In the K-pop world, it’s not atypical for a new act to take a year or two, or three or four, to get a hit before blowing up. But for SHINee, that was never a problem.
The boy band, which debuted as a five-member group under SM Entertainment in 2008, saw success almost straight out the door with their smooth R&B dance track “Replay (Noona (older woman) Is So Pretty).” Ten years later, the group’s become known as one of Korean pop’s most innovative artists, consistently releasing songs that reinvent dance-pop in novel ways and pairing them with complex, sophisticated performances.
SHINee’s latest is an anniversary trilogy of EPs known collectively as The Story of Light. Two albums, respectively known by the name of their singles “Good Evening,” released on May 25, and “I Want You,” dropped on June 11, have already come out — and a third, fronted by “Our Page,” is planned to conclude the series on June 25.
Their releases come at a time of celebration for both SHINee and their fandom, known as SHINee World or Shawol. It’s also one of sorrow: The Story series marks a milestone regarding the act’s past, while simultaneously representing the band’s future, by being the first albums to reintroduce SHINee as a quartet following the passing of member Jonghyun last December. March’s Japanese album From Now On was the last to feature all five member’s vocals.
Rather than an air of sobriety shaping The Story, the previously released duo of albums have been awash in vibrant sounds — including tropical house, R&B, and dreamy electro-pop– and the physical albums themselves feature are predominantly dominated by ohbangsaek, the five traditional Korean colors: yellow, red, blue, white, and black.
“Our color was always mint, or pink, or violet, or very complicated, different colors,” Key tells Billboard over a video call from Seoul, referring to the color-palettes that have typically been prominently displayed in the group’s imagery; the band’s official color is a soft greenish-blue hue known as Pearl Aqua. “But this time we wanted to show really basic-but-SHINee style.” The albums do just that, with each putting forth five sleekly produced tracks that draw on the foursome’s expressive vocals, as they flit between sonic inspirations, with dancehall beats seamlessly sitting beside ‘90s R&B melodies.
The trio of albums represent a decade’s worth of growth in the limelight, during which Onew (Lee Jin-ki), Kim Jonghyun, Lee Taemin, Key (Kim Ki-bum), and Choi Minho grew from adolescent pop hopefuls into some of the most prominent artists in the Korean entertainment field, both through their work as SHINee and also through solo endeavors. “It’s not that we decided to stay together for 10 years,” says Onew. “We didn’t promise each other, ‘Let’s stay together for 10 years.’ It just came about naturally, as we worked together. Since we’ve put a lot of effort into it too, that’s how we’ve been able to come this far.”
That transformation in the spotlight, from bright-eyed teenagers — youngest member Taemin was only 14 when the group started out in May 2008 — into some of K-pop’s most respected performers came amid a lot of hard work and dedication.
SHINee’s ability to take ownership of any music style that comes their way, and their production team’s ingenuity, has led the way on multiple occasions for several genres to thrive in South Korea — including deep house, which they first popularized in the country through “View” in 2015. They revisited similarly lush house leanings in The Story of Light through both “Good Evening,” which sampled a synth reworking of 112’s 1997 hit “Cupid,” and “I Want You,” though the final single “Our Page” will draw more heavily on the contemporary R&B leanings the quintet started out with in 2008.
“I’m really happy that we reached our 10th anniversary,” says Minho. “It’s actually hitting me now, that it’s our tenth year anniversary.” He, along with Key and Taemin, originally trained under SM to be rappers, but over the years the trio developed into talented vocalists in their own right.
But half a year away from that milestone, the group’s dynamic was torn asunder in the last weeks of 2017 by the death of Jonghyun, who passed at the age of 27. One of SHINee’s lead vocalists, and a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, his absence can be felt throughout the two currently-released The Story of Light albums, even as the other four members serve up skillful performances and reaffirm that SHINee remains bright as ever. “Jump” co-songwriter Curtis Richardson even took to Twitter to express that it felt as if Jonghyun’s distinct tone could be heard on that first EP track, while an empty chair seen at the start of the music video for “Good Evening” has similarly been seen by some fans to represent the beloved star.
The four members spoke about Jonghyun’s passing on May 30 in a touching episode of the popular Korean television show Radio Star, but have otherwise largely focused their attention not on the loss, but on the celebratory nature of an album series released in commemoration of their decade together. The name itself, The Story of Light, is a nod to the narrative nature of the trilogy; during a press conference in Seoul earlier this month, the group revealed that the “Good Evening” album represents how the public see SHINee, while the “I Want You” album reflects how they see themselves, while the final “Our Page” release is expected to similarly reflect an alternate point of view of the group.
“When you think of SHINee, you think light and colors,” says Key. “I feel that light has lightness and darkness, together. So rather than letting others define what that light is, we want to define what that light represents. Since we’re SHINee, we want to shine our way through.”