HWANG MIN HYUN’s beautiful new start
Three reviews of HWANG MIN HYUN’s debut solo album, Truth or Lie
Article. Kang Myungseok, Kim Yunha (music critic), Kim Jieun
Design. Jeon Yurim
Photo Credit. PLEDIS Entertainment
It’s not easy being beautiful
Kang Myungseok: HWANG MIN HYUN is handsome. His first solo album, Truth or Lie, seems to embody this in a way that suggests it’s as obvious as the fact that the Earth is round. There seems to be a contradiction between the singer’s two emotional halves: the shy guy in the album opener “Honest” who can’t reveal his feelings (“I was so afraid my feelings would be revealed / That answer that was so simple / But I couldn’t be so honest about it so maybe that’s why I was wandering tonight”) and the sweet talker in “Hidden Side” (“I’ll try and take a deeper look /So you can’t get away so easily”). What this means for the listener is a chance to get acquainted with both the singer of soft, tender ballads and the attractive man in pursuit of his love interest all in one album. Like we hear in “Perfect Type” (“I’ll give you everything you’ve dreamed of / And I know I’m more than just perfect, I’m tailor-made for you”) Truth or Lie doubles down on making the very most of HWANG MIN HYUN’s charm to the point of perfection. When he sings, “One mystic cube / You’re hiding under all the colors on it,” on “CUBE,” the final track, he’s expressing his feelings to another, yet the whole of the album paints the singer as having a Rubik’s Cube-like persona: a man who disguises himself among the various colors of the cube—but that’s what makes it so enticing to try and figure him out. Truth or Lie relies on the premise that HWANG MIN HYUN is so confident in his own allure that it borders on narcissism.
But don’t misunderstand that last point. When a star capitalizes on their handsome image, it doesn’t start and stop at their outward appearance. A less well-known singer, for example, would have trouble drawing in listeners of their debut album in the same way that HWANG MIN HYUN does in Truth or Lie. In his case, it’s not his outward appearance but his voice that allows him to bring consistency to all the colors he expresses in his album. In the very first line he sings in “Hello” with NU’EST, for example, he’s able to express his burning desire for another person in a tone as pure as freshly fallen snow. There’s also something slightly seductive about Truth or Lie when he reaches his highest pitch while still hanging onto that tone in some of the sexier parts, like the lyrics to “Perfect Type.” In the intro to “Smile,” he comes across as somewhere between a boy and a young man with a soft, clear voice as he looks for a new way and leaves “without a set destination on the road.” Throughout the album, HWANG MIN HYUN tempts the listener with his full range of appeal, from innocent boy to seductive man, daring listeners to get close. But his voice on the album conveys the emotions in each song with simple clarity and no unnecessary vocal flourishes. When you dig deeper, you can feel how, whether he’s shyly speaking of love or boldly seducing, there’s a sense of trustworthiness running through the album, showing he’s someone who treats others right. If you look at Truth or Lie as a Rubik’s Cube whose complex arrangement of colors keeps HWANG MIN HYUN hidden, then the vocals are a clue that go toward helping to solve it. Adding to this is the consistent image he’s built up for himself previous to releasing this first solo album. He explored his artistry from many different angles during his 10 years with NU’EST and expanded into the acting realm when he appeared in the tvN drama Alchemy of Souls. But whether it’s the consistent image presented by his voice and appearance or his everyday habits like taking pictures and keeping his home tidy, his character becomes clearer and clearer over time. It’s all this time and effort that has made him a solo artist who piques the curiosity of others. When they say this artist is 10 years into his career and not only handsome but holding onto that image of handsomeness, that’s what they’re talking about.
It’s a voyage, and you’re the destination
Kim Yunha (music critic): I sometimes wonder how many people are behind a typical K-pop group, album or song. Surely there’s dozens; including every hand helping indirectly, it would easily become hundreds. What’s really important is keeping conditions clockwork, where a large group of people can move in perfect unison without faltering so that what they produce is rock solid. In an environment such as this one, it was inevitable that ideas like one-off concepts and fictional universes would become the most noteworthy, most indispensable characteristics of K-pop. In order to bring together people with different personalities, qualities and talents so they could create something compelling and improve it further, a master plan was needed. We raised the anchor. From now on, we’re on a new voyage. We need to find a new way that no one’s ever taken before. So—where are we off to?
Before that throng of people, HWANG MIN HYUN’s first solo album, Truth or Lie, gives that destination: “Our goal is none other than you, HWANG MIN HYUN.” It's been 11 years since he debuted in 2012 as a member of NU’EST, and Truth or Lie is the first album he’s released under his own name since he began his career as a singer all those years ago. When you make your solo debut after spending so much time as part of a group, you more or less have two options: One, shine all the charm you already proved you have with all your time with the old group through a prism; two, blaze a trail so radically new that it becomes difficult for people to imagine who you were beforehand.
HWANG MIN HYUN’s choice is closer to the former option, and it’s a perfectly understandable choice. The soft, cool and sophisticated look and voice he cultivated during his time with NU’EST were already the full package. With a cold but welcoming electronic sound and a unique sensuality that draws attention to itself with an unknown power that appears harmless and has you lowering your guard before you know it, the lead single “Hidden Side” is a model K-pop track. “Perfect Type” is straightforward seduction but in a safe space, assuring someone that he will grant them everything they can dream of. “CUBE,” the last track, cools thing down but his affections remain as hot as ever. Those songs are consistent in both mood and sound.
But it’s here where HWANG MIN HYUN’s Truth or Lie gets interesting. The tracks above are all even-numbered (two, four and six), but the odd-numbered tracks—one, three and five—show a less familiar side of the singer. The first track, “Honest,” is an honest and whispery lullaby set to a calming piano and string combination. “Crossword” gets cozy, spreading out into a jumble of rhythms and words. “Smile” avoids anxiety in the face of total uncertainty and instead relishes in the freedom to keep moving forward. The order of the tracks come across as mischievous, even like a sweet and salty mixture—like they’re constantly asking, “truth or lie?” where the destination will clearly be HWANG MIN HYUN regardless. Rather than hand out a clear definition of who HWANG MIN HYUN is, the six songs tucked into Truth or Lie are more like questions in a hat that task the listener with determining what kind of person and what kind of singer he seems to be. A somewhat cheeky move, perhaps, but a game nevertheless where the listener must reach a conclusion by the end. But there are no stakes here because the purpose of the voyage isn’t the answer but the question itself. The singer and listener are engaged in an endless back and forth—whether it’s a truth or a lie—as they embark on a journey they want to believe will never end. This is, after all, only the beginning.
BeLIEve what you want
Kim Jieun: HWANG MIN HYUN’s first solo album is an exercise in contrasts, as the title Truth or Lie suggests. For example, the official photos for the album focus separately on black and white, the Hidden version showing him approaching a black table in a black suit buttoned right up to the neck, while in the “Broken” version he’s surrounded by white curtains and white candles and wearing a white jacket over his bare chest. In fact, the Hidden version shows the artist between black and white as it includes a picture of him sitting center and looking down his nose at the camera with a white flower and a black apple on either side of him. On the six-track album itself, HWANG MIN HYUN begins by covering himself up in the first track (“Honest”), metaphorically painting over himself so “no one really knows me” as he’s “afraid my heart will be caught,” while in the following track (“Hidden Side”) he opens himself up, singing, “Every little feeling / Don’t miss out,” and instructing the listener to “look inside and find my hidden side.” Contrasting pairs of himself coexist within the album, like the version of himself who exists “under one or two layers of perspectives” belonging to other people (“Crossword”) and the version who “closes his ears to what the world says” and can “forget what others see” (“Smile”). There’s also the confident side who’s able to “offer everything you’ve dreamed of … perfectly” (“Perfect Type”) and an “empty,” lonely side who “circles in one spot … stuck in a cube,” unable to find himself or anyone else (“CUBE”). HWANG MIN HYUN presents a list of contrasting personal traits throughout the album, and with the title Truth or Lie he entices listeners to guess which is the real HWANG MIN HYUN.
There’s a line toward the end of the Hidden version mood film released ahead of the album: “BeLIEve what you want.” In the video, five copies of HWANG MIN HYUN are sitting in a circle and talking, all in different poses and wearing unique facial expressions. The meaning here and the answer to which HWANG MIN HYUN represents how the truth is ultimately that you can believe whatever you want to. This seems to explain how he comes across so differently in each song yet the attitude penetrating the album from start to finish is consistent throughout. In “Hidden Side,” he invites the listener to “look inside and find my hidden side” while simultaneously explaining that “you can fill it however you feel.” In “Crossword,” he instructs us to figure him out “in the way your heart says” and look at him “the way your eyes are drawn.” The same is true in “Perfect Type,” where he’s not simply “my perfect self” but someone “who can give you everything you want.” Regardless of what HWANG MIN HYUN shows us, he’ll always be whatever you want to believe he is. Just like he sings in the single “Hidden Side,” he’s asking people who listen to the album to guess at who he is, confident that “everything lies beyond expectations” and that he “will captivate you” with “no warning.” In the end, the contrast between black and white, and between truth and lie, are actually devices to show off what he’s capable of. HWANG MIN HYUN is an artist who is right at home in a variety of genres and approaches, singing a soft ballad in the opener “Honest” and showing off his seductive “Hidden Side” on the same album. Rather than taking his first solo album as an excuse to explain who he is in concrete detail, he takes the opportunity to gently persuade the listener with his charm, daring them to take a chance and guess who he really is. It’s the perfect way for a bold, seductive and brilliant artist to show himself off to the world.
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