Before Lay Zhang became Lay Zhang, he was Zhang Yixing, a contestant on the music show, Star Academy. The youngest among all participants, Zhang still had an innocence when approaching the art that would become his life. When he usually reached the practice venue, all other contestants would already be there. When he saw them practice again and again, he would wonder, confused: Isn’t performing just about memorising lyrics, and singing and dancing? Why did they have to practice for so long?
Sometimes, while the participants waited for arrangements to be completed, they would find a spot outside the venue and start jamming. As 13-year-old Zhang watched, he felt a kindling inside of him; a “burning passionate aura” that started from the participants singing and culminated in a feeling bursting forth from his chest. Maybe that was how he first discovered passion, but it certainly did lay the groundwork for the man who is known as one of China’s biggest celebrities today.
Star Academy was only the beginning for Changsha-born Zhang. In 2008, the erstwhile wide-eyed teenager auditioned for SM Entertainment – one of the titans of K-pop – and made it through. In 2012, EXO was born. Along the group was Lay, rewriting the history of modern-day K-pop with one hit after another.
The call of home, however, had always been strong with Zhang. Despite his heavy schedule with EXO, he managed to continue activities in mainland China, until the heavy workload made the latter a more permanent base. If you look at Zhang’s trajectory, however, the transition from EXO’s Lay to solo artist Lay seems as smooth as ever.
On the first day of digital release, his first studio album, Lay 02 Sheep, broke five records on QQ Music, one of China’s largest streaming networks. With his second album, NAMANANA, he aimed for the US, and became the highest-ranking Mando-pop artist on the Billboard 200 chart.
So, what prompted Zhang to kick off 2020 with an album as unlikely as LIT? After all, the English-Chinese NAMANANA was a blueprint (and proof) of his potential success in the West. Compare to NAMANANA, LIT is a complete one-eighty-degree turn. The two-parter album breaks away from the heavy pop, R&B-influence of NAMANANA, instead coming seeped in the traditional Chinese sounds of Hulusi, Guzheng, and Gong.
From the lyrics that contain clever wordplay comparing Zhang to a mythical dragon (another important cultural motif) to the title itself – a play on the Chinese word for lotus, ‘lián huā’ – LIT is a revelation and a declaration. No matter where he goes, Lay Zhang will always carry China inside himself.
“You always want to respect the culture. We owe a lot to the past for giving us today: I cannot stress that enough,” Zhang explains why he decided to make LIT as a fusion of Chinese tradition and culture, and modernity. “I understand that people have new tastes each year, so you want to make sure that you match the energy and the vibe of the year.”
But with such vastly different inspirations and sounds, where is the point where the past and present find themselves in perfect synchronicity, as they do on LIT?
“It’s hard to explain how I find the balance. I ask my friends and collaborators, what they feel,” he says. “I took that into consideration [with LIT], and checked my gut feeling. Did I feel [like] it mixed my Chinese sound with the present or modern without losing it? It’s [a] feeling I get after listening to the record time after time in my car or in the studio.”
On LIT, thus, Zhang melds his roots and his present musical proclivities to create a fusion of genres. The eponymous title track is held together by a powerful, continuous beat, working in tandem with pi’pa riffs. “Jade” samples the famous Peking Opera piece “Farewell My Concubine”. The soaring, fluvial “H20” evokes Taoist imagery with water, all coming together with the sound of the guzheng. On every track of LIT, the past and the present exist in a perfect state ordained by Zhang, the first-step towards his vision of the future.
“I just tried a lot of genres. Since I was young, I have been singing in Chinese and listening to pop music, so I find writing R&B is easier, since it is similar. With traditional Chinese music, it feels like second nature, since I grew up with it.” He says.
“Latin and Hip-hop is very new to me, but Latin caught my ear because it’s easy to dance to. I’ve been listening to hip-hop and trap in the past few years. I think no matter what kind, I want to do a new genre,” he continues, stressing that genre will be just a word in the future.
“I want to call it M-pop because I think in the future, mixed will be king. Every work, every genre can be mixed with each other – every language can mix with each other, and that’s where we go.”
As is the norm with Zhang, the proverbial second phase of his vision has already been set into motion. Earlier this year, right around the time of his birthday, Zhang announced the foundation of his own company, Chromosome Entertainment. Training the next generation of Chinese superstars has always been a goal, but with Chromosome, Zhang will also stress the importance of roots.
“With my new company, the Chromosome Entertainment Group I have been taking the time to think about what type of artists and groups I want to help grow and nurture. I have a lot of ideas for the sound for my artists and for me.” he says.
What about his own evolution in music?
“For future music, I want to take the sound from LIT to the next level. You might hear a darker style, but I’m experimenting and listening to tracks every week. For myself especially, I want to keep exploring and figuring what music suits me at this stage in my life.”