The K-pop group’s latest is part memoir, part fan service, and part amateur psych eval. They can still tap into something enchanting, but the glimpses of personality here are fleeting.
The BTS brand has never been stronger. The seven Bangtan Boys have already parlayed their massive fanbase into a merch and media empire that includes a Mattel toy collection, a mobile game, and a soundtrack doubling as a collaborative EP. Their new album, Map of the Soul: 7, is already a huge global hit. It sold two million copies in its first two hours in South Korea and is projected to do bigger first-week numbers stateside than Justin Bieber did. The shareholders are satiated. The Army is spoken for. The K-pop superstars have emerged as the product arm of a worldwide commercial apparatus that’d make the Svengalis behind turn-of-the-millenium teen-pop salivate.
Except the members of BTS maintain that there’s still a beating heart at the core of the machine. Authenticity is part of their appeal, and they use vaguely philosophical, Jungian blueprints to make music about being true to one’s self. 7, which follows (and includes much of) the 2019 mini-album Persona, is part memoir, part fan service, part amateur psych eval. Though the music is flattened enough to appeal to just about everyone, it can still tap into something enchanting, but the glimpses of personality are fleeting.
The “seven” in the title is an obvious reference to the number of members in the group and the number of years they’ve been performing together. Fittingly, the album is dedicated to their group arc and highlighting their individual journeys within. 7 is highly self-referential, with new songs sampling old songs and alluding to others dating back to their 2013 debut. It is tasked with doing a lot—not only chronicling the group’s path to this point but also unpacking the rest of their ambitious yet hard to parse concept: an exploration of the relationship between the persona and the shadow. There is some obvious overlap between the two: the negativity we unconsciously bear and its correspondence with the masks we all wear mirrors the dichotomy of managing a public face amid the looming private pressures of being a famous K-pop star.
Because the album repurposes Persona as a five-song preface, 7 really begins with the interlude “Shadow,” performed by Suga. “One message that penetrates the album as a whole is that you must face your inner shadow, but resist becoming submerged into its depths,” he explained during the album’s seemingly endless press junket. “Shadow” is supposed to set the tone for a more intense exploration of self from the Boys, together and individually, but it turns out to be the most thoughtful moment on an album that is unnecessarily drawn-out, jumbled, and uneven.
Persona lacked the natural fluidity and chicness of their best music. Those problems aren’t exactly mitigated here, since most of those songs appear on this album too, but within this new context, they feel like a flashback before the saga continues. Many of the new songs are better about balancing Easter eggs for day-ones with new entry points for more casual listeners. J-Hope’s solo cut “Outro : Ego” flips the boom-bap sample from their first intro “2 Cool 4 Skool” into a vibrant dembow groove, and this sonic convergence of the band’s past and present traces its musical history, as he traces his personal one in the lyrics. Conversely, “Louder Than Bombs,” co-written by Troye Sivan, is moody synth-pop that represents the group they’re transforming into—one less reliant on rapping.
Unlike most of their K-pop peers, the BTS prototype was constructed specifically around rap. “I had considered putting together a hip-hop crew, not an idol group,” Big Hit CEO Bang Si-hyuk, also known as group producer Hitman Bang, told Time last year. “But when I considered the business context, I thought a K-pop idol model made more sense.” BTS rappers RM, Suga, and J-Hope were the holdover trainees from that original vision; Bang Si-hyuk refers to them as the group’s “musical pillars.” Tiger JK, of the trailblazing Korean rap group Drunken Tiger, has claimed that BTS cornerstone RM broke the stigma of idol-group MCs as mere roleplaying puppets. Rap-laden art-pop is still what they do best, but they’ve diverted their focus of late. In its attempt to placate every type of BTS fan, 7 sacrifices what’s most effective about the unit.
There are a few reminders. On the lyrical speed run “UGH!” the group’s trio of MCs place themselves among the best Korean rappers, lashing out at haters in the process, with J-Hope putting on a cartoonish display to rival a kook like Danny Brown. With trap drums and heavily Auto-Tuned vox, “Black Swan” sounds like the kind of SoundCloud rap novelty that, in an alternate reality, would land the posh crew on a No Jumper pod. And when solo, Suga and J-Hope each sound comfortable in their elements.
As on 2016’s Wings, the members of BTS separate for solo turns on 7, and those can be more illuminating than their characterless crossovers with Halsey and Sia. Jimin glides throughout the sanitized, Latin-leaning “Filter,” bringing some color to its convoluted concept and tapping into music’s hottest market. Jungkook’s “My Time” uses a strobing R&B template usually reserved for professing love to capture the overwhelming pace of his career like a nostalgic time-lapse video. But for every moment on 7 that feels revelatory, there’s another that is regressive. On the spectrum of transitional, autobiographical pop, it’s closer to Bieber’s flavorless Changes than Ariana Grande’s vibrant thank u, next.
No genre courts extramusical interest quite like K-pop. There’s a blood pact between stans and idols that complete devotion to the product may sometimes have a dehumanizing effect. As the biggest act working in the industry, it’s interesting that the members of BTS seem to have at least a surface-level desire to maintain the humanity within their cash machine. But their conception of the shadow is personified so literally (as a swallowing black mass of negativity) and so vaguely (rarely speaking to the being of any individual specifically) that it lacks pointedness.
If the most personal is indeed the most creative, then 7 could have benefitted from a bit more personality. V has been open about how “scary” it is to be stalked by fans and Suga has rapped about depression before, but that kind of candor and complication doesn’t factor much into this, their album about the dark side of the psyche and the BTS journey. They could’ve gone deeper and used this psychoanalytic framework to say more about the joys and terrors of all-consuming celebrity—about what it does to the soul. Much has been made of BTS’ autonomy as creators, but their album feels like a brand activation, the latest petition for everyone to like and subscribe.
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