On stage Taeyang is captivating, with vocals and a stage presence that exudes confidence and charisma. One of South Korea’s most popular R&B K-pop idols, he’s made his name (and career) as a member of BIGBANG. But that’s only the beginning for the 29-year-old, whose also seen success with his solo releases, though he remains true to his origins.
“All things, to me, go back to being a member of BIGBANG,” the artist tells Billboard.
Decked out in black sweats and Balenciaga high tops, he exuded simplicity in comparison to the flair of his bedazzled and befeathered, primarily white, stage outfits. “I would describe myself as a very plain but very honest person,” he says. “I don’t really hype myself up with fancy things. I do a lot less than other celebrities because I like being honest. I just want the audience to see that the performances are a real representation of myself.”
Unlike his bandmate G-Dragon — whose existential crisis in the face of lifelong stardom was the focal point of his New York City concert in July — the artist sees little difference between who he is as Taeyang, a stage name meaning “sun” in Korean, and as Dong Youngbae, his given name. “Taeyang has a microphone and makeup, and Youngbae doesn’t,” he said with a characteristically wry grin.
Eleven years into his career as a member of one of South Korea’s most acclaimed boy bands, his Sept. 1 concert at the Theater at MSG in New York was the singer’s first ever solo show in the United States, one of six stateside performances on his White Night tour. Part showcase for his new album and part testament to his long-lived career — he performed BIGBANG’s hits “Bang Bang Bang,” “Fantastic Baby,” and “Last Dance,” the latter of which he revealed was originally meant as a solo track– the White Night concert will be the last time many fans are able to see the K-pop star for the next few years. It also serves as a farewell tour before he is begins his compulsory service with South Korea’s military in upcoming months.
With a small laugh, the artist acknowledged that the album’s release and the accompanying concert series were driven by the upcoming event in his life — like all able-bodied South Korean men, Taeyang must take a break from his career to fulfill his mandatory duty. “The album just conveniently became finished around now,” he said. “I started getting to work on it earnestly at the beginning of this year, but actually began working on new music whenever I had any free time since the  Rise album.”
While Rise served as a lesson in production, taking four years to complete, it was created as he was going through some hard times and the lengthy process made Taeyang feel the need to start something new. “I just wanted to finish it and start off with a fresh slate,” he said. And so he went into the new project that would become White Night with a different state of mind than how he created the previous album: “I wanted to express a more honest version of myself, I wanted to be more genuine. At the same time, I wanted to experience a broader musical spectrum and bring it into my music.”
Taeyang followed the titular concepts of his past albums, all of which have related to the celestial body he takes his stage name from, and picked White Night — or a night that never is properly dark — for the name of his next project. “It’s a natural phenomena and so I wanted to conjure that imagery into a sound.” The building “White Night” intro track served as a dynamic opener that would set the tone for the whole work and grab listeners’ attentions, while the album ends things off with “Tonight,” a laid back jam featuring Zico that Taeyang says is a song “reminiscent of a strong burning sun.”
“Musically, I wanted to come up with a timeless feeling to present to my fans, that felt both new and very original at the same time. It has chic beats and is very experimental, and incorporates a lot of different kinds of music,” he said. Keeping with the classic vibes, Taeyang drew inspiration from three greats when considering what step or sound to take next on White Night: Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury and Prince.
Working on new music in anticipation of his next album while prepping for BIGBANG’s MADE album ended up working out nicely for Taeyang; his latest single “Darling” was originally intended to be his solo track on the band’s album. But the song’s mellifluous piano chord wasn’t clicking with the melody originally planned for it and Taeyang didn’t feel comfortable including the solo in what would be the group’s last album before members began enlisting.”Darling” was eventually rejected for MADE and put on a hard drive’s back burner. “But while I was working with my team to conceptualize White Night, we hit writer’s block and couldn’t come up with a single that I felt would resonate with listeners,”he said. “I wanted something with a similar feel to ‘Eyes, Nose, Lips,’ a similar flow, a similar style, but that had even deeper emotional depth. And that’s when I remembered the older song.”
Taeyang’s quintessential R&B ballad “Eyes, Nose, Lips” played a major role in guiding White Night, with YG Entertainment head Yang Hyun Suk opting for the familiar vibe of “Darling” as White Night’s lead single despite the singer himself preferring the hazy synths of “Wake Me Up.” “After recording it, we all really liked [“Wake Me Up”] and thought that it would be the song that represents the entire album and would become a song that shows a new style of vocal performance from me,” he said. “It’d be an optimal way to show a new side to my music.” The song ended up getting its own glitter-infused music video but wasn’t promoted formally as a single.
Another personal favorite of Taeyang’s on White Night is “Ride,” the first song that was created explicitly for the album: “It has a vibe that I really enjoy, and a kind of classic feel that reminds me of Michael Jackson’s music. I want people to start liking this style because it’s my favorite, so I hope to make more songs like this in the future.”
With an eye on the trends, and charts, Taeyang worked with his team to craft White Night as an album that would suitably follow up the success of Rise and appeal to the public. But while the new album resonated with stateside K-pop fans and has remained steady atop of the World Album chart for two weeks, neither “Darling” nor the album saw widespread success in Korea once it dropped. “I really want to know why [it failed to chart in Korea],” he told Billboard. “I was really satisfied with the album, the songwriting process, prepping for the concert, everything. It was one of the most fulfilling seasons of my career. But, at the same time, Korean charts are really important for me as a Korean artist working with a Korean production team. People may not understand it now, but hopefully someday White Night will be appreciated in the future by listeners. I’m so satisfied that I’m able to create an album like this in my career right now.”
Though White Night will be the last album from Taeyang before he enlists, he’ll be around for quite a bit longer, and will even drop some new music before he goes on hiatus. After finishing up his White Night tour, he’ll join the three other non-enlisted members of BIGBANG at year-end performances and then he plans to release a track in collaboration with the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics in his role as an Olympic ambassador.