Less than six months since the release of their debut album, Highlight was one of several new names at this year’s KCON 2017 NY presented by Toyota. But while the name may be unfamiliar, the five members of what was formerly Beast are anything but. With over a dozen singles under their previous moniker, plus three new ones as Highlight, the super rookie quintet took the stage at the Prudential Center and lit up the night.
Despite their former success as Beast, the anxiety was palpable as Highlight’s five members — Yoon Doojoon, Yong Junhyung, Yang Yoseob, Lee Kikwang and Son Dongwoon — spoke to Billboard hours before performing for the first time ever in the States with their revamped identity. “Unfortunately we had to change our name to Highlight,” Junhyung said, referring to the group leaving former label Cube Entertainment late last year, seven years since Beast’s 2009 debut. “But as we experienced the same kind of support and love that we had formerly received, we’re just really proud to have achieved what we have so far.”
The quick turnaround between leaving Beast behind, setting up their own agency and beginning anew as Highlight was something previously unheard of in the K-pop industry, where only a handful of other acts have been able to remain together after leaving their original label. “We hope that our example gives other artists courage,” said Junhyung.
But with the concern that many KCON-goers, and K-pop fans in general, may be unfamiliar with their new name, Highlight was on edge just like any other new K-pop act looking to get their name out there at the music festival. “We’re grateful towards the fans who haven’t forgotten us,” said Kikwang.
“We worried a lot in the beginning,” said Dongwoon. “But after we released our first album as Highlight, we experienced an outpouring of immense support, and so the worries have sort of subsided. We would like to take this as an opportunity to keep going and to have more fun.”
Fun is the name of the game with Highlight, whose first single was the uplifting and playful “Plz Don’t Be Sad,” with its comical, emoji-inspired choreography. The group has had a solid career on Korean variety shows, building a reputation as a professional but humorous team of performers. They showed this firsthand with the members frequently stopping mid-sentence, interrupting their train of thought during the interview with laughter at some inside joke unbeknownst to anyone outside the five, blaming jet lag for their giddiness.
Though they’ve had a name change, Highlight hasn’t altered what’s made fans around the world love them. They’re still juggling upbeat dance tracks with more mellow ballads, both of which brought them immense fame in their previous evolution. “Junhyung’s still our main producer,” said Yoseob, “and maybe the way he perceives our image as a band has changed a little, but overall, we’re the same.” He paused before adding, “But our creative process has become a lot freer.”
With Junhyung guiding the sound of their new songs, as he has throughout much of Highlight’s career as Beast, the new group has already released one EP plus a re-released version and promoted three singles.
“‘Plz Don’t Be Sad’ is probably our most energetic and fun song that we’ve released since our debut as Beast, as I feel like we haven’t really been able to show that side of ourselves,” said Junhyung. “For ‘Calling You,’ we sort of wanted to represent our generation of men and the things we are going through, and ‘It’s Still Beautiful’ has a sweeter, more heartfelt feeling going on. I think the main point that we wanted to express through the three songs is that Highlight as a group isn’t defined by a very specific genre but that we are able to go back and forth between various styles.”
The new music proved to resonate with listeners just as much as Beast’s past hits, with Highlight’s first EP Can You Feel It? topping Korean music charts and going to No. 9 on the World Albums chart. That success transferred over to KCON NY, where cheers erupted from around the stadium as Highlight took the stage the first night. After performing two of their new songs, the audience roared with approval as the quintet performed Beast’s “YeY,” “Good Luck” and “Beautiful Night,” ending the night with two of the most iconic K-pop songs of the past decade.
Though the group hadn’t been to New York for years and were hesitant about expecting too much, the positive response wasn’t necessarily a surprise. “Every time we come [to NY], we feel like the fans always greet us with such fervor,” said Doojoon. “We’re really thankful for the attention and the love.”
For a group once known as the “recycled” K-pop act after several members failed in their first forays into the industry — Kikwang had his own solo career and Junhyung was part of a previous boy band, while Doojoon nearly ended up in 2PM or 2AM and former member Hyunseung missed the cut to be in BIGBANG — Highlight has proved that they’re here to stay.
The band plans to release more music and hold international tours in the future, and they hope to stay motivated by their second act. “We’ve been able to go back to the same mind-set that we had starting out as rookies to keep those feelings and ambitions alive,” said Dongwoon. “So 10, 20 years down the line, we, Highlight, would like to keep having that within us.”