If their melancholy and largely triumphant Map of the Soul: 7 is anything to go by, carrying the burden of a pioneer style of fame rests uneasily on the shoulders of mega-stars BTS. Comprised of members RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook, their latest album (and first in 10 months- their longest break yet) showcases the K-pop group embracing a more mature sound that both reflects on their past while looking to the future with equal measures earned trepidation and practiced brazenness. In their lead anthemic track “ON” they sing :
“Even if I fall, I come right up, scream / That’s how we’ve always been/ Even if my knees drop to the ground /As long as they don’t get buried /It won’t matter/Win no matter what.”
The fight remains in their music, the scrappy, underdog mentality they debuted with – seen best in energized performances of the lead single – but with the fire comes the understanding that as bright as they may be burning, they can’t always escape from the smoke and ashes of what came first and what lingers later.
This might best be exemplified in “Black Swan” the first group track released for the album. Hypnotic and laced with traditional string instrumentation, an engaging play against the heavily processed vocals, “Black Swan” may be the group’s most impressive single to date. It’s so good that it makes it almost impossible for the remainder of the album to live up to, especially when the greater themes of the lyrics are explored. The song ruminates on the quote by Martha Graham where she said “A dancer dies twice – once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.”
It’s this type of introspection that elevates BTS from some of their peers. Setting the tone for Map of Soul: 7 on a whole, the song grapples with both the inevitable end of dancers ability to perform – when their bodies will no longer be able to sustain the grueling choreography this seven piece unit often chases – but also the fear of the possibility that one day, after fighting for it all, their passion no longer remains.
The entirety of the album chases ideas that flirt with this mentality and even once it’s gone from dark to light, so to speak, from the “Shadow” to “Ego.” Throughout it all, there’s something bittersweet regarding this work. Not just is it twinged with inescapable melancholy, but there’s some sense of finality that trails its end as well – not the end of the band, but certainly the end of the current chapter of their career. Inspired by Carl Jung’s Map of the Soul, the album finds its grace notes in the shadows.
The first half of “7” aches with wanting, missed opportunities and harsh retrospection. Suga excels in a biting and blistering track where he recounts how with fame comes loneliness and how the view from the top doesn’t quite meet the expectation of the dreams of his youth. As the song swings from monotonous rumbling to frantic, frenzied spitting words, he sings:
“People say, there’s splendor in that bright light /But my growing shadow swallows me and becomes a monster.”
The vocalists take a greater hand with their solo songs this time around, playing producer and writer to their individual numbers. Jungkook embraces this with his song “My Time.” Bursting at the seams with R&B influences (think Frank Ocean style vocal layering mixed with the infectious catchiness of early 2000 hits) the song is beautifully produced with a story of many young artists who have hit the spotlight too soon in their adolescence. Singing about growing up too fast and living his life “like a movie,” it’s an example of how the band have learned to grow and reflect and interpret it into their music.
Not all of the top numbers take place in obvious self-doubt. My self-declared sleeper hit of the album, “Moon” performed by Jin is energetic in tone, demonstrating possibly the singers best vocals to date, but is dripping with self-deprecation. A welcome if surprising turn from his standard ballads (“Epiphany” and “Awake” respectively) the song is deceptively simply structured but addictive in nature as his vocals shake against his chest. So alive and pulsing is the song that it’s easy to miss lyrics such as “Everyone says I’m beautiful / but my sea is black.”
Elsewhere all of the members get to shine – from a Latin inspired, sautering number by vocalist Jimin who sings about masks in “Filter,” or a never better V in “Inner Child” who croons about overcoming childhood insecurity with vocals that soar with the clarity of a Disney Prince. And there’s much to be said about rapper and groups MVP J-Hope whose “Ego” – playing with synth layers and retro hip-hop beats – is definitively his own, soaked in his uncanny individualism. The rappers in particular shine in a group outing in the unfortunately titled “UGH!” where they scrutinize those anonymous naysayers, RM, Suga and J-Hope rapping with such whiplash ferocity that’s it difficult to keep up. Perhaps not as iconic as their “Ddaeng,” but it certainly comes close in its intensity.
Some numbers fail to live up to the album as a whole such as a cute in theory “Respect” which doesn’t capitalize nearly enough on RM and Suga’s expressive styles, relying too heavily on autotune for Suga’s verse, or “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” which is an easy listen by forgettable compared to the vocalists previous number “The Truth Untold” and the inexplicable decision to keep “Make it Right” on the album but loose the delightful “Mikrokosmos.” Even “ON ” falls somewhere in between singles”Idol “ and”Not Today” stadium raisers – a lot of good noise but elevated immensely by the live performance. Perhaps it’s not fair to grade on a curve, but many of the numbers that didn’t quite break barriers will likely become all the more engrossing once we see what these consummate performers can do with them live.
As indicated though by the title, the magic lies in the group performances. Dynamic, epic in size and determined to live up to the hype they’ve built for themselves from the ground up, the album soars when they all come together. From the aforementioned (and really, can’t be stressed enough, superb) “Black Swan,” to the Troye Sivan penned “Louder Than Bombs” which demonstrates some of the groups best harmonies, dynamic with the backing track in a way they don’t always gravitate towards. It’s their end track as a unit though “We Are Bulletproof: the Eternal” that plays the most into their identities – past, present and future – and marries winsome wistfulness with a song that’s heartfelt and grand in scale.
Throw stones at me/ We don’t fear anymore /We are, we are together bulletproof
Playing on a title from one of their very first hits and a name that used to bring them embarrassment, it’s a final, victory lap of a testament that they’ve gone through it all, and they’re still climbing. Perhaps for many a fan this won’t touch the Wings glory days or touch on the romanticism of youthful exploration of the “HYYH/The Youth Trilogy” but for fans who entered a little late in the game (see: this writer) Map of the Soul: 7 is a fitting and fighting encapsulation of what makes the group such a worldwide phenomenon.