When Jung Kook released his first solo single “Seven” back in July, he went somewhere he’d never gone in his more than decade-long career with South Korean group BTS – he went explicit. The collaboration with rapper Latto builds to a chorus that promises ‘Night after night, I’ll be fucking you right.’
For Jung Kook, it was a moment of reintroduction. As the youngest member of the record-breaking pop group, a sense of perpetual adolescence has followed him since he was 15 and made his debut on stage. A week after its release, he hopped onto a regular livestream with fans and shut down criticism of the lyrics, saying, “If you think about it, how old am I?”
Jung Kook is now 26, and that livestream was his moment to politely remind fans that he’s grown up, and his new music is going to reflect that. The video has racked up more than eight million views, most of them from people watching in real time. It may sound daunting to have the population of a large city hanging on your every word, but Jung Kook has seen this all before. Over the course of 10 years, BTS set astonishing records. The most streamed group on Spotify. The first South Korean group to top the Billboard charts. They hold over 20 Guinness World Records and their fanbase, known as the ARMY, is its own cultural entity.
Jung Kook is the latest member of BTS to head out solo after the group announced a temporary hiatus in 2022 that would allow them time to explore new creative ventures and complete the mandatory military enlistment required of almost all young Korean men. His debut album Golden comes after the release of a handful of pre-release singles, including “Seven” and “3D” with Jack Harlow, and plays on a nickname that’s followed him his entire career—the “golden maknae,” or the youngest member who excels at everything. The record, which is sung entirely in English, is a stimulating mash of genres, covering straight pop, silky R&B, retro ‘70s funk and some good old-fashioned crooning. Despite the title reflecting his status as the band’s youngest brother, it’s an album that shows a more grown-up Jung Kook, the kind that sings about sex and partying and being so hooked on someone you can’t see straight.
“If you were able to sense the maturity, then that is good,” says Jung Kook of the album, over a video call from Seoul, via a translator. “I don’t think it was something I did intentionally. I think it has just come out naturally.”
Here, GQ talks to Jung Kook about recording his debut album in English, the track he thinks the ARMY will love the most, and looking for satisfaction over success.
GQ: How did you find recording the album as a solo artist?
Jung Kook: While working on the album by myself, and performing on stage alone, [I noticed] things about myself that I was unaware of – the good points and the areas I’m lacking in. In terms of music, I found myself realizing, “Oh I can do these kinds of things as well, huh?,” or “Ah, this is something I can work on.” I found myself missing the members [of BTS] quite a bit.
I wondered if there were any particular challenges you found in producing a full record in a different language?
Compared to recording a song in Korean, there was definitely [some] exhaustion, yes. But I don’t think fatigue is important [to me]. I have noticed how my pronunciation is getting better, but still, I’m learning a lot from that process, so it’s definitely fun and I want to continue challenging myself.
Was there a song on the album that you struggled to get right, or one that is especially meaningful to you?
The song that I most struggled with and is particularly meaningful to me is “Standing Next to You”. The song itself is great, and as soon as I heard the song, I could picture myself on stage performing [it]. The recording process was not easy, so it’s particularly memorable, too. It was so tiring that I did feel my soul almost leaving my body, but the process in itself was extremely fun. I think this will also be the one song ARMY are most amazed by.
‘Golden’ is a phrase that’s followed you for years. It’s a term of endearment to describe you being able to do things so well, but you’ve also said in the past that it’s something that can make you feel pressure.
The term “Golden” started with the nickname that Namjoon [RM, leader of BTS] coined. At first, I wasn’t very confident so that term was quite overwhelming for me. But as I grew up and went through so many various changes in terms of personality, thoughts etc., the term “Golden Maknae” became a [source] of pride for me. This album includes the whole journey of my hard work and my passion, starting all the way from my debut days, [from] finding my self-confidence to owning this nickname of “Golden”. On top of that, it also includes all the moments leading up to now. I use this term, “golden moments”. It’s an album that encompasses all these [golden] moments leading up till now.
You’re the youngest member of BTS, but with this album, you get to put yourself forward without that label. Was there a desire to focus on a mature sound?
You make the song guided by your feelings [and] where your heart leads you. By following my heart and my feelings, I think I have been able to mature.
You once said in an interview with your BTS bandmate J-Hope that, when it came to your future as an artist, you wanted to make music for characters as a way to span genres. Is Golden about you trying out different personas?
I just wanted to try diverse genres and styles and work on my own sound. As of now, that is still my goal. I want to work on different stories. On the other hand, when the moment comes when I do want to share my story, I do think it’ll be a song with honest lyrics that I want to share [with my fans].
You’ve experienced such monumental success with BTS. What does success look like for you as a solo artist?
I don’t think success is determined by other people’s perspectives. Just experiencing self-satisfaction, being happy, experiencing difficulties, being frustrated—I think in all those moments, “success” is always mixed in with it. For me, instead of chasing success, it’s enough to be satisfied.
Are you satisfied with this album?
I am satisfied. I do have some things I wish I had done, but I did my best. You could think of it like that.
Golden is out now.
Additional translation provided by Neha Cariappa.