Over the past seven years, Zico has made himself a household name in the South Korean music scene. As both a soloist and as the leader of K-pop boy band Block B, the 26-year-old has transcended stereotypes in the industry to go onto becoming one of Korea’s most recognized artists and songwriters. He’s seen hit after hit since 2015, coming into his own with a flare for diversity: he’s leaned into swaggering hip-hop on the likes of “Okey Dokey” with WINNER’s Mino, shown a dramatic flair on smoldering alt-R&B songs like “Bermuda Triangle” with Dean and Crush, shared his playful side on “Boys and Girls” with Babylon, and showcased a bit of sweet sentimentality through tracks like “I Am You, You Are Me.”
For Zico, born Woo Jiho, there’s no real limit to the sort of music he wants to pursue. “There are many different sides to me,” he said backstage ahead of a recent New York City solo show, adding that he wants people to see that he incorporates a wide variety of genres into his songs. He draws inspiration from the music that he’s listening to at any given moment and, like frequent collaborator Crush, even though September’s passed he’s recently been listening to Earth, Wind & Fire.
While performing at the Playstation Theater, the final Stateside stop of his King of the Zungle world tour, Zico ran through the diverse stylings of his discography, and even threw in a solo version of Block B’s rambunctious 2016 single “Her.” When asked how he felt about performing for the first time in the city on his own, he laughed. “Last night, I came to Times Square and I was thinking, ‘Oh, this would be cool to perform at,’” when he saw the venue from the outside. “But I didn’t know that this was the place where I’d be performing, so I was very surprised.”
But being able to play a venue in the heart of Times Square with a capacity of over 2,000 hasn’t come easily to Zico. Two years into its career, Block B brought, and lost, a lawsuit against its former label on grounds of non-payment, eventually leaving it and moving to Seven Season Entertainment, which continues to manage the team. Zico personally struggled as well; as an underground rapper turned K-pop star, typically known as idols, he faced criticism of selling-out. “There were a lot of prejudices and biased views of me when I started off as an idol group member,” he recalled. “That really can’t be helped, but I just steadily did my thing and enjoyed it, not letting the stigma hinder me and my music. People started to turn around and began to accept me.”
Accepting is an understatement; over the years he’s proven his worth as an artist, comfortable both within a boy band and without. Since 2015, he has regularly topped Korean music charts and has been nominated and awarded at year-end South Korean award shows for his musical efforts. Does he feel that this generation of K-pop rappers face the same stigma that he once did from the now-mainstream hip-hop scene in Korea? “I think there are new prejudices and biases that people have about K-pop and idol rappers,” said Zico. “Whoever and wherever, there are prejudices and there are biases, and no matter what I or anyone else does those remain. It may not be the same ones, they may shift slightly, but those prejudices still remain.”
The Korean music world is changing extremely fast, Zico admits, and those biases are changing with them, both within and outside of South Korea. “The fact that there are so many people, globally, outside of Korea that are listening to K-pop… I don’t know, it’s just a boom a little bit out of nowhere instead of a steady growth so I’m still a little bit shocked at how that spread has spread. It’s really great to see what BTS has done.” Zico himself is helping expand South Korean music’s reach; earlier this year, he was part of a contingent of artists that performed in North Korea during an Inter-Korean summit.
While K-pop’s momentum internationally, particularly in the States, picked up in 2018, the past 11 months have largely been quiet ones for Zico. Focusing on his tour, he’s only released a sole single this year, August’s “SoulMate” with South Korea’s “little sister” IU, arguably the country’s most popular female soloist of the decade.
A mellow duet that he describes as an “R&B soul song,” Zico’s latest single topped South Korea’s Gaon Chart for the 31st week of 2018. “I feel very proud of my accomplishments and how far I’ve come since the early days of my career. In the Korean hierarchy, IU is a senior since she debuted first. I was so happy to work with her again since she’s someone I really respect and whose music I like. I don’t know, everything fell together and I was really lucky to get to work together and release this song with her.” The lighthearted single was the first time the pair had collaborated since IU’s saccharine 2009 single “Marshmallow.”
What’s next for Zico? “I’m always producing and making music, and right now I’m trying to figure out what direction I’m moving in next,” he said. “I’ve worked with a couple of artists and featured on some songs, but I don’t know when it’ll be released yet. So people should be on the lookout.”