How Taeyang Transformed a Tough Time Into Tender Honesty on ‘Down to Earth’
The K-pop trailblazer breaks down each track on his personal new project, sharing the stories behind collaborations with BTS’ Jimin, Blackpink’s Lisa, and more
AS SOON AS Taeyang dropped “Vibe,” his upbeat collaboration with Jimin of BTS, he left fans eagerly awaiting more. They got just what they wanted with Down to Earth, an action-packed, six-track EP that dropped Tuesday and has a little bit of everything: touches of R&B and soul, tons of Taeyang’s smooth vocals, and yes, more features — including one with Lisa from Blackpink.
When we spoke to him back in January, he explained that his album titles are always tied to his name, which means “sun” in Korean. (His previous albums include 2014’s RISE and 2010’s Solar.) But Down to Earth, while still linked to the theme, is a little different. On Down to Earth, Taeyang goes back to his roots, pulling from decades of experience as a soloist and as part of the legendary group Big Bang. Everything is pieced together thoughtfully — he has writing credits on every song on the EP.
Some of the ideas behind Down to Earth came to Taeyang when he was going through some difficulty. He recalls one memory, back when he was completing his mandatory military service in 2018: “I went through some really hard times. I couldn’t really connect with the outside world, and it was one frustrating situation after another. At the end of the day, all I could do at the army base was exercise and run. So I just kept running. I ran and ran and ran,” he tells Rolling Stone.
One day, he remembers, he saw a stunning sunset unfold right before his eyes. “I had never seen a sunset so beautiful in our country,” he says. “For a few days, the sunset was like that. While looking at it, it came to me: Sunsets are met only with the night sky — not a new morning, but a dark night.” He began reflecting on the beauty that comes before darkness, which made him reframe what he was experiencing. “‘Right now, there’s nothing I can do, so let me be true to myself and focus on the small things during this time,’” he remembers thinking. “It made me go back to the basics and think of my origins.”
As he thought about his past and his career beginnings, he kept landing on the phrase “down to earth.” “This is something that friends from overseas would often say — ‘Oh, you’re so down to earth.’ It was interesting to hear,” he shares. “As a phrase, it means, like, human, humble. It stuck with me. The thoughts and emotions I had during these times are in the album, and I think it helped me make a really honest album.”
Taeyang grounded himself through the music, releasing a tender project that combines many of his deepest feelings and influences. On Zoom, just days before the anticipated release of Down to Earth, he took Rolling Stone through each track and shared why he wanted to collaborate with people like Jimin and Lisa, what inspired his sound, and how he tapped into new honesty while writing and recording these songs.
“Vibe” feat. Jimin of BTS
I’m so so thankful for the love “Vibe” received. After “Vibe” was completed and revealed to the world, that’s when firm timing and plans for the full project came into place. Even at that time, I was working on the album and contemplating what direction to go in. As the collaboration with Jimin was finalized and the song came out, the vision for the release, the lead track, and the songs that would supplement it became more clear. I’m thankful for that song in many ways. It’s the song that allowed me to come back and be my best self in such a cool way after a long time, and through this song, the rest of the album came together. The song has a special meaning to me.
“Shoong!” feat. Lisa of Blackpink
After being discharged from the military, I would go to the studio and work, but I didn’t know what story to tell, what direction to take my music in. It was difficult and I felt lost. It wasn’t like I could come out with a confident song about being the best, but making a really sad song in my sorrows wasn’t it either. I thought long and hard about what story to tell and what mood to convey. Then THEBLACKLABEL’s producers brought me this track, and we made a melody together while just joking around, throwing out words and lyrics. We were just spitting, but the song came to fruition. A vision for the album came out, like a ripple effect. After this song, the rest of the music came more easily. The racing concept comes straight from the title: “Shoong” is onomatopoeic, often used for cars passing by in Korean. The sound is repeated in the song. A Lamborghini is mentioned in the song, and from that, we dove into the racing concept visually.
The collaboration with Lisa happened so quickly, without any hurdles. One special thing is that when Lisa first came to YG, literally when she first came to Korea, I was there working on music and ended up watching her audition. At that time, she was a baby, a young kid who just came from Thailand. She sang “Baby,” by Justin Bieber, and it was so endearing. My heart was hurting [laughs]. I really wanted her to succeed. I told our CEO at the time, “I think she will do well no matter what.” I’m not saying she did well because of me or anything like that [laughs]. Watching her become so successful makes me proud.
I thought maybe this song would actually be the first to be released. That was the plan. Lisa, thankfully, said OK right away, and that she wanted to be part of the project no matter what. The song was completed so naturally, so quickly. The arrangement and producing, we finished in under a month.
The choreography for the song was done by Bailey Sok, who also did “Vibe.” It really brought me back to my roots. Bailey Sok’s choreography is really hard. I wasn’t sure if it was just because it had been so long for me. But the best dancers in Korea, who were on the show Street Man Fighter and Street Woman Fighter, they learned it as well, and had a hard time too — that gave me a lot of confidence. “Ah, it’s not just hard for me.” [Laughs.] Yesterday, I even filmed a dance-challenge video for it with Jay Park, and he also said it was hard.
“Seed” (“나의 마음에”)
When people think of K-pop, a lot of them think of the current K-pop boy groups and girl groups that are so popular now. But when I look back on K-pop’s history, I wonder, “Were the Eighties and Nineties the most beautiful, golden era with songs in our language?” It’s something I’ve always had in mind. The motive for “Seed” was to capture the essence of that era, but interpret it in a modern way.
The first song, actually, that came out of that intention was Still Life,” released last year as part of Big Bang. “Seed” was created after. To be honest, we put in a lot of the emotion we felt as a team. We got feedback from our fans, and this time, it’s truly my own feelings. I felt I could honestly convey my thoughts. The song’s title, directly translated into English, would be “In My Heart.” It contains emotions and thoughts from the past, but there’s also a desire to move forward. I didn’t think “In My Heart” captured that intention entirely, so we thought of the word “seed” — a new start, to be reborn and create new things. Our fans, our hardcore fans, our V.I.P’s, will know this, but I’ve described the relationship between Big Bang and our fans as a tree quite often. We’re the tree, and the memories we have, the thoughts we have, and the experiences are the flowers. With the song “Seed,” we’re planting a new, healthy tree with a seed, letting it grow.
This genre is one that I personally enjoy — that Motown sound and influence from the Seventies, it has that emotion and soul. This song, when we first worked on it, had a completely different style.… It had a mood that I really wasn’t drawn to. It’s a little hard to explain. We got started on the lyrics, but at the end, I was persistent and communicated that I didn’t like the sound, and it was changed to the version of “Reason” we have today. The mood [of the first version] just didn’t come to me: “Is this a love song? What is it?” It felt ambiguous, and it wasn’t easy to shift the direction to be more soulful. It took a long time to get there. This song actually took the longest to make, and a lot of thought went into whether or not it would be included in the album. Thankfully, though, one of the jazz-pianist producers at THEBLACKLABEL arranged it so beautifully, and then I was like “OK, this one can make it in.”
“Na neun, na neun” was always in the hook. When I started writing my lyrics, I went to my daily life and to the closest thing to me: my wife, the love I have for her, our story — I wanted to write the song with that in mind. From there, the current thoughts that I have about love, small anecdotes from our daily lives, all came to me. I wrote with a lighthearted mind. From one perspective, the bridge’s lyrics are meaningful, but from a different angle, the first part of the song is very sweet and honest. “Dear, that’s not it, that’s not what I was trying to say,” those lyrics came out naturally. I say those words very often to my wife [laughs].
“Inspiration” feat. Beenzino
This song, too, has a lot of musical elements that reflect my personal taste. I was so, so happy when I first heard the demo. I was thinking about how to approach the lyrics for it.… Something I’ve always had in the back of my mind is the inspirations I get, whether they’re from a song or from artists I really like. I thought about how to make a song that connected these ideas as a story. As this track was finalized, I realized that the lyrics I wanted would fit here. So we set the title as “Inspiration,” and started to write about the people, things, and art that have inspired me. Naturally, they became lyrics that tell a story.
Once the song was created, I thought to myself, “Beenzino has to be featured.” He’s so good at conveying this type of mood in his music. I think Beenzino is the best rapper in our country [laughs]. Personally! I felt it a lot when we were in the military. “He’s so talented and cool” — I was already thinking that, and then this song came about. I brought it to him, but honestly, whether it’s with Jimin or with Lisa, it’s hard for me to ask someone to feature for me, and those ended up happening more naturally. With Beenzino, it was just as hard to go to him and say, “Please do a feature for me.” I told him, “I’m working on my album, can you give it a listen?” and he really liked it. When he listened to “Inspiration,” he was like, “Wow!” and loved it. I was like, “Would you want to feature on this song then?” and he immediately started going at it. He said he really wanted to do it. It took a bit of time after that moment, but he put it all together and we were able to finalize it.
“Nightfall” feat. Bryan Chase
I alluded to this a little earlier, but when I was putting the album together, the thoughts I had, the stories and emotions I had written out, are included most in “Nightfall.” I personally think this song describes the entire album best. I noticed that a lot of fans like my intro tracks, so I was contemplating making this song the intro, but once it was completed, it was clear that it fit better as an outro. It summarizes the album well and fits the order of the songs as an outro.
One thing that I had in mind is that I recently joined THEBLACKLABEL, and I wanted to have at least once song with a rapper from THEBLACKLABEL. Bryan Chase is a rapper I liked before joining the label. He’s so talented, and when you listen to some of his work, even though it’s not out for the world yet, he’s so, so good. I thought it would be great to do a song with him, so after making “Nightfall,” he gave it a listen and liked it, and I suggested that he feature, and he said he’d be so thankful to, so we worked on it together. I’m not sure how it gets interpreted in English, but the title was set as “Nightfall” — I wasn’t familiar with the word until working on the song. I thought “sunset” was the only word I knew to describe the end of the day. The way “night” and “fall” come together as a compound word — I interpreted it as “I want the night to truly fall.” “I want this sunset I’m seeing to be the last sunset.” I felt that this word fit my intentions so well.
Kwak, K. (2023a, April 25). How Taeyang Transformed a Tough Time Into Tender Honesty on ‘Down to Earth.’ Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/taeyang-interview-down-to-earth-song-breakdown-1234723066/