braun initially connect after HYBE’s merger with Braun’s Ithaca Holdings in 2021, when Bang was HYBE CEO. PSY helped break the ice between the two mega-execs when Braun visited Seoul to meet with the HYBE team post-merger. While PSY first met Braun in the early stages of the “Gangnam Style” domination when he reached out to manage PSY overseas, the two remain close to this day, with PSY saying the longtime Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande manager has made himself available should he land another viral hit.
With PSY 9th out to pave PSY’s return to the Billboard charts, he admits he’s still not 100 percent in artist mode. A large part of his traditional TV and media promotion in Korea with the LP has also been used to lay a solid groundwork for TNX when they release their debut EP on May 17. The boy band is an important project for his company because, as PSY puts it, “running an entertainment company in Korea is, sadly but true, all about idols.
“That’s the honest point,” he continues of the label that’s also discussing overseas partnerships to achieve more overseas activities for its artists. “In the company’s three years, we’ve been preparing for this since day one. The reason why I’m launching my album before TNX is because I’m selling myself to the TVs and going to make a lot more appearances than last time.” The exposure of the upcoming 10th anniversary of “Gangnam Style” in July, a commemoration not only for its substantial chart feats but also growing interest in K-pop music at a global scale, also played a part in the comeback plans.
At 44, PSY is also honest about his fears of aging out of an industry hyper-fixated on young talent: “Sometimes, I was really afraid if I’d have to quit in the future as an artist. ‘Can I tolerate that? Can I handle not being on stage?’ That was my permanent fear.” But his unexpected downtime during the pandemic has set up a fresh start as an executive.
“If like Jessi is doing a good job, HyunA is doing a good job, Heize is doing a good job, I felt another kind of fulfillment and happiness — that was a totally new experience and I said, ‘Oh, maybe I can live without being on stage,’” he says. “Eventually, I got to quit, anyway. Eventually.”
Part of appreciating and accepting his new chapter was also officially letting go to any attachment to “Gangnam Style” — and no one was better than Suga to do away with the horsey-dancing character in the “That That” video as the BTS member knocks out a throwback-inspired PSY dressed in his signature blue suit and sunglasses.
“That scene, it’s a farewell to ‘Gangnam Style,'” he explains with a belly laugh. “BTS slapped that blue-suit guy and I’m bleeding! I’m saying, ‘I’m going to make a new start with this guy.'”
While PSY opens the first verse of “That That” with the line, “Long time no see,” the star remains more than active in the industry — and plans to be, until the day he no longer feels at the top of his game. In the 22 years since his debut album and the 10 years since “Gangnam Style,” PSY’s career has shifted in ways he never imagined – yet the respect from younger K-pop artists, and the healthy groundwork of his next-generation entertainment company, indicate there will be far more milestones for him to celebrate before he decides to drop the mic one final time.
“I want to be on the stage as long as possible, but only if the audience allows me to do so,” he says of future plans before shifting to his most sincere tone yet. “I have a specific plan for my last stage. My permanent dream and honest plan is to do a press conference where I look at the press from my table and share my last statement: ‘I came into this industry with laughter and I’m leaving this industry with this laughter. So, in case I don’t see you: good evening, good night, good morning and good afternoon.’ Then I drop my mic, the curtains open, and the crowd is behind me. I want to invite reporters on the stage of my concert so they can see my retirement statement. I’m not sure when I’ll have that stage, but I’d like it to be as late as possible.”