By Alexis Hodoyan-Gastelum
When Kang Daniel walked into the hotel room, not a hair on his newly dyed ash-blue head was out of place, nor a visible crease marred his impeccable makeup, as he took a seat by a window overlooking the Hollywood Hills. And yet, he tried to hide his tired eyes behind a kind smile. In true K-pop fashion, the singer was on a tight schedule. Fresh off the set of his “2U” music video at the historic 1930s Los Angeles Theatre, he'd just returned to his hotel, ready to talk openly about the last few months of his life. This was his first round of international press since stepping away from music to focus on himself at the end of 2019, and he was visibly a little nervous. He dressed in a red and grey plaid flannel shirt and patched jeans; the casual look and timid demeanor seemingly more fitting for an average 23-year-old than for one of South Korea's foremost pop starlets. But that's the allure of Kang Daniel: the boy next door who loves his cats and has a magnetic charisma.
Just a few days prior, news of a reality TV show, Hello Daniel, which he filmed part of in the United States, had been announced, but the details surrounding his trip to Los Angeles were kept under wraps. “This reality show is the first thing that I have done after my break,” Kang told MTV News with the help of a translator. “On this show, I traveled around, and I think that you will be able to see how happy I was and how I have been enjoying my daily life.”
That feeling didn't always come easy to Kang. In December, amidst a busy promotional cycle for the sultry single “Touchin’,” the singer took an extended hiatus from the spotlight to focus on his physical and mental well-being. Kang’s management company, Konnect Entertainment, announced through his fancafé that a weak immune system and growing anxiety were the reasons for the break: “We reached the conclusion that sufficient rest and stability is of the highest priority for the artist’s health and safety,” the online statement read.
“2U,” written and produced by the Korean-American artist Chancellor with Kang in mind, marked his highly anticipated return to the public eye. The single was laid-back, tinged with R&B flourishes and airy, tender vocals about being there for a person who is struggling. The title was a play on the English meaning “going to you” and the Korean pronunciation, sounding similar to the word “reason (lee-you).” This lent the song another meaningful interpretation: “The reason I do this is you.”
The song not only matched Kang's new optimistic mindset but also the overall sunny vibe of his newest EP, Cyan. “I didn’t expect this song to be well-matched with LA,” he explained, referencing the effervescent tone of the release. “I really liked the music video. I think the inspiration and the vibe of this place is well connected to the concept of the song and to me.”
Cyan also includes “Adulthood,” which marked Kang’s sole writing credit on the release, as well as the refreshingly synth-rich “Jealous” and the groovy, punchy “Interview.” The mini-album kicked off Kang’s three-part project “Color,” with each release planned around a different hue that will metaphorically embody the changing moods the singer experiences. For Cyan, a reference to the light, greenish-blue tone, he wanted to project a "positive energy" through his music. “I put my dream, passion, and challenges into the clear and fresh color of cyan," he shared.
Similar to the song, the music video for “2U” featured a far more relaxed Kang. The performance caliber is still intact, akin to the dynamic quality of what he showed in previous visuals, but there's something noticeably looser and less strained about this version of the singer; the tone was silly and playful. And though he filmed the video in just one day, with very little time to rest given his packed schedule, Kang had a lot of fun. “I love movies,” he said. “As soon as I first entered the theater, I was overwhelmed by the wonderful view, so I was very excited because I felt like I was in a movie.”
It was an apt sentiment given that Kang’s meteoric rise in South Korea, from an underdog trainee from a lesser-known company to the industry's top idol, sounds like it was ripped from the pages of a screenplay. The public first met Kang in 2017 when he participated in the second season of the reality competition show Produce 101, in which 101 trainees compete for 11 positions in a temporary boy group. Week after week, he rose up the ranks, starting from No. 23 and ultimately becoming the nation's No. 1 pick — a designation that earned him the center position of the wildly successful group, Wanna One. After promoting as a unit for over a year and putting out four albums that skyrocketed to the top of the charts in South Korea, Wanna One parted ways. While the other members embarked on speedy solo efforts and joined emerging boy groups, Kang took his lucrative career into his own hands, successfully terminating his exclusive contract with his prior entertainment company and founding his own management company, Konnect Entertainment. A month after announcing his new agency, Kang made his official solo debut in July 2019 with his EP Color On Me, a testament to his diligence and passion for performing.
His next release, “Touchin’,” showed off his sexy side, which he accompanied with the personal and introspective B-side “Adulthood” in December. The track articulated the frustrations that come with growing up, something Kang has experienced before an international audience of millions. “When you’re at this age, you often reminisce about the things you did when you were younger, like not having responsibilities or being able to just be immature,” he explained of the song. After all, Kang wasn't only a young artist under constant public scrutiny burdened to live up to the moniker of “the nation’s center,” but also a CEO responsible for an entire team of people. “Sometimes, we all crave that deep down. And because of all these burdens and responsibilities that are on you, people just want to run away.”
After only a week of promotions, which often consist of appearances on South Korea's many weekly music programs in addition to variety show visits and fan engagements, his company announced that he would be taking a break due to the poor state of his mental health. Like many other artists in the Korean entertainment ecosystem, Kang has been the constant subject of malicious comments and online rumors, which eventually took a toll. Given the current conversation around pop idols and mental health — with many high-profile artists pausing their activities to focus on treatment — his fans, called Danity, supported Kang's decision to take his time. During that period of rest, however, the singer was surprised by how much he longed to perform again.
“While I was taking a break, I didn’t think I was gonna feel anything when I saw other idols perform on stage,” he explained. “But when I actually did, I felt like I could also be doing that. I also know how to perform, and I know I’m good at it, so I wanted to return as soon as possible.”
When asked about how he feels now, Kang paused. “First of all, I want to say that I’m doing well,” he affirmed as he raised a hand to his chin. “When I’m at home, I’m just playing with my cats — everyone knows about my cats. I had time to really organize my thoughts, and, to be honest, I’ve never felt more alive.”
“I realized I love this job a lot more than I actually thought,” he continued. “When I was on a break, rather than thinking about whether I was going to continue with my career or not, I was taking my time to really think about what I wanted to do. And consciously, I felt like there were things I wanted to do on stage, and I had all these random ideas popping into my head about what I want to be doing on stage and with songwriting.”
As a result, he returned with an even stronger sense of self and direction, as both a human and as an artist who has something to give to the world. Kang said he believes he’s the only person who truly knows what he’s good at, so he personally chose the themes for this release, in addition to working on the choreography and being involved in the production of his music video. Being this hands-on made him a lot more appreciative of the entire creative process. And, most importantly, it made him excited for the future now that he has a better grasp on it.
“I am happy to release a new album and perform again," he said. "I feel like I’m back to the moment of debut. This album is very precious and important, and on the other hand, it also feels like a challenge."
In many ways, even at the height of his popularity, Kang said he still feels like "a gem that's waiting to be discovered" and he hopes to continue to refine his artistry. Coming out of this dark period, the “Color” series is a reset for the idol. It will follow Kang’s journey to find himself and show his true colors. He’s never been more hopeful, and the content afterglow of his music reflects that.
As for where he sees himself 10 years from now, the possibilities are endless, but one thing is for sure: “I hope to look back and see myself as an artist who produced a lot of songs that I can look back on and be like, ‘Damn, that was pretty good,’” he said with a hearty chuckle.