image from the “Fiancé” MV

After much teasing and delays, WINNER’s Mino finally dropped his debut solo album XX on November 26th, and, well. It’s very Mino.

The album’s artsy inclinations and pleasantly adventurous bangers might come as a surprise to some. After all, WINNER have made their name with the simplest and catchiest of pop, and Mino’s never gotten that creative within their discography. His solo tracks come the closest: “I’m Him” (from 2014’s S/S) feels like fraternal twins with XX’s “Bow-Wow” (because they’re both about, uh, being a rap dog — is Mino a furry? Let’s discuss), and the duet “Pricked” with former vocalist Taehyun evokes the same lost love that underscores “Um…” and “Lonely.” But the general vibe of the album — the pierced-lip art-rap glee of it — feels incredibly distinct from WINNER’s catalog.

Considering this, it’s important to keep in mind that WINNER wasn’t Mino’s first crack at becoming an idol. It wasn’t even his second. Way back in the day (2011) he was supposed to debut with a little group called Block B, but life got in the way and he was replaced by current best bud P.O.. He then ended up in a ballad group called B.O.M, for some reason — they didn’t do much for two years and ended up disbanding, along with their company, in 2013. Mino was left label-less. Enter YG Entertainment and a survival show called WIN: Who Is Next. The “Next” part was a big deal: the winning team would become the first boy group at YG since Big Bang, reigning kings of the universe. Mino briefly became the leader of Team A before an injury forced him to defer the role to existing YG soloist Seungyoon. Shenanigans ensued, a couple people cried, and WINNER, as you may have guessed, won.

So Mino ended up at YG, somehow supposed to fill the world’s most terrifying shoes. There were whispers that he was either “the next G-Dragon” or “wannabe G-Dragon,” depending on the sentiment of the speaker. This train of thought persisted even as WINNER went in a different direction musically, as Mino tried his hand at gaining respect in the non-idol rap scene, and as news of his solo debut looked likely and then unlikely. He released some good music — the campy banger “Okey Dokey” and the distressing confessional “Fear” on Show Me The Money and the album The MOBB with iKon’s Bobby, as well as features on songs by Epik High, Code Kunst, and Seungri — but news of former solo work didn’t come until two months before its release, when Yang Hyun Suk confirmed that they were shooting a music video for his album’s lead single.

That single is “Fiancé,” a powerhouse of a proper debut and possibly the first time the label “the next GD” has actually held any weight. It’s indecisive but effective, reeling between styles like a drunk and sampling the 1969 (!) trot song (!) “Soyanggang Cheonyeo” (!) to tell the story of the woman he loves and can’t have. The music video portrays Mino as an old king, stumbling through a throne room full of laughing concubines while his true love runs through a ghostly field, eluding him. It’s contrasted brilliantly with the choreography, which smashes through on the chorus as Mino calls “Come out, come out, wherever you are” among his veiled background dancers. It’s not WINNER’s bouncing pop or the straight hip-hop he went for on Show Me The Money — it’s something new. And it rips.

The rest of XX, named such because it leaves room for interpretation, is in a similar vein. “Trigger” and “Agree” are rippling self-confident manifestos, describing the “birth of a new universe” that Mino is heralding while politely telling the haters to go fuck themselves, while “Lonely” and “Aurora” are bouncy, heartfelt love songs. He’s joined by YG regular Yoo Byung Jae for “Hope,” which rocks gently between Byung Jae’s surprisingly melodic chorus (he was last seen impersonating G-Dragon in the video for Seungri’s “Where R U From”) and Mino’s rap, held back only by the unbearable cheesiness of a few lines.

“her” (sic) is the slowest song on the album, a sung ballad showing off Mino’s versatility — in more ways than one, as the song’s debut on Show! Music Core featured props Mino made himself — and proving him a respectable vocalist. In contrast, “Rocket” borrows some of the genre insatiability present in “Fiancé,” building slowly and then careening into an unspeakably fun countdown chorus, somehow ending up as a dance track. The album comes to a close with “Alarm,” the most personal that the album gets, where Mino discusses artistic evolution and the heavy weight of idol overwork, self-motivated or otherwise. It ends up with a simple message: “Allow yourself to fall asleep / Have you rested? Good morning”.

It’s a poignant note, for Mino in particular. Despite waiting four — or maybe seven — years for this album, he doesn’t seem like he’s gotten a lot of rest. He lost a lot of weight; he struggled with a panic disorder; he navigated the perplexing business end of the YG machine and came back with WINNER while still finding time to write, draw, and make some pretty cool music. So here’s my message to you, Mino, my dude: You did good. Go the fuck to sleep.

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