In 2018, BTS’s Suga was asked if he thought of K-pop as a genre.
“I think a better approach would be ‘integrated content’,” he replied.
The South Korean rapper and producer suggested a reframing of the art form that’s also a country’s billion-dollar soft power: “K-pop includes the music, the clothes, the make-up, the choreography. All of these elements amalgamate together in a visual and auditory package.”
The same could be said for the pop idol group’s latest album, Map Of The Soul: 7.
For a seven-member boy band that has actively mythologized their seven-year career trajectory through obsessive online documentation, there’s more to consider than just an album. It’s more of an unboxing. There are music videos, concept photos, dance rehearsals, live-streams, artist merch, brand collaborations, talk show appearances. Like Taylor Swift’s Swifties, BTS ARMY are autodidact scholars doing close readings of hybrid performances and artifacts.
Take the album’s lead single, ON. Co-produced by long-time BTS collaborators Michel “Lindgren” Schulz and Pdogg, the track reboots the band’s 2013 hit N.O, a scathing trap-tinged critique of the South Korean school system. The propulsive energy is still there, augmented by marching band snares and horns. Lyrically, it tosses references to being in Seoul, New York City or Paris. This isn’t school anymore – it’s the world stage.
But the song’s impact is felt most keenly in its multiple iterations: the Manchurian dystopian setting of its official music video, the earlier Kinetic Manifesto Visual (basically another form of music video), its dance rehearsal and the subsequent late-night performances – you might have seen them on Jimmy Fallon earlier this week shutting down NYC’s Grand Central station. You can’t help but be taken by the precision and sharpness of the choreography and protestor-like bodily gestures. It’s like watching a musical.
Map Of The Soul: 7 is truly a flex. It’s refreshingly ebullient and accessible, manifesting endless genre-blurring permutations of art-pop. Many of the tracks are subunit efforts – smaller idol groups that might break off from the larger original group – which gives a chance to spotlight each member’s varied tastes. It’s a savvy move for a band that, despite their record-breaking popularity, is still “introducing itself” to new audiences. (Not to mention: the first part of this album is essentially a selection of tracks from their 2019 EP.)
That’s how you end up with the Latin flavour on Filter, a track featuring main singer Jimin, or the dark, futuristic R&B of Louder Than Bombs. There’s also the old-school swagger on Respect, which gives a chance for the rap line (specifically, Suga and RM, who are frequently credited as songwriters and producers on BTS tracks) to shine.
I’m especially fond of how BTS’s rap line effortlessly shifts between English and Korean wordplay, signalling the ways they constantly translate different words and also views. On Ugh!, an East Asian-like zither blows up into a skittering, twitching beat that slaps with bullet brap. Suga, RM and J-Hope trade rhymes blasting off on hate comments into a meditation on the necessity of anger, rage and personal responsibility. It’s an intriguing call and response, a shifting of conversational perspectives.
Empowering stadium-bound singalongs like Inner Child and We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal emphasize the band’s history with its fans and each other. You can’t help think how the subunit focuses align with an inevitable fractured near-future due to South Korea’s mandatory military enlistment. As more of its members hit their late 20s, BTS may become a six or even five-person unit.
With that in mind, the album is aligned with other self-reflective later-period boy band entries like NSYNC’s Celebrity or even One Direction’s Made In The A.M. Despite being held up as modern-day Dorian Grays, boy band members must eventually come to terms with their constructed pop identity, unveiling who “they really are” beyond being the mysterious one or the Maknae one.
How does Map Of The Soul: 7 contend with this likely end of an era? By serving pure bops on self-love. For BTS, the cascading of distributed content translates into authentic post-genre experimentation.
Top track: ON
BTS play Rogers Centre on May 30 & 31. See listing.