By Ashlee Mitchell
Key, Minho, Taemin, and Onew sit together, makeup-free, laughing, sipping on drinks, vibing, and generally enjoying each other’s company. It’s about 2 p.m. in Seoul, and the guys have obviously been busy with back-to-back interviews, but that doesn’t deter from the positivity they radiate on a Zoom call. One could mistake them for brothers instead of the iconic second-generation K-pop moguls they are, but that relatability in spite of their superstardom makes them SHINee.
The K-pop landscape looked very different when they debuted under SM Entertainment in 2008. SHINee entered the scene with the timeless “Replay,” an R&B jam where the fresh-faced boys sang about impressing an older woman. This debut secured their place as trendsetters in Korea, inspiring what media dubbed the “SHINee Trend” (skinny jeans, high top sneakers, etc.) and earning a devoted fan base that’s steadily grown over the last 13 years.
Released today (February 22), their seventh album, Don’t Call Me, is a nine-track effort spanning hip-hop, R&B, EDM, dance, and reggae. It’s their first comeback since 2018’s The Story of Light, and it feels like a grand return. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Key tells MTV News in English. “At the beginning of the recording it was awkward but it feels so natural now. I feel like, yeah, I’m back.” He’s attentive, thoughtful, and just funny enough, and the other members nod along as he talks. “We worked on it for about a year and a half, it’s been a long time coming.”
“Because we had a lot more time in comparison to other albums to prepare, I think the album quality is something to look forward to as well,” Onew adds.
The energetic title track, a thrilling dance song, captures complex emotions after a love betrayal. The styling is edgy and eye-catching, and the music video focuses on the intricate choreography complete with numerous background dancers. Key describes it as high-impact with a hip-hop concept, one SHINee hasn’t explored much in the past. “We just wanted for when people see SHINee’s comeback for it to have a big impact on them. I think when we were thinking about pulling together the outfits, the music video, the overall concept, that’s kind of what we were focused on.”
Fittingly, the choreography for “Don’t Call Me” is fast-paced and hard-hitting, allowing the group to challenge themselves and prove that they’re still very much capable of making a statement. “It’s going to be kind of a world-shocking/surprising performance. That’s what I am excited for,” Taemin, the youngest member, eagerly adds. Key ribs him: “That’s what Taemin said, not us,” and the members all laugh. Throughout the interview, they’ve been sharing knowing glances, and their excitement for their reunion is palpable.
When asked about the time between now and their last comeback, it's clear their bond is as strong as ever. “I don’t think too much has changed just because we like being around each other and it's awesome that we’re able to have the same great chemistry with each other,” Minho says. “I think there’s a special synergy that comes out of the four of us together.” Even as Don't Call Me marks the group's first album without any contributions from member Jonghyun, a skilled main vocalist and composer, the future of SHINee is still bright.
Over their careers, SHINee have proven to not only be vocal powerhouses, but skillful dancers and actors as well, and this new project aims to build on their musical legacy. They’ve each dabbled in various artistic industries beyond music. Minho has appeared in several K-dramas, most recently Lovestruck in the City on Netflix. Key serves as fashion director of the group in addition to designing and releasing successful solo projects like his 2019 album I Wanna Be. Leader Onew acted in hit drama, Descendants of the Sun, in 2016, in addition to releasing his first mini-album, Voice, in 2018. And then there’s Taemin, who recently dropped his two-part project, Never Gonna Dance Again, in fall 2020. As the other members fulfilled mandatory military enlistments, Taemin has grown as a genre-defying performer through solo projects and super group SuperM, keeping SHINee’s name alive for a new generation.
“It feels like I’m back with my family, like I’m right at home and I’m really comfortable with them,” Taemin says. He’s been chatty and smiling through most of the interview. “The overall atmosphere has been really great because it’s been such a long time since all of us got together. When we’re together, there’s just so much to talk about and once we start jogging back our memories of the past I realize how far we’ve all come in our career, and that’s just been really great.”
Minho chimes in on their work. “This is an album that still has SHINee’s signature sound, but also we did try out new styles and new genres of music. I think it’s not necessarily that it’s different, but it's a more developed, more mature kind of sound that we can expect from this album.”
The members have split loyalties to the tracks on Don’t Call Me. As soon as the question of favorite song is asked, Taemin shouts “CØDE!” instinctively as if he’s been waiting for the perfect time. He references collaborators LDN Noise and Kenzie, whom they’ve worked with frequently in the past. “They know SHINee’s signature sound, and while the song is still kind of light and has that refreshing signature SHINee sound that people are used to, there’s still this mature aspect to the song that shows how far SHINee has come, and I also really like the bassline for that track.”
For Minho, “Kind”, the last song on the album, is a standout. “It’s a little bit slower and the lyrics are really meaningful so I think it’s a song I would love to perform.” Key adds his pick, “For me it’s 'Heart Attack' because it has that funky feel, and it’s a song that really represents SHINee.” And though it’s hard to choose, Onew mentions the reggae dance song “Body Rhythm,” for which they worked with H1GHR Music’s Woodie Gochild on the rap. “I feel like we might not have too many chances to perform it for the fans, so it’s one of those songs that I really hope we have a chance to showcase.”
SHINee’s relationship with their fans, called Shawols, is one of the main reasons they’ve stayed dominant over the years, even in the nearly three-year gap between albums. “I know physically we can’t be together,” Key says of the effect of the pandemic on their promotions, “but through this album we just want to get one step closer to them.”
Onew concludes our chat with a message for Shawols: “Let’s have fun together, let’s keep talking, keep communicating, and thank you for waiting for so long until our comeback.” It’s official: SHINee is back.