Straight from the dungeons of rap, where fake writers don’t make it back, here’s Elaine Nguyen with this week’s Idol Talk.
On January 18, 2021, legendary Korean hip-hop group Epik High released their tenth studio album, Epik High Is Here 上 (Part 1). The album includes numerous features from prominent figures in the Korean music industry, but one particular name leaped out at me when I spotted it on the tracklist: B.I.
Rapper B.I, or Kim Hanbin, was Epik High’s labelmate during their YG days and featured on their 2014 track “Born Hater” alongside Bobby, with whom he later debuted in boy group iKON. His 2021 appearance on Epik High’s “Acceptance Speech” is notable because it marks his first official release since he terminated his contract with YG and departed the idol industry following a drug scandal in 2019. (Police investigation ultimately concluded that he never actually purchased or consumed illegal drugs despite an attempt to do so, for which B.I apologized to his fans and iKON members.) Since then, he’s kept a low profile, showing his face only at a handful of volunteer events in support of marginalized people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of the lingering controversy attached to his name, B.I was concerned that his feature “might cause trouble” for Epik High. Nonetheless, the trio — who are no strangers themselves to public controversy — persuaded him. Co-written by B.I, “Acceptance Speech” chronicles the walls Epik High have thrown up and the facades they’ve donned after being abandoned countless times.
Surprisingly, B.I doesn’t rap at all on this track. Instead, he sings: “The dark clouds are still clouds / Come to think of it, they look like me / A bitter smile is still a smile / Because I live in a world where there’s nothing to laugh about.” There’s a compellingly raw, almost rambling quality to his voice, and I felt tears prick my eyes the first time I heard his line “I’m coming home” in the bridge.
If “Acceptance Speech” was B.I’s declaration that he’s coming home, you could say that he’s fully returned with the release of his EP Midnight Blue (LOVE STREAMING) on March 19. With just three songs, it’s a deeply personal project. All profits from the album are being donated to “support children in crisis”, and B.I expressed his wish for his music to “be a comfort to anyone who is enduring [their] wound alone” in the album announcement.
The title track, “Midnight Blue,” certainly embodies comfort. Its animated music video depicts a protagonist (presumably representing B.I himself) who struggles with depression before a stranger whisks him away to an idyllic dreamscape. The next morning, the cuts on his face have been bandaged, symbolically suggesting that he has begun to heal.
“Midnight Blue” is a tender pop ballad that opens heart-wrenchingly with the lyric “Having grown up too fast, our hearts are too fragile.” Closing out the song, however, is the assurance that “I’ll keep [your heart] warm with a blanket … So go ahead and cry.” B.I’s supporters bandaged his wounds and restored color to his life, and he’s returning the favor.
B-sides “Remember Me” and “Blossom” are even more stripped back and intimate — the former, in particular, makes me feel like I’m sitting in an echoey garage watching B.I pluck it out on his acoustic guitar. Both clearly reference his time in iKON, and the fanbase and members that he left behind. In “Remember Me,” he implores, “Will you remember me / Even if dust accumulates over the memory as time passes by?”; in “Blossom”, he professes, “Thanks to you, I lived a good life.” This emotional vulnerability is an incredible gesture toward the fans who have been mostly in the dark on his daily life and wellbeing. (And it’s safe to say that they remembered him.)
Frankly, I’m not sure what I expected from B.I’s first post-iKON solo release, but what I got was a ten-minute hug. Listening to these songs, I’m reminded of an episode of 2018’s YouTube reality series iKON TV, in which B.I dines with the show’s production staff after a hike. Tipsy off his sparkling fruit beer, he reflects on his “fierce, glaring eyes” as a freshly-debuted teenager in 2015. “But our break helped me turn more easygoing,” he says, referring to the year-long hiatus iKON took between “#WYD” and New Kids: Begin. “I became a softer guy. My eyes look sadder now. I like how things are now.”
This year, B.I concluded an even longer break. His voice sounds softer. His eyes look sadder. And I sincerely hope he likes how things are now.