NU’EST W is something a bit unusual in the K-pop industry: a representation of second chances in the cut-throat Korean music world. A sub-unit of NU’EST, the four-membered team has breathed new life into the career of the boy band and seen a lot of success over the past two years.
The story of NU’EST W and NU’EST up through last year was fairly typical for the highly-competitive K-pop world, and held as a cautionary one for many. Formed by Pledis Entertainment in 2012, the act blew up early on in their career with its impactful, anti-bullying debut single “Face,” and saw a lot of love in South Korea for their poignant ballad “Hello.” But they lost traction over the years and, despite having one of the most artistic discographies in the industry, they were overshadowed by newer acts and all but a footnote in the industry as K-pop’s popularity surged on a global level.
In 2017, though, four of NU’EST’s five members appeared on the second season of Produce 101, a K-pop competition show where hopefuls aim for 11 slots in temporary boy bands and girl groups. This led to renewed interest in the group and made them front-runners for what would go onto become the lineup for Wanna One. While Hwang Minhyun was the only NU’EST member who made the final cut, the surge of support the act saw carried over to their second start as NU’EST W; the “w” stands for “wait,” both for Hwang and for the act to interact with its fans after inactivity.
The new era has seen the four explore a more ambient, darker style of music in their singles while retaining the sleek production the act’s always been known for, putting the emphasis on individuals with multiple solo tracks. They’ve thrived in this time, and since last October’s release of their first EP W, Here, NU’EST W has gone on to become one of the best-selling K-pop boy bands around: June’s Who, You EP went platinum in South Korea.
Anticipation is high for Hwang’s return now that his tenure with Wanna One is set to end as the act disbands on Dec. 31, but things are a bit up in the air for NU’EST and NU’EST W. While tight lipped on future plans and Hwang’s absence, NU’EST W’s four members — JR (Kim Jonghyun), Baekho (Kang Dongho), Aron Kwak, and Ren (Choi Minki) — spoke to Billboard about their career and music while they were in Japan for a performance at the Saitama leg of the 2018 Mnet Asian Music Awards.
How do you feel 2018 went?
Aron: I think it was a year full of blessings for us. We got to do a lot of things that we weren’t able to do in the past. I think, just individually, we just made a lot of good memories this year. I think it was a very memorable year for us.
Ren: 2018 was a very busy year. We tried different things while promoting our music and did our tour around Asia. Personally, I got to join a Thai drama. It was a year full of new experiences. I also filmed for a project known as Asian Ghost, where my lines were in English for the first time, so I really practiced hard for that. I think the result is pretty good, so I’m looking forward to the release of that next year.
How does it feel to be completing your time as NU’EST? W?
JR: We’re really thankful for all the support the fans have given us. We’ve enjoyed the love we’ve received and are grateful for that. There’s nothing decided for 2019 so we’re just fully focusing all our energies on the end of 2018.
Baekho: We want to end the year taking advantage of all the opportunities coming our way.
Not many K-pop acts get a second chance at success, but NU’EST? W’s career has been a bit phoenix-like in that respect. How does it make you feel?
Baekho: First of all, as always we wanted to produce music that fits our given situation though we didn’t really change our approach. This turnaround has been a very rare opportunity in this industry, so I’m thankful for that and want to give back to the people who supported us by putting out good music.
Aron: We’re definitely blessed and we all know that, and we’re very thankful for all the people who have brought us into this situation. So whether it’s through music or some other platform, we’re always trying to give back to the fans and anyone else who has helped us reach these heights.
What do you think of the state of the industry that this sort of career rejuvenation is so rare?
Ren: Reclaiming fame, it’s like catching the stars, it’s so rare. It’s definitely something that’s not an opportunity given to everyone but we’ve had that opportunity, which I’m so grateful for. It’s something that we cannot really express in words. Knowing that, we all want to work harder.?
Who, You received platinum certification in Korea. What were your reactions like when you heard?
Ren: Again, it really felt like catching the stars. I thought it was only something that happens in dreams, and I always wondered what it would feel like to have a best-selling album. Then it came our chance, and I couldn’t believe that we were actually receiving it. With that, I feel more pride in our music and ourselves, and it has become the motive for working even harder and doing our best, even more, all the time.
If you had to speak to the version of yourself from two years ago, what would you say?
Ren: I’d tell myself to stay strong and not lose hope.
Baekho: “You’re doing well. Keep it up.”
JR: Because of that past, that’s what made us who we are now so…
Aron: “Just continue to work hard. Don’t give up. The results will follow.”
Ren: “???!” (Lit. “Fighting,” used as a term of encouragement in Korea.)
Throughout NU’EST? W’s lifespan, each of you have released solo tracks on the albums. What’s that experience been like?
Baekho: For the group songs we sing all together, it tells the story of us four. But for the solo tracks we get to tell our own stories, express our own emotions. They tell the audience more about us. For the most recent album, we had two joint tracks that are about waking from the dream [of NU’EST W] and then the other four are each solo songs, which stand for waking up to our personal feelings.
Aron: I think it’s what each member feels, how they feel about waking up from that dream. For me, I was kind of portraying happiness. They were all different. I think a lot of personal opinions went into the songs in term of style, what kind of music we wanted to do personally. These are our second solo songs each, and I always feel like it’s a good experience because we get to express what we want to do personally whereas with the group music you always have a set foundation or genre you have to do. But in terms of solo songs you can choose your genre, what you want to portray, you can write your own lyrics. I think it was a good experience. It’s a little more intimate. Not that our group songs aren’t intimate. They’re very intimate.
Would you like to continue featuring solo songs on albums if you can in the future?
Baekho: It’s not something we want to say one way or another. “We want to release an album that only features group songs with all of us.” We wouldn’t say that. It’s also not like we feel obligated to feature solo songs on albums. But rather it’s like… If solo songs can help our albums be that much better, we will add them. Or if it works better for an album where it sounds better when songs are sung by all the members, then we don’t have to force solo songs. It’s all situational.
Each of you have writing credits. Has your approach towards NU’EST?’s music and performances changed at all since you started really driving the sound?
Baekho: As we start to become more involved in producing, our opinions and thoughts on our music gets stronger, more straightforward. When we prepare our album production and promotions now, we get to do what’s better for us and get more deeply involved with everything. It’s not that we changed through being part of the creative production, it’s just that we got better and gained a different sense of knowledge about how to handle things.
Baekho in particular has taken a heavy hand in crafting NU’EST? W’s sound. How has that been for the group?
Aron: We all partake in the album but I think it’s good that he kind of takes the lead on it because if you have four people talking all at once it might be a little crazy and hectic. But if we talk to him personally, he gathers everyone’s thoughts and makes them kind of coherent. He’s the one that puts the whole image together. I think it’s good that Baekho’s at the frontline spearheading everything for us. It’s a lot of responsibility but he enjoys it.
If you were to describe the lasting impression you want people to take away from NU’EST? W, what would it be?
JR: We would like people to hear a song and think, ‘Ah, this is such a NU’EST W song.’ But it’s not like we want to force one impression on people about NU’EST W. We want to keep telling the audience about our stories and keep giving back new impressions.
Aron: In terms of music, it always feels good when people says, ‘This is NU’EST style.’ But we’re always changing things up, telling different stories through our albums so we don’t want to really leave a specific impression. I would say we’re story tellers.
What’s the story that you’ve been telling?
Aron: If you want to know the story, it would take forever. But you got to watch all the music videos. It’s a huge thing. I would say it’s mystical. It’s a little confusing but mystical, that’s what I would say.
What are you looking forward to in 2019?
Aron: We don’t really have any plans for 2019 but I think for now our focus is on the end of 2018. It’s short but it could be a long time depending on what you’re doing. We’re just looking forward to finishing this year strong, going out with a bang. Next year, we’re not really focused on that right now. We’re focused on this year.