On the RIIZE: Meet K-Pop’s New, Down to Earth Stars

On the RIIZE: Meet K-Pop’s New, Down to Earth Stars

When RIIZE goes out to dinner, it’s a 20-person affair.

On this particular Sunday evening, the pioneering South Korean mega-label SM Entertainment has reserved a private room at a hot spot in Los Angeles’ Koreatown popular with music artists for its new boy band. The six members file in around a long table — along with an SM-associated translator (who is occasionally assisted by two other team members), a publicist from RCA Records (an SM partner for RIIZE), a veteran manager from Seoul and eight additional crew members who sit in a nearby booth.


The Korean group is in town for its RIIZING DAY Fan-Con Tour tomorrow — a “fan-concert” where the group intersperses choreographed performances of its own K-pop hits with casual games, informal onstage chats among themselves and special covers of both K-pop classics and global boy band hits, like One Direction’s “One Thing.” It’s RIIZE’s first time headlining a show in the United States, but its third group visit to L.A. Before the May 20 concert, the group flew here in August to attend the city’s annual KCON K-pop mega-fest and also filmed two music videos in town: the jovial “Memories” (a pre-debut single that generated buzz for the group that month) and its official debut single, “Get a Guitar,” a slick, bubblegum earworm released in both Korean and English that’s now RIIZE’s most streamed song globally, with 219.6 million official on-demand streams since its September release, according to Luminate.

“Not even a year has passed since our debut, but so much has happened,” says RIIZE’s youngest member, 20-year-old Anton, as his bandmates nibble on naan bread and citrus-splashed hamachi crudo. “Back then, our group was, like, innocent, you know? Now, we’ve sort of adjusted to traveling and visiting other countries.”

Shotaro of RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.
Sungchan of RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.

In fact, RIIZE’s members weren’t totally green when the group made its official debut on Sept. 4, 2023, through K-pop giant SM in a partnership with RCA. Shotaro and Sungchan had previously debuted in NCT, the ambitious boy band project that SM launched in 2016, becoming its two newest members in 2020 and contributing to Resonance, Pt. 1, NCT’s highest-charting Billboard 200 release. Two years later, SM’s board of directors moved to terminate the company’s production contract with founder Lee Soo-Man (from whom SM gets its name) in 2022 in an effort to shift SM away from Lee’s creative authority. In May 2023, Korean multimedia conglomerate Kakao became the company’s largest shareholder after a heated bidding war with K-pop titan HYBE (which initially bought Lee’s stake in the company but then sold it to Kakao during a tender offer) for access to SM’s nearly 30 years of K-pop glory, including an extensive catalog, dedicated divisions for nonmusic opportunities like acting, technology and the metaverse, as well as dozens of active artists — soon to include its newest addition, RIIZE.

Just days before Kakao became majority shareholder, SM CEO Jang Cheol-Hyuk revealed that as part of a company restructuring, NCT — originally pitched as a group with infinite members splintered into localized subunits worldwide — would no longer infinitely expand and that Shotaro and Sungchan would leave to debut in a new group, joining previously announced SM Rookies (the company’s team of trainees) Eunseok and Seunghan, along with other Korean and American members. In July 2023, excitement mounted when K-pop media outlets reported that the son of acclaimed Korean singer-songwriter-producer Yoon Sang — later revealed to be Anton — would also join the project.

Finally, on July 27, 2023, SM introduced RIIZE. The group (whose name is a portmanteau of “rise” and “realize”) launched its Instagram with 27 photos — casual selfies and mirror pics without the flashy fashion, perfect makeup or glossy finishes that often characterize K-pop photo shoots even on social media — revealing the seven-member lineup of Shotaro, Eunseok, Sungchan, Wonbin, Seunghan, Sohee and Anton. (Six are at dinner tonight; in November, SM placed Seunghan on “indefinite suspension,” though he is still listed as a RIIZE member on the label’s website.)

RIIZE has sought to present itself as more down-to-earth — a noticeable change from previous, high-concept SM artist launches like the supernatural-inspired boy band EXO; the girl group aespa, which sings about straddling the real and virtual worlds; and other larger-than-life K-pop idols the label has served up since the late 1990s. RIIZE describes its music as “emotional pop,” a phrase it uses, Anton says, “because we hope that people can relate to it emotionally. The members all do, and I think that’s what our fans want from us as well.”

RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.
Clockwise from top left: Wonbin, Shotaro, Eunseok, Sungchan, Anton, and Sohee.

But RIIZE differs from other K-pop outfits in ways that go beyond the aesthetic or concept. For one, its social media approach is far more hands-on than that of its contemporaries, who tend to have marketing-approved captions; @riize_official sprinkles comments across fans’ TikTok accounts. The members also filmed the #GetAGuitarChallenge with influencers including Merrick Hanna (who has 32.5 million followers on TikTok), reacted to tasting Indonesian snacks with Jerome Polin (8.2 million followers on Instagram) and shot charming content with South Korea’s most prominent openly gay celebrity, the tastemaker Hong Seok-Cheon, who predicted Wonbin as a “face” to watch in 2024.

“We have a concept called ‘real-time odyssey,’” Eunseok explains. “We post a lot of pictures of our daily life and intimate [moments] on social media.” Anton clarifies: “We don’t really think of it as a concept — we’re just trying to show our authentic selves.”

Unlike many of its peers, RIIZE also does not have a designated “leader,” even if the Tokyo-raised Shotaro — at 23, the group’s eldest and only Japanese member — naturally steps up. At dinner, he ensures everyone around him (including this reporter) has water and their drink of choice. He’s the first to speak at the meal and divulges the most about his musical tastes; Sam Smith is a favorite. To his left is his fellow ex-NCT member, Seoul-born Sungchan, 22, whose beaming smile helped him become a host of the weekly K-pop performance TV program Inkigayo while he was in NCT. One day, he hopes Pharrell Williams will collaborate on a track for RIIZE. Shotaro likens Sungchan to the color sky blue because he has “a very clear heart… and is very innocent.”

Sohee of RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.
Wonbin of RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.

RIIZE’s four other members sit across from the duo. Born and raised in Seoul, Eunseok, 23, prefers calm ballads and the music of Ed Sheeran. While his outside demeanor matches his musical taste, his bandmates reveal he has a more lighthearted side: As Sohee describes, Eunseok is known for giving “very random and fantastical” nonsensical nicknames to everyone he meets. Anton calls them “basically video-game character names,” which makes everyone laugh.

The 22-year-old Wonbin — or “Dark Bean,” as Eunseok has dubbed him, to the rest of RIIZE’s amusement — was born in Seoul but raised in South Korea’s southern port city of Ulsan; he digs Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience-era singles like “Mirrors” and “Suit & Tie.” Baby-faced powerhouse vocalist Sohee, 20, grew up in Siheung, located in the country’s most populous province, Gyeonggi; he is not only “really bright,” Anton explains, “[but] his mindset is always really positive as well.”

Last is Anton, 20, son of singer Yoon Sang and the actress Shim Hye-Jin. While Anton has appeared on South Korean TV since childhood (Yoon Sang is based in South Korea), he was born in Boston and raised in New Jersey; growing up in the United States fostered his appetite for music discovery and exploration, which ultimately became the foundation for his K-pop career. “I don’t really think I have a favorite artist per se,” he says, soft-spoken but self-assured. “I just like to explore as many genres [as I can] and try to listen to a lot of different music even if I don’t understand the language. People who enjoy K-pop might not understand Korean.”

RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.
From left: Anton, Sohee, Wonbin, Eunseok, Shotaro, and Sungchan of RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.

Anton’s musical philosophy encapsulates the growing mindset of the young audience with whom RIIZE, as well as SM and RCA, hope to connect. As U.S. listeners become increasingly interested in foreign-language music, RIIZE has earned 37.8 million official U.S. on-demand streams — contributing to 641.2 million globally — according to Luminate. And it hopes to continue expanding its fan base (known as BRIIZE, pronounced “breeze”) with the June 17 release of RIIZING – The 1st Mini Album. Its new single, “Boom Boom Bass,” incorporates the same hooky energy of “Get a Guitar” while adding shimmery disco vibes and an irresistible bassline. Sungchan and Wonbin both say it’s their favorite RIIZE song yet.

After five different K-pop releases topped the Billboard 200 last year, driven by K-pop fans’ love of physical product and labels delivering collectible album packages in multiple versions, RCA Records COO John Fleckenstein says the label is “absolutely focused on delivering physical versions for RIIZE” in the United States — but as just one way to elevate the group’s presence.

“The vision behind our global partnership was to marry what both our companies do best across all areas to bring additional opportunities, reach, resources and growth to support RIIZE,” Fleckenstein adds. “Our passion lies in exploring the intersection of music, art, culture and then connecting that to an audience. SM have been incredible partners who truly understand the market.”

Eunseok of RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.
Anton of RIIZE photographed May 21, 2024 in Los Angeles.

As the members of RIIZE dip into Basque cheesecakes for dessert, they share their personal goals for the future, both near and distant. They hope that “Boom Boom Bass” can crack multiple Billboard charts and are looking forward to their first original Japanese-language single, “Lucky,” due in July, calling it “a perfect song for the summer.” Shotaro dreams of someday performing at the Super Bowl and the Billboard Music Awards.

RIIZE wants fans to understand that the Fan-Con Tour is only the beginning, and that the members plan to visit many countries. When Shotaro and Anton burst into tears during the band’s two sold-out dates at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium arena in May, it brought new meaning to the group’s “emotional pop” — and conveyed how much RIIZE wants an offline fan connection that is as strong as its online one.

“I really did not plan on crying whatsoever,” Anton reflects. “That was our biggest concert to date, and seeing the fans far away holding up our signs and stuff was just sort of overwhelming.” At the concert the day after dinner, the members manage not to break into tears — but their performance is no less heartfelt. Amid heart-stopping choreography, Anton pauses to address the audience. “We’ll work hard,” he says, “to become a RIIZE that BRIIZE can be proud of.”

RIIZE Billboard Cover

The post “On the RIIZE: Meet K-Pop’s New, Down to Earth Stars” by Josh Glicksman was published on 06/13/2024 by www.billboard.com