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international superstar jay park talks controversies and creative freedom

Having just dropped an impressive bilingual album, Jay Park talks returning to R&B, his rebellious nature, and why he will always give the artists signed to his AOMG label the creative freedom he didn't have.

Taylor Glasby

In September 2009, Park Jaebeom, K-Pop idol and leader of the group 2PM, had careless comments he'd made in English on MySpace four years earlier about being a trainee mistranslated into Korean and published. Overnight, public favor turned on the 22-year-old; someone went as far as creating an online petition for him to commit suicide. Park, genuinely contrite, flew home to Seattle and was later abruptly kicked off the JYP label. He might have crashed spectacularly, but Park was in no hurry to burn.

The furore in South Korea died down after the mistranslation came to light and he eventually made a much publicized and welcome return in mid-2010. But the entire incident remains a sour note in K-Pop's history, one that — alongside the highly contentious "slave contracts" placed on young idols by entertainment companies — highlights the ugly flaws in Korea's entertainment industry. Jay, as he became known, has risen to be South Korea's most successful R&B artist and, as a rapper, producer, label CEO, A&R and choreographer — a bona fide Renaissance man.

Park is something like a force of nature. He's a prolific creator, he talks fast, thinks fast, and if he wants something done there's zero fucking around. He's also remarkably multifaceted, equally at home taking the piss out of himself on Korea's version of SNL as he was being the sharp-eyed, sometimes intimidating producer and judge on the hip-hop talent show, Show Me the Money. Naturally, nowhere is this fluidity more visible than in his music. There's Romantic Jay bringing through his love of old-school R&B to tracks like "Joah," "Solo," and new single "Drive;" Suggestive Jay ("You Know," "Aquaman"); and Badboy Jay, who simmered and spat across his 2015 hip hop album Worldwide and its main single "Mommae."

He's briefly retired the latter for his fourth studio album, the 19-track Everything You Wanted, which features what he does best — ice cream-smooth R&B with toe-curling use of his distinctively intimate voice — interspersed with darker, more reflective moments like "Only One" and "Alone Tonight." Park, a few hours before the album drops, is unfazed that soon his work will be dissected by critics and discussed in fan forums. His mind is focused on heading to a midnight dance practice. "I'll probably check how it's going on my phone," he says casually, "but I'm shooting a video tomorrow and I need to learn all the choreography for that."

Have you ever worried about a release?
I've never actually feared an album release. I imagine it doing well, but even if it doesn't, the disappointment isn't that big because I'm happy with it. If I feel good, then it's ok. I just want to evolve as an artist every time I put something out and have people notice that.

Everything You Wanted features several older songs — "The Truth Is," "Solo," "2nd Thots," "All I Wanna Do," "Me Like Yuh," and "Aquaman" — what made you include them?
Those songs sound different when you just hear them as a single, as opposed to when you hear them as a body of work. It just depended on whether it made sense for the album or not, and [a track like] "Solo" fits the album perfectly. Since there's no executive or label deciding which tracks to put on the album; if I like the song, I put it on.

After the hip-hop of Worldwide, this album is a return to R&B. Is this where you feel most comfortable?
I don't know...I've only been making music for five years now and I'm learning new things about myself as an artist and a person every day. Last year I felt this fire in me to show people that I could rap in Korean, that I could make a good hip-hop album; this year I wanted to do stuff in English but I had these tracks in Korean, so I was like, why don't I make a bilingual album. I'm experimenting to see what people like and what I like. I think my next project is going to be something completely different, so I'm excited to start working on that.

There are very distinct sides to your personality in your work. Which feels more akin to the everyday you?
In general, when you're talking about life, I'm just a regular guy, I just ate a Shake Shack burger, like, now I need to do 100 sit-ups. But I've always been sort of rebellious, when someone says: "You have to do this," it never makes sense for me to do it. Like, why can't a K-Pop person swear, why can't they have half-naked ladies in a music video. It's just a music video, why not? I'm a nice guy when it comes to daily life, but when it comes to society and how people think things should be a certain way, I have to challenge those invisible rules.

AOMG is home to success stories like Gray and Loco. What do you look for when you sign someone?
I look at them overall — their music, what they talk about, how they perform, their image, and how they are as a person. Because if we're going to be together as a label and a crew for a long time, relationship-wise it's gotta make sense. They can be the greatest rapper in the world but if they're an asshole I don't want to work with them, they don't have to be at AOMG.

What do you want to give artists, other than a creative environment, that other labels won't or can't?
Freedom! I want to be able to bring what they have in their minds to life as opposed to what other labels do — they have a certain vision, a certain path, and artists may not be able to do what they want. They might be doing music and shows but they might be miserable because it's not what they envisioned. I want all my artists to be successful, even if they're more successful than me. I want their contracts to be good, I want their families to be happy. I don't look at them as people who make money for a company, it's a brotherhood.

Shows like SMTM bring out the same argument every year, that it's destroying the underground or that hip-hop has lost its edge. What's your view? 
Hip-hop is getting very over-saturated and the music is getting cliched because there are so many rappers and shows, and Korea is so small that everyone influences each other. It definitely motivates me to be on top of my game because I don't want to get lost in this over-saturation. I'm constantly trying to show different sides so people don't get sick of me. I think about the future a lot. Right now [hip-hop] is a trend, in a couple years something else might be the trend and what's going to happen to people like me? I don't want to be around for a couple of years and fade away, so I think about how AOMG can last, not just in Korea, but worldwide.

In hindsight, what would you have told yourself when you moved back to Seattle?
I don't know, that's a hard question. I don't regret anything, the good or the bad because it's all gotten me to this point. The thing I would change is back when I was five and my mom made me do piano lessons and I hated it. I distinctly remember telling her I wanted to quit and she said, "You'll regret this when you're older," and I was like, I swear to god I won't. And now I regret it. If I had played the piano this whole time I would be so much better [as an artist] now.

It's not too late...
I tried to learn a couple of years ago but I get so distracted. I think I have ADHD, I can't focus.

You're among many who have had a tough run in the Korean music industry, and some artists have admitted their mental health has suffered. Did you ever feel like you were at that point?
Nah, I just drink a lot. But even back when all the MySpace stuff happened and I got cut from the company, I tried to think of it as the next chapter in my life. Even if I'm not being a singer in Korea, my life isn't over. I knew it was gonna be hard but I stayed positive, and after coming back from that what do you fear? I'm not attached to the money and fame, I can live without that. I feel thankful that I can do what I want and provide opportunities for other artists, that's what keeps me going.

Are you wary or bothered by the side of fame where people always want something from you?
People want to have a friend who knows you and can get to you, people want to make money off you...I mean, people like G-Dragon or Justin Bieber, they're gonna have that twenty times worse than me, I can't complain. Sometimes I do, like that I'm tired or whatever, but at the end of the day, everything I do is my decision. I have no one to blame but me. I'm grateful for my opportunities, I feed a lot of mouths and I thank God I can do that.

Does knowing this help ground you?
Of course. And I am still my own harshest critic. Like, if someone says, "Jay, you're the best," I'm like, "nah, not really." If you keep putting yourself on a pedestal and you get knocked down, you're not going to know where to go later on.

You've admitted before that you prefer to use only snippets of your life as lyrics, but would you ever delve deep and 100% use your own life as material?
It depends. Right now, for me as an artist, I'm not comfortable putting myself out there 100%. There's insecurities, and I like having stuff I keep to myself, it makes me feel like a person. Later on you never know, after eight or nine albums I might run out of stuff to talk about. Then I might reach in and say, hey, this is my life, guys.

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Text Taylor Glasby