c-pop star cai xukun (aka kun) is about to takeover the world
i-D spoke to the Chinese phenomenon in the midst of a sold-out US and UK tour.
“I’m feeling awesome. I’m feeling very good. We got a show tonight,” says a calm and confident voice on the other side of the line. I’m talking to the 20-year-old Chinese megastar KUN — born Cai Xukun — a phenomenon trailblazing the music industry in his home country. That serenity is not the first thing you would expect when listening to his music — an inebriating blend between R&B and electronic beats, with lustful lyrics that invite the mind to wander. With his bedroom eyes and pouty lips, it’s easy to paint KUN as just another brooding heartthrob, the kind who holds a carefree smugness while pouring his heart and hormones out. But his thoughts reveal a much deeper essence, and invite us into the mind of a meticulous artist.
During our call, the young singer was preparing to wrap up his first overseas tour. Following three concerts in the US — with stops for New York and Los Angeles sold out within minutes — the final sold out gig happened last Friday, 12 April in London. While his name might be a novelty for those who aren’t familiar with C-pop (an umbrella term for the varied styles under Chinese popular music), KUN has been a leading force in the billion-dollar industry with his slew of talents and dedicated fandom (endearingly named IKUN — a translation of the expression “love KUN” in Mandarin.)
With over 22 million followers on Weibo, an EP which he helped compose and produce, multiple No.1 singles on the most influential Chinese music charts ( Pull Up, the first single from his EP, retained the position for eight consecutive weeks on the Billboard China V chart), and two successful participations in survival shows under his belt, KUN's now ready to take over the world.
Despite being only 20 years old, he defines himself as “an old soul”. KUN discovered American hip-hop and R&B classics like Stevie Wonder at a young age, while browsing on the internet. “I think [finding those artists] just came from myself. I love old music, old singers,” he adds. Back in 2013, he had the opportunity to study abroad in Simi Valley, a small city near Los Angeles, where he deepened his affinity for American music and culture. “It shaped what I do now. Every experience in my life influenced my music and made me who I am.”
Over the past four years, KunKun — as he is affectionately called by IKUN — has been relentlessly forging a solid path of his own. He first stepped into showbiz through brief acting stints in the Chinese productions Half a Fairytale and Lock Me Up, Tie Him Down. However, it was his participation in Anhui TV and MBC Korea’s 2015 reality show Super Idol that launched his musical career.
Super Idol spanned two seasons of extensive training in Korea, where 30 trainees fought for a chance to debut in a 10-member Chinese idol group — later named SWIN. Although KUN made it to the finals and debuted in 2016, he withdrew a year later due to management issues, and focused on producing solo works. “I was always thinking “I can become an idol in China,” but I learned a lot of things in Korea. They are really good at dancing and some artists have a really cool vibe on stage. I learned those things and brought them back to China,” he recalls.
In 2018, the opportunity to participate in iQyi’s Idol Producer came up. The Chinese show was based on South Korea’s prestigious franchise Produce 101, and gathered 100 competitors that would later be narrowed down to form a 9-member boy group. Coached by prominent names in the industry such as Lay Zhang (from K-pop group EXO) and Jackson Wang (from K-pop group GOT7), they underwent four months of training with weekly eliminations that were decided by the public. “A lot of talented, young people had been waiting for this moment for a long time. I’m very lucky to have been one of them and to have had the opportunity to share my music with people,” KUN humbly points out.
However, his presence in the show was one of the most awaited, with some contestants openly admitting to being longtime fans. KUN says he “wasn’t so popular before,” but his million followers on Weibo at the time contradict that statement. With perfectly groomed ash blond locks, a blue velvet jacket and a revealing mesh shirt underneath (gifted to him by IKUN), his first appearance at the show was already an event in itself. For the first round of evaluations, he performed the sultry I Wanna Get Love — his first self-composed track — and drew sighs from the audience with his sex appeal and charisma. However, a modest demeanor offstage and an easy laugh (especially when the judges pointed out the suggestive lyrics of the track), showcased his genuine sweetness and hardworking nature — the traits that ultimately enraptured the public’s hearts.
Idol Producer was a raging success, gathering over 100 million votes on its final episode. Of those, 47.64 million votes were solely for KUN — who placed first. Due to the surge of new artists rising from Idol Producer and other similar programs in China, 2018 was dubbed "the first year of the idols' reign" in the country, and KUN arguably stands as the face of this new generation. “It was a big moment where people got to know about me, but actually I was just doing the same thing as I usually do,” he says, in his characteristic brand of perseverance and humbleness that paved his way to become China’s No.1 pick.
The top nine trainees from the show formed the boy group Nine Percent, whose debut album To The Nines was the second most sold digital album of 2018 in China, and landed a No. 2 position on the Billboard China V chart. To clarify, the country’s music industry holds 96% of its revenue from digital releases, and 75% of that number comes solely from streaming sales. Tencent’s QQ Music, one of the biggest streaming services in China, also revealed Nine Percent as their Top New Artist of 2018, and the music video for I Need a Doctor held a place at the Top 10 Most Watched MVs in the platform.
“When I’m doing solo [work], I can do what I want, my own style, what I like. But when I’m with the group, I’m the leader — so I need to take care of all my members,” KUN points out. He also mentions that it’s important to find balance between all their different personalities. “I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, it just takes more time.”
KUN’s expertise in balancing different matters, whether it’s the vibe of a team or his own creative skills, doesn’t come from today. His first EP, 1, released on his birthday last year (August 2), displays full-fledged commitment to all aspects of making music. Besides being involved in the production and writing alongside UK team Mike Macdermid, David Brant, Rajiv Bukhory, Fidel Rosales and Ryan Curtis, he also took care of the album cover. Instead of a picture of his face (initially chosen by his team), he chose an intriguing image of a blue 3D bust of himself coming out of a placid, limitless ocean — like the birth of a new species; a visual translation of his fluid, enticing blend of hip-hop and R&B.
A self-confessed perfectionist, the idol holds sturdy work ethics. “I work really hard and try my best to do my job. I love to learn new things,” he claims. The music video for Pull Up, the sleek, sensuous single out of his first EP, was edited by him and incorporated many of his ideas, like the soaking wet dance shots. Even though the water was dirty, such scenes were necessary to convey the aesthetics he had in mind. “It’s part of my perfectionism,” he adds with conviction.
However, KUN doesn’t let this desire for excellence stop him of trying new things. Developing his skills in as many aspects of the industry as possible is “the way I can share with people my sense of art," he explains. "When you try to do new things, you get new ideas, and that can inspire you and make you stronger”.
In front of the cameras, his magnetism attracts the viewer like moths to flames. Expressive looks, smooth movements, and a velvety, occasionally rough voice evidence a star power that is hard to ignore. Such is his dominance that it’s easy to imagine the spotlight as his natural habitat. “I think I have a lot of energy when I’m making music, when I’m on stage. I’m like a lion,” KUN says. I ask if he identifies with his Zodiac sign, Leo, and he agrees. “Maybe because I’m a Leo, I love performing, love to see people come to my stage.” But when the lights go down KUN prefers to retreat into his own world. “I’m a quiet person, and I want to be alone and enjoy my own world, so that’s what I usually do”.
In order to nurture that introspective side and refresh his ideas, the singer enjoys visiting museums and attending any kind of musical performances — from festivals to opera houses. “I listen to everything, but what I’m doing right now is more like my own style, KUN’s style, you know?” Aside from the aforementioned American classics, he cites Nirvana and Radiohead as his current influences, as well as Lana del Rey and Billie Eilish. “They’re dark, right? I like the night, I like darkness. It’s a part of my soul,” he says.
“It provides space for imagination. And I always get inspired when it’s quiet, late at night. It’s just a great moment for me to create new things. Sometimes, I can write songs with a melody I heard in a dream. These creations haven’t seen the light of the day yet. “Maybe soon,” he teases.
Singles like Wait Wait Wait offer further insight into what comes to play at KUN’s inner world. The track’s uplifting melody contrast the frustrated resignation of the lyrics, where he decides that “carrying the weight is better than to let you go”. The music video was directed by Dave Meyers — who’s worked in Ariana Grande’s God is a Woman and Camila Cabello’s Havana — and plays with dreamy CGI to tell a simple, yet effective coming of age story. KUN moves through scenarios inspired by Chinese arts and culture, plunges into deep unknown waters, gets trapped inside a box, and finally finds redemption as he breaks through his own limitations and orchestrates a multitude of beings.
The young star has recently explored yet another side of music with his first DJ track, the booming EDM track Bigger. He started to produce his own remakes two years ago. “DJing is really a good way that I can show people my music sense. It’s different from when you’re singing and dancing, a different vibe, but I enjoy it.” Incorporated into his overseas tour setlist, KUN likes the response his DJ sets have been getting internationally. “The audiences are very passionate, they enjoy my DJ set and are good at dancing as well. That’s cool”.
Currently, KUN is preparing the release of a music video for his new single, Hard to Get, which has also been performed in this tour. Coming out on April 27, the video is set in a blue and red nightclub that enhances the track’s moody trap beats and KUN’s melancholic, pinning delivery. “I just finished the music video in New York. It’s coming out soon, I’m so excited. It’s one of my favourite songs, actually.
Amidst a fully packed schedule until the rest of the year — including a huge tour in China where he expects to play for over 10,000 people — KUN hopes to find time to release a full album, and to come back to the west as soon as possible. His manager isn’t shy when disclosing goals of breaking through globally. “It’s so funny, he was texting me this,” KUN adds with a laugh.
Keeping true to his low-key, steady nature, KUN himself seems more determined in showing to to the world as many of his creations as he can, no matter what the outcomes might be. “Maybe one day I will even make a film by myself. I just like to do everything, all for my music, all for my art”.