B.I Opens Up: K-pop Star Talks Love, Ambition and the Year That Nearly Broke Him

·13 min read

B.I (Kim Hanbin) has spent a lot of time recently thinking about love and being young. He’s also been hitting the gym and studying for the Korean History Proficiency Exam, a test that’s notoriously difficult and usually taken by history buffs or those wanting to impress future employers. He’s not too keen on working out, an admission he makes sheepishly, but he holds the exam prep in a more favorable light: “I’m not getting smarter from it, but it’s fun and I’m doing it with my friends. When I was younger I didn’t study too much!”

He persists in his gym routine for one reason: It’s important that he presents “the best version of myself” and, in turn, his fans’ appreciation creates in him a sense of contentment. It’s a small but emblematic facet of the symbiosis between a pop star and fandom – a sometimes complicated process of give-and-take that B.I entered into in 2015 when he debuted as a rapper, the leader, and primary songwriter in K-pop idol group, iKON. He left the group in June 2019 under a cloud of drug allegations and, after a prolonged period of self-reflection, re-emerged as a solo artist in 2021.

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But more on that later. First, we have to talk about L-O-V-E. Not just the sweet, gooey kind but, says B.I, “the start of love, the breaking up of love, all the stages of love.” It’s the backbone of his upcoming Love Or Loved [L.O.L] album project, for which he’s built “a futuristic concept focused on the youth living in it, their love stories and rebellious moments” and where more somber ruminations aren’t so much about volatile heartbreak but an emotional hollowness. “I feel like the opposite of love isn’t ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘I don’t love you anymore’,” he explains. “It’s ‘I loved you before’ – the absence of love.”

Last year, he released part one of his second solo outing, COSMOS, whose seven tracks he described as being “about love and resistance”. Part two is still imminent, but he sees Love Or Loved as a stepping stone: “It’s an evolution that’ll be played into my future works, starting with “BTBT”,” he says, namechecking the record’s pre-release track, its title a Korean onomatopoeia derived from the verb 비틀거리다 (biteulgeolida/to stagger).

B.I’s signature sound – crafted during his time with iKON and transposed onto his solo work – contains easy-going, sing-song melodies, tautened by husky yet choppy vocals. But he’s adamant about experimenting and brings a hypnotic, melancholy quality to “BTBT”, setting the video in a Blade Runner-esque Seoul, where B.I and his friends are outcasts caught in a neon haze of longing. He based the song on the “passionate feelings you get when you meet somebody or start a relationship, to be drunk with love. It’s a very different style to what I’m used to but it falls back to wanting to show variety in myself and my music.”

Sometimes the 25-year-old finds it difficult to keep pace with his own ideas: His average for writing a song is one to two days, but some arrive with a preturnatural sped – like “illa illa” (from his debut solo album Waterfall), which was conceived and composed while B.I was taking a shower. But that’s not to say that, despite being a prolific writer, he’s nailed the whole going solo thing. Having begun idol trainee life in 2011 at the age of 14, and dedicated each day and night to learning how to be in a group, to write for a group, then actually lead one, B.I naturally has concerns about standing alone in the spotlight. 

“I think about how to fill the stage as a presence but also the song – how to fill up three minutes and not make it boring – and I’m still in the process of finding my own color and expressing it,” he says. His onstage (extrovert) and offstage (introvert) personalities are so contrasting that “occasionally when I watch any performance videos, I kinda get a little embarrassed, I feel awkward, but I am getting used to it,” B.I laughs. 

His working life is also no longer just about creating music. B.I went from being a cog in the corporate wheel to the position of executive director at IOK Company, a small management company who releases his music under IOK Music/131 Label. It’s a move that, while assuring his freedom as an artist, comes with the challenges faced by anyone whose every decision affects the livelihoods of many others. 

“There’s a lot of difficulties in being a small company,” he notes. “The workload is more, yet all of us are perfectionists. I don’t think a lot of people know how many sleepless nights we spend on the planning and execution of the content we produce. Sometimes I’m scared, definitely, but we’re always trying to do something new or out of the box, and the fulfillment my team and I get from that – there’s no better feeling.” 

The circumstances that lead B.I to become a solo artist and a company director are widely known; the allegation on June 12, 2019 of an attempt in 2016 to purchase weed and LSD made global headlines. The western music industry’s indulgence in a woozy cocktail of pills, powders and booze is absent in South Korea. Illegal drugs of any kind and amount lands you in court, but even the mere rumor of partaking risks turning you into a social pariah. Hours after the accusations were made public, B.I quit iKON, and his label contract was terminated. 

The same day, he posted an apology to his Instagram (which was deleted in November 2019) indicating that his past actions were a result of work pressure and its effects on his mental health. Since then, there has been a relentless gaze on B.I, his image and character reimagined by both the public and fans, causing a split between those empathetically defending him (a petition for him to remain in iKON garnered nearly 900,000 signatures) and those denouncing him. 

With his legal case active until September of last year, B.I hasn’t openly discussed what occurred. But he wants to. 

The past few years have cast a long shadow over his presence in the music industry. It’s why we’re sitting in IOK’s minimalist meeting room, situated in a cooly low-key area of Seoul. Sunlight pours through generous, open windows. B.I is comfortable, but he isn’t completely relaxed; he knows what he’s about to say will restart an online conversation he cannot contro.l But at the very least, he wants to explain as much as he can to those who wish to listen. 

If you were following K-pop in the mid-2010s, B.I’s extraordinary trajectory still sticks in the memory. iKON’s 2015 debut single, “My Type”, sold well over a million copies. Their debut album was released in two parts, in October and December 2015, both reaching No. 1 on the Korean charts, with six more singles taken from it, and B.I credited as a songwriter on ten of the album’s twelve songs. He was regularly touted as the next G-Dragon, whose iconic status made it a near impossible plaudit to live up to. 

“Many people expected a lot from me in 2016. To always do better was a very strong emotion that I felt at the time,” B.I recalls. “Ever since I was young, I was overly sensitive to results because I was so competitive. I was obsessed with the need to perform better, create better music, to be the best. I wasn’t mature enough to handle the pressure that I put upon myself.” 

You had no one to talk to at this time who might have been able to help?

B.I shakes his head. “There were, of course, people I could talk to,” he says. “But my personality isn’t the type to express my feelings to others. Even now, a lot of times I try to keep it inside. It’s probably one of my biggest weaknesses.”

He likens the increasing weight of responsibility to achieve success for the group to being engulfed in flames. “I guess you could say it felt like survival, of having to win, to fight. In a moment of weakness, I thought maybe I could relieve that burden,” he says, explaining why he sought out illegal substances. “Even now, I regret that constantly. I shouldn’t have done it, but felt like I was in a corner, and I made the wrong decision. I was so young and stupid.

Those either not at all famous or living in more drug-tolerant surroundings would probably chalk it up as a life lesson and move on, but B.I spent years living in fear that his actions would be made public, anxiously imagining the fallout. “That’s one of the reasons I focused so strongly on my music,” he says. “It was my only outlet to kind of find myself again. It was a time for me to understand what it meant to be a good person, and that’s what I want to show the world, especially my fans.” 

Nevertheless, when the news broke, he wasn’t prepared, describing it as “the world crashing down. My mind was blanking out. Then I started thinking about the people that I had disappointed and hurt – my family, my friends, my fans – and hated myself.” B.I went home. “My family didn’t say much to me, they just held me and we cried together. It consoled me but also hurt that much more.”  

B.I’s case unfolded slowly, with far more moving parts than just his own, but in September 2019, he admitted to some of the prosecution’s charges of marijuana use. He fell silent until January 2020, when he uploaded “Demo 1”  to Soundcloud – the first of four acapella tracks, using the lyrics to convey to fans how he was feeling: “All of my words might sound like an excuse, but I never meant to hurt you,” went one couplet.

Amidst the initial tumult of emotions was one he isn’t proud of: “It’s true that I had a victim mentality, because [the story] was a very big issue.” These days, he believes the only person he can blame is himself. “I’m trying to change people’s perception of me, not just by talking, but by my actions,” says B.I, who quietly began regular volunteer work in late 2019. “One by one, I’m trying to persuade everyone I meet. I can’t say that’s definitely happening right now but I’m going to make sure that it does.” 

It’s not at all a table-thumping proclamation. He speaks calmly and deliberately of the past, just as he does of the present and the future. This meditative mindset is a far leap from the months he spent in 2019, stuck in a “deep hole where I didn’t think about coming back as an artist, I wanted to give up on everything.”

What changed to pull you out from this hole? What made you think there was a chance you could make music again?

“I happened to see an event where the fans put short Post-It letters on a wall for me, and I was convinced that someone was waiting for me and my music,” B.I recounts. “I made up my mind that I had to release an album, but I was terrified.” Fans had also sent him studio equipment as encouragement, gifts B.I gratefully used. “I went ahead with one thought — to repay all the people who were by my side.” 

His first official solo release was a charity single in March 2021, the piano-lead “Midnight Blue”. He’d fortified himself against the expected backlash, reasoning that “it wasn’t important to me for it to do well or if it wasn’t received well. I’d already made the decision to continue making music, so it had no effect really.”  

In spite of his newfound stoicism, he ended up apologizing for the timing of his debut album, Waterfall, which dropped on June 1, 2021, just days before his case was given a July trial date. For some, it was in bad taste that he continue as an artist while facing criminal charges – but for many, the record was raw, profound and necessary, and it topped the iTunes charts in 24 countries, while reaching the top 10 in the US. Here was a man laid bare, visibly clawing his way back from the depths of his psyche in an unflinching examination of himself and those around him during his public fall from grace. “Waterfall was me expressing my fear and regret but also my thankfulness,” he says. “It felt like I’d been underwater and I was finally rising out of it.”

Soon after, B.I pleaded guilty to buying marijuana and LSD (and using the former). In September, 821 days after the scandal broke, he was handed a sentence of three years in prison suspended for four years, 80 hours of community service, 40 hours of drug lectures, and fined 1.5 million won (approx. $1,171). His fans celebrated across social media with hashtags such as #KimHanbinIsFree. Two months later, B.I released the winsome, yet rough-around-the-edges pop of “Cosmos”, and although his only intention was for it to be a love song, it sounded and looked joyously free — a song steeped in old-fashioned storybook romanticism, his hair dyed white-blonde, and a video filled with flowers, fairy lights, helium balloons and fluttering confetti. 

Never one to be fully satisfied, B.I is the first to admit there’s still work he needs to do on himself: “There’s a lot of different emotions that I feel. Sometimes I don’t like myself or I’m disappointed in myself, so I can’t always feel that I love myself.” But there is only so much he can do when looking back. In the apology issued for Waterfall, his management’s statement read, “[We] know that we can’t change what has already happened. But we have been seeking ways for him to become a better and more valuable person to the world.” And so B.I channels his energies forward. “Right now I want to focus on the idea of ‘new’ — new music, new styles, new lyrics — and absorb as much as possible,” he says. 

Despite all the chaos, not to mention the soul-destroying hate directed at him on social media, B.I’s commitment to his craft and dream has altered little over the years. Most of all, he wants to make music that deeply resonates, whether it’s giving people a soundtrack to their happiness, or hope that they too will find a way through their lowest moments. 

“Music is really the only way that I know how to communicate,” B.I says. “This might sound clichéd, but it almost feels as if I’m screaming on top of a mountain at the top of my lungs, that feeling you get after you let it all out. I want to walk on a journey with the people I love. I’ve realized that it wasn’t only me that was on top of that mountain. My friends, family, my fans, and my team, we were always standing on that mountain together.”

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