Following a six-year break, Taeyang is back, and he’s kicking off an exciting new era of his career with “Vibe,” an upbeat love song that features Jimin of BTS — and it’s just a hint of all the upcoming music he has in store.

In South Korea, Taeyang has been a household name since making it big as part of the trailblazing K-pop boy group Big Bang, whose 2012 release Alive was the first Korean-language album to debut on the Billboard 200. In 2010, Taeyang — born Dong Youngbae — put out his first solo album Solar, which featured hits like “Wedding Dress.” His second solo album Rise made waves in 2014, becoming the highest charting K-pop album by a soloist on the Billboard 200, and songs like the effortless “Eyes, Nose, Lips” remain classics. But fans have been eagerly anticipating new music since 2017, when Taeyang released his last album White Night, before heading off in 2018 to complete mandatory military service in South Korea.

Luckily, Taeyang is ready to give his followers what they’ve been waiting for. On Jan. 13, he’s releasing “Vibe,” a song that’s fun and upbeat, and that will instantly make any listener want to get up and dance. It’s a nice contrast to the R&B tracks he’s known for, and somehow it feels nostalgic and trendy at the same time. On top of all that, the track features Jimin of BTS, who, like Taeyang, is known as a multi-faceted artist who can sing and dance. A collaboration with any members of Big Bang and BTS felt almost impossible at one point, and yet here we are.

A day before the release of “Vibe,” Rolling Stone met with Taeyang in the Hapjeong area of Seoul. Sitting in the offices of THEBLACKLABEL, the affiliate of his longtime home YG Entertainment that he just signed to, Taeyang opened up about how his collaboration with Jimin happened and shared what he’s been up to since completing his mandatory military service in 2019. At the end of our conversation, he points to a Chrome Hearts Rolling Stones bracelet he’s wearing. “This was one of the first gifts my members bought me,” he says. He put it on as a way to celebrate his Rolling Stone interview.

First things first, congratulations! You have so many fans that have been waiting for new music. Is there a specific moment that made you decide it was time to return?
Thank you. I think the main thing was that the music itself was ready. Following the transition from YG to THEBLACKLABEL, I was able to immediately put everything I had prepared into motion.

It feels like a new start. How do you feel right now, one day ahead of the release?
Honestly, any time a release date approaches, I think I have the same feeling: I feel really nervous and also really worried. But on the other hand, I’m very excited thinking about meeting with fans since it’s been so long and I’m looking forward to it.

“Vibe” features Jimin of BTS. Can you walk us through how the collaboration came about? I heard Jimin admires your work.
I had heard that for a while, too. However, we never overlapped while promoting music so I wasn’t fully aware. About two years ago, though, Teddy at THEBLACKLABEL was watching me work — that was at a time when the BTS members weren’t doing many solo activities — and Teddy mentioned in passing that he thought people would really enjoy it if I got together with Jimin to collaborate on a great song. That really stuck with me and I thought it was a great idea, so I always had it in mind.

And then last summer, I had the opportunity to meet with the members of BTS at various private gatherings and events. Through that, we naturally had meals together, and I met Jimin as well. The conversation came up very organically, like, ‘There’s some music we’ve put together, do you have interest in working together?’ and he said he would really love to. After that, he came to our studio, we played the music for him, and he really liked it.

When did you start working on Vibe”?
I think it was over two years ago. After coming back from military service, I was with Teddy [and producers] Kush, Vince, and 24, and Teddy said “Let’s make a track for Youngbae.” We had fun making the song, and that’s when the track and melody came about. The song sat in that form for some time and while thinking of how to incorporate it into my solo album, the idea to work with Jimin came up. We thought, “It would be so cool to work together on this song.”

It’s not common for you to work on music with someone outside of your group, or outside of your label for that matter. How was it working with Jimin?
Since we’re not under the same label, there were definitely things we had to work out. But we both really wanted to make a really great song and a really great music video. That’s what we want to show everyone. That feeling was strong for both of us. We worked really hard and I think it resulted in the song’s quality and the music video’s quality. It was cohesive in that way. Jimin put in more effort than anyone and I’m very thankful for that.

You and Jimin are both known not only for your vocals, but also for your dancing skills. Did you work on the choreography together? The music video teaser showed a little bit of choreography.
I thought choreography was really important for this song. We didn’t choreograph it ourselves, and instead looked through ideas we received from a variety of talented dancers. From all of them, we selected choreography from Bailey Sok, a dancer in America. She’s very young… She made it so well. It was really hard to learn it.

Were there any fun moments you can share from production process?
There were many, so it’s hard to pick. I think for choreography, honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve had to learn choreography. I had dance lessons here and there, but practicing without a clear goal was harder than I thought. The process of having to learn new choreography for a new song, since it’s been so long — getting used to it was very hard. Even for Jimin, since the dance style is different from what he was used to, we both had a hard time. (Laughs). We joked to ourselves, like, “Are we the weird ones? Or is it because the choreography is really that hard?” We wanted to do it well, and it took some time for us to get there.

That being said, can we expect some dance challenges?
I think at this point, we’ve both practiced so much that we are in a good place. Both of us.

The teaser posters revealed that you participated both composition and songwriting. Is there a lyric in “Vibe” that you especially like?
Personally, I like all the lyrics. I think because we made the song knowing that the theme would be the word “Vibe.” I thought deeply about what the word means. In Korea, the word “vibe” became popular and trendy through programs like “Show Me the Money,” but aside from that, I felt a deep connection with the word’s meaning. A good vibe could be the energy or inspiration you get from an object of love, or it could come as harmony between two loves, rather than from solitude. I was thinking of what it could mean and that’s how a lot of the lyrics came out.

Right now, the track’s meaning is in the lyrics: “Falling on a dark sky like twilight, just gets better.” I think that lyric fits right where I am at with “Vibe.” There were some difficult moments in the past and I didn’t get to meet with fans for a long time. With “Vibe,” I feel like my time to meet with fans is starting.

I had read that “Eyes, Nose, Lips” was central to releasing the Rise album. Would you say “Vibe” plays a similar role in your upcoming album?
Ah. That album had come to fruition with “Eyes, Nose, Lips.” I was already working on the album, and we didn’t have a main song, but once we had “Eyes, Nose, Lips,” we were able to release the album. I’ve been working on my next album consistently since completing my military service. “Vibe” is one of the songs that came from that and we didn’t originally have plans around who to collaborate with or how to move forward with the project. But last year, while working on the album, more ideas were floated around, like to work with Jimin… That’s why “Vibe” is being revealed first. I’m working on the other songs as well.

On Instagram, fellow Big Bang member G-Dragon (Kwon Jiyong) has shown support for your new music. What was his reaction when he first heard “Vibe”?
Jiyong actually even came to our music video set and cheered me on a lot. As someone who has always been part of a group, or part of a sub-unit like GD and Taeyang, I haven’t really done many collaborations outside of that. It was really new for me, but Jiyong came to support and said the song is really good. He would watch the monitor on set pointing out things here and there, and gave me lots of advice.

There isn’t a lot of information about your upcoming album just yet, but when it does get unveiled, what type of album do you want it to be?
I think, in a way, this album will be the embodiment of my time that’s passed up until now. Especially for my fans who have waited for so long, it contains the thoughts I’ve had and the feelings I’ve had, so I hope those emotions get delivered through this album.

Whenever I put out an album, I assign a theme that fits with meaning of my name. [Taeyang means sun in Korean.] With this album too, I thought of the sunset quite a bit and looked to the sunset for inspiration — like a beautiful sunset that has many colors. The four years that I’ve worked on making this album were a time for me to return to my roots and original mindset when I first started. I hope this album conveys the original intention I first had.

Like you said, it’s been a while since you’ve been able to meet with fans. You’ve been attending some art events and private parties, but I’m curious to hear how else you’ve spent your time.
I think I tend to spend a lot of time at home. I like being at home. As you know, with the pandemic, we couldn’t go out much. I usually am home a lot but I think I was home even more because of that. I spend most of my time with my family. I used to post these pictures quite often before I wiped my Instagram recently, but I like to go on walks. I would go to Namsan or other mountains and walk. At home, I enjoy reading and writing. That’s how I spent the majority of my time.

I’m curious to know what music you’ve been listening to these days. What songs and artists do you go to for inspiration?
These days I’ve been listening to a lot of old music. If I had to pick one song… Let me look. (Scrolls through phone). There are so many, should I just pick one?

The more recommendations the better.
I listen to a lot of old songs. “Lift Me Up” by Yes… This one’s really famous, but “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers… or Stevie Wonder’s “Down to Earth.” There are a lot. I’ve been listening to a lot of old Korean songs too.

A lot of things have changed since the last time you released solo music, like the popularity of dance challenges, and you’ve also just opened a new forum where you’re communicating with fans. While observing the industry during your break, was there anything you wanted to try when you returned?
To be honest, I haven’t actively thought of those things. I feel really strongly about making music and showing everyone great music. I think during my break, I observed how much culture has changed — new platforms now exist, people consume content through new channels. I think I unintentionally began to study these things and really wanted to do well for my new single or album release. I thought to myself, “I need to do this well. I need to prepare myself.”

Do you ever look back at old videos or listen to old songs? What do you feel looking back?
A few years ago, when I saw old videos, I was more critical and had regrets about why I did things the way I did. But now, I’ve become more generous and forgiving. Like, “Right, there were times like these… There were certain strengths back then that I might not have now.” I feel more relaxed looking back at myself now. The things I lacked back then, if you look at it a certain way, made me who I am today.

I used to not want to see old content and would feel embarrassed by it. I tend not to watch a lot of old videos. I really used to not watch them in the past, but I think now when I do look back, I think of ways to upgrade my music and performances for the future too, and I also look to things and aspects of myself that I should continue on with.

From your discography, if you had to pick one song that you hold close to heart, what would it be?
It changes every day, to be honest. Each song is meaningful to me. If I had to pick right now though, it would be “Vibe.” It’s meaningful to me in a unique way. I say that because to me, it’s a new start, and the process of completing the song, collaborating with Jimin, looking back, felt very natural. I observed how the song came about naturally without feeling forced, and was surprised by that. That was really special. Additionally, it’s my first song after joining THEBLACKLABEL, making it more meaningful.  

Looking back on your career, are there any memories or moments you are fond of?
Looking back?

Yes, although I’m sure there’s a lot. (Laughs).
There are a lot. (Laughs). I realized it’s been 17 years now. It’s hard to call out specific moments. Can I think on this one a bit? It’s tough to pick one moment or thing because I think it’s every moment I had with my members. Rather than just going on tour, or working on an album, but the energy we had when we were together and the feelings and understanding we have for one another. It was always fun. And we were much younger then too. That freshness. Looking back on it now, every moment special and precious.

As someone with a longstanding career and years of experience, you’ve grown so much as an artist. Do you feel that growth yourself?
I think these moments now are part of my growth process. A lot of my past experiences led to my growth. I needed some time to look back and reflect to see my growth, as well as my shortcomings. I’ve had some time to face my shortcomings and find solutions. I think through that, I’ve been able to grow a little now. And through those moments, starting now, in this new place, I can grow more.

I’m curious to know who you go to for advice and guidance.
Whether they are the producers at THEBLACKLABEL, or Teddy, I think it’s really important to surround yourself with people who can give you good advice and keep you on the right path. It’s been a long time since I started this career as an artist and I think that rings true even more with time. As time passes, while becoming more popular and receiving love from many people, I think there are moments where I can miss out on hearing what is good for me, and instead follow words that are nice to hear. Despite that, thankfully, I have people by my side who will tell me the right things, even if they are hard to hear. The producers at THEBLACKLABEL and Teddy always give me advice during hard times and help me find solutions.

You debuted in 2006. Is the 2023 version of Taeyang close to what you had envisioned for yourself back then?
There are some things that are similar and others that are not. I think the fact that there are any similarities at all is surprising and a relief. In 2006, and even before my debut, as a trainee, I always thought to myself, “I’m going to be a global singer no matter what.” (Laughs). I’m not sure where that confidence came from, but I always thought that. As a trainee, you really don’t know your future, if you’ll quit… There are a lot of unknowns. Despite that situation, I always thought to myself that I will somehow become a global singer. And I always made sure my actions and thoughts were aligned with that goal.

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I think that mentality made me who I am now. And aside from that, of course there are so many things that have happened that I couldn’t have expected. Of course I’ve imagined some of these things, but to perform on such large stages, there are more moments that I can’t believe, since they were just things I had imagined when I was younger. I’m really grateful. And another thing I’m so thankful for is that a lot of the people that were by my side back then are still with me today. It’s so meaningful.

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