NI-KI was explaining in a deep seriousness the process he goes through to absorb a performance. Then, with a single compliment on his skills, his face lit up like a little boy’s would. Here was a 16-year-old boy looking to be praised for the performances he lives for—a boy enjoying his time with the other members of his group, but missing his family all the same. (Interviewed December 2021)
I heard you didn’t sleep in the same bed as any of the other members once this year. (laughs)
NI-KI: Yes. (laughs) It was always a habit of mine to fall asleep while cuddling my younger sister so starting with the I-LAND days I always fell asleep hugging a body pillow or one of the other members, but as we got busier the others sometimes had a hard time with it and I thought I should sleep alone now, too. Now that I tried it, I think it’s more comfortable sleeping alone. I have corrected that habit now. (laughs)
It looks like you love making mischief and playing sports as much as ever. (laughs)
NI-KI: I guess because I’m more energetic than the other members. (laughs) And it’s fun because they take it really well. I usually play catch ball or kick it around a bit before dance practice. I think it’s become my routine to do tha before practice, kind of like stretching to loosen up. I feel energized after playing around like that.
It seems like energetic activities are important to you. I heard you’re working out with a punching bag at home these days.
NI-KI: Yes, I am. It’s nice to lie down at home, but I love to exercise, so when I feel stuffy or I want to move around I use the punching bag a bit. It relieves stress really well, too.
It must be important to take care of your body appropriately to keep on top of such a packed schedule.
NI-KI: So I feel like I need to have time alone at home. These days I make time to take a really long shower or be alone and think. I think that way I can face the next day, too. I like other people’s company so I’m kind of noisy when I’m with other people, but when I’m alone, I’m very quiet and concentrate on what I have on hand.
That contradiction was demonstrated in EN-loG when you paint by yourself versus play baseball with JAKE. You looked so serious when you were painting.
NI-KI: I’ve been really interested in artistic things like painting and photography since I was little even though no one ever made me do them and I never specifically studied them. I did drawing as a hobby, where I looked at photos and painted them, but EN-loG was actually the first time I used a brush, so I didn’t try too hard. I don’t know a lot about the field yet so I’d like to try a bit harder to become a more artistic person someday.
I remember you named your painting Nothingness. Do you like books or other works that stir up emotions?
NI-KI: I’ve never read a book all the way to the end in my life. (laughs) I like to move around, so it feels restrictive to just sit there and read a book. I usually get inspiration for my performances and other activities by watching things—anything from TV dramas to movies and variety shows. For example, since the concept behind the performance for our last single was rugby, I watched some teen movies.
You did a very new and different but still rugby-related performance at the 2021 Mnet Asian Music Awards [MAMA] just recently. You must have paid close attention during practice to be able to control the ball like that.
NI-KI: Anything could go wrong in that performance, so I figured, go big or go home! (laughs) But I was confident it would turn out well because I practiced a lot. There was a string attached to the ball when SUNOO and I play with it to make it look like magic, but we had to line up our timing with the beat and there’s a lot going on you have to pay attention to, so I think it’s pretty impressive we pulled all that off in such a short time. That part looks good because it’s all prerecorded, but later on I want to put on a similarly risky performance live.
You have a solo moment in the intro where you use props and perform moves you normally don’t, and you marry krumping, old school dance and more into the dance break. How did you feel incorporating these new elements into your routine?
NI-KI: I had a ton of fun. It looks cool when I’m just dancing, too, but I could tell I enjoyed using props, or doing new movements, or trying out new things related to the concept. When I do a good job, I feel like my skillset takes a leap forward. It’s also a chance to show what makes my dancing so appealing in a new way.
Maybe that’s why your ability to tell a story through your solo dances seemed so much better after the 2021 NEW YEAR’S EVE LIVE concert.
NI-KI: Back last year, when we had just recently debuted, the only thought in my head was to perform the choreography I was given well, but I started to focus on immersing myself in the choreography in a way that reflects the song and then express the emotion from there, so I think there was a slight difference in my delivery. I had to show pain in the performance. I wanted to dance with emotion and capture that feeling so that anyone watching would sympathize with it.
The lead single of the new repackaged album is “Blessed-Cursed.” What was your focal point for this song?
NI-KI: Showing off my abilities in my solo part and focusing on the group dance. The choreography takes a lot of energy throughout, so that was a good song to show off our ENHYPEN-ness. I paid close attention to the moves and little details so all the members could look like they were moving as one. This is our first song to go for a hip but also old-school style at the same time, and I think it’s the coolest thing we’ve done so far. I love it. If you watch the verse where I lead the performance closely, the choreography feels like a mix of old and new styles. It’s pretty unique. But that’s a really good fit for the way I move, so I wanted to express everything in a way that made my movements stand out in a charismatic way at the same time as capturing the style of the dance.
I imagine you found the “Legend of K-POP” cover performance you did for KBS Song Festival to be a lot of help toward understanding how to dance in that older style. The singing and dancing must have felt especially unfamiliar to you.
NI-KI: You’re right. There were a lot of songs I didn’t know, so I studied by watching a lot of videos of the original artists, and I could sense the dances gradually approaching present-day styles as time went on. I was a little shocked how the early songs were so totally different from the style you see these days. It was sort of tough because the way they dance to the beat and use their bodies was all different and there were a ton of different little details here and there, and now I have a newfound appreciation for the older dances. So I practiced each part by adjusting my movements to match the style and key points of each artist.
You danced to BTS’s song “Fire” for a test on I-LAND, then again with TOMORROW X TOGETHER. You also once said that you really wanted to be on stage with YEONJUN someday. Not only did your wish come true, but I could tell how much improvement you made in your ability to perform over time.
NI-KI: I was so excited that what I said all that time ago became a reality. (laughs) I was grateful for the TOMORROW X TOGETHER members looking after me and keeping the atmosphere of the practices fun, and I learned a lot from seeing their passion for performing and how they deal with details. I was really lackluster on I-LAND because I didn’t know what it means to be on stage or how important it is, but after a year of experience on the stage I think I came across as a true artist, including in my facial expressions and gestures.
It feels like the sum of your passion for, and efforts toward, performing were on clear display during your year-end performances.
NI-KI: I was really jittery and nervous for the year-end performances one year ago, but I prepared this time thinking I’d use what I learned from our other performances to improve myself and show everyone how much my skills have improved. Not only that, there were many in-person performances this time, so I channeled my good nerves into a better performance. It was a great experience, full of new challenges, but, to be honest, I tend to be hard on myself when every performance is over, so I think I should learn from this experience and work hard to level up my performance next year.
I can sense your vocals are getting better bit by bit, too. There’s something charming about the difference between your low and high notes.
NI-KI: ENGENE seems to like the way my voice sounded when I rapped in “Go Big or Go Home,” so I try to sing with a mix of that feeling and mellow low notes on deep parts. For slightly higher parts, I think it’s a little more important to emphasize the feeling of the lyrics. I’m still at the point where I’m growing, so I practice a lot.
You debuted in Japan this year and then appeared on music TV shows and did an assortment of other promotional activities. It must have felt very special to you.
NI-KI: I didn’t realize I’d end up debuting in Japan so soon. It felt strange but also amazing. I was relieved that they liked us in Japan as much as they seemed to. (laughs)
I imagine you might have felt somewhat pressured, as you sometimes had to take on multiple roles and represent the group.
NI-KI: Ah, there were quite a lot. I’m the only Japanese member of the group so I kept thinking I needed to lead them well. I also felt a lot of responsibility whenever I went on TV by myself (laughs) so I was really relieved to see we did as well as we did. I’m really proud to be promoting in Japan as a member of ENHYPEN.
What was your family’s reaction?
NI-KI: My sister’s still so young so she doesn’t seem to really understand what’s going on, but still, I heard lots of people at her school know about us. (laughs) I hope things improve soon so we can see them in person.
We could see tears in your eyes at the EN-CONNECT: COMPANION fan meeting concert when you said you missed your family. When do you miss them the most?
NI-KI: Sometimes, when my schedule’s really full, my family are the first ones to come to mind. Whenever I was having a hard time in Japan, my parents were right there with me, but now that we live apart I miss them so much. The other members can at least visit their families at home during vacation, so I get a bit lonely then and want to go to Japan.
I feel like the members fill up that void for you. You sounded very sincere on your birthday recently when you said you’re happy because the other members are there with you and that you don’t need anything when they’re with you.
NI-KI: I’m so lucky to have them. I’m grateful that they take care of me at all times. I’m really grateful that they all listen to my thoughts and opinions, too. And I share something in common with every single one of them, so living together is really fun. For example, I have fun talking with SUNOO, and it’s easy to spend time with JAKE because we share hobbies like working out and share the same views on trivial matters.
That birthday V LIVE was the first time you streamed alone, without any of the other members there. Your language skills really improved, too, which was a nice surprise.
NI-KI: Now that I think about it, it’s been about two and a half years since I moved to Korea. I felt anxious at one point after coming here because the language is hard, but I guess I also grew a lot. That was my first time doing a V LIVE on my own, so it felt weird and I felt nervous at first, but once I got into it I felt really comfortable. Like doing it by myself was actually more comfortable, somehow. (laughs) When I did it with the other members, everyone was constantly saying their own thing and it got hectic (laughs) but then I did it alone I could concentrate better and therefore communicate a little better with ENGENE. Seeing the comments about me and replying to them was especially nice, so I think I should do it more often.
There’s been a lot of reactions whenever you make ENGENE’s hearts melt with all your quips at fan signing events. (laughs)
NI-KI: Haha! I wasn’t like that in the beginning, but then I started to feel like, Oh, they like it when I talk like that. (laughs) The people who love us and want to see us come give us their time and dedication, you know. I want to make it as fun for them as they do for me to repay them. I want us to be able to enjoy that time together as much as possible, even if it’s short.
You always say you want to be an adult. What’s the reason behind you wanting to grow up so quickly?
NI-KI: Because I’m really jealous that the other members are all joining the world of adults one by one. (laughs)
There’s probably some ENGENE who are sad to see you growing up. (laughs)
NI-KI: Speaking of which, I had intense growing pains up until recently. I think ENGENE are sort of surprised how much I’ve grown in the past year. (laughs) Somehow, after I grew taller, and especially since I used to have brightly colored hair and changed it back to black like this, I think a lot of people feel like my image has changed. I had black hair back in I-LAND, too, but even I can tell I’ve grown a ton compared to back then.
Do you feel you’ve grown inside in any way?
NI-KI: I have more thoughts now, I think. Nowadays I think a lot about things I never used to feel. I argued a lot with my mom when I was going through puberty, for example, but now that I can’t be with her I can tell how important family is, and I keep thinking I should cherish things while they’re here. (laughs)
What kind of person do you think you were in 2021, when you were 15 years old?
NI-KI: I was still a baby-baby, and my performances still had a long way to go. So I had a lot left to learn. I learned and experienced so much this year that I can put to good use to grow even more next year and become an amazing artist.
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