Score: 4 stars out of 5
Eight months on from their last album, the Bangtan Boys explore the idea of artist versus idol, roping in a couple of high-profile cameos – from Halsey to Ed Sheeran – to craft a record that sees them continuing to raise the bar
In the eight months since BTS last released an album – the 26-song ‘Love Yourself: Answer’, which collated tracks from the rest of the ‘Love Yourself’ trilogy with added new cuts – a lot has happened for the Korean pop wonders. They’ve dominated the Grammys just by presenting an award and looking like they were having the time of their lives in the crowd, put out their first fully English track in Steve Aoki collaboration ‘Waste It On Me’, and claimed a ton of the top prizes at Korea’s biggest award ceremonies. There’s also the small matter of an upcoming stadium tour that includes two quickly sold-out dates at London’s iconic Wembley Stadium.
Despite their constantly hectic schedule, BTS aren’t ones to rest on their laurels and be content with touring the same material for two years. The K-pop world is one where bands regularly put out multiple records a year and so, in the limited time they’ve had between conducting the business of being one of the biggest bands in the world, they’ve put together a whole new release. At only seven songs, it’s a lot shorter than most sprawling albums put out by their Western counterparts these days, but its concise tracklist leaves no room for filler, no space for even a note to be wasted.
Like many a Bangtan album before it, ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’ impressively and cohesively flies from genre to genre, but sounds more confident than ever. It’s bookended by two hard-hitting, hip-hop heavy tracks. ‘Intro: Persona’ kicks things off, a solo track from leader RM that rides on a crunching guitar riff that, when mixed with his swaggering delivery, feels like a modern rejuvenation of Beastie Boys’ spirit. Lyrically, it explores the way we’re all made up of many different versions of ourselves, referencing Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theories of the human psyche, the speech RM gave at the UN last year (“I dreamt of becoming a superhero”), and their 2018 single ‘Idol’. That track saw Jungkook rap, “There are hundreds of me’s inside of me”, a theme his bandmate picks up here as he cites the many different sides of him – for instance: “The me that I want myself to be / The me that people want me to be”.
At the other end of the album, ‘Dionysus’ also harks back to ‘Idol’, its opening lines exploring the issue of artist versus idol. In Suga’s verse, he raps in Korean: “Born as a K-pop idol and reborn as an artist […] What does it matter whether I’m an idol or an artist?” It’s a smart track that, like the Greek god its title references, celebrates having a big one (“until the sun rises, where’s the party at?” goes one retain, while Jimin, V, and Jungkook take turns to deliver the chorus’ opening line: “Drink, drink, drink, drink it all, my glass”). A vibrant party anthem, it also compares the pursuit of intoxication with being a musician watched over by a critical world: “Drink up (the torment of creating) / One mouthful (the scolding of society)”.
As you’d expect of a band as talked-about and in-demand as BTS, some of the world’s biggest stars are lining up to work with them. There are two big-name collaborations on ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’; one works better than the other. Halsey, a long-time friend of the group, appears on ‘Boy With Luv’, a colourful, summery pop song that references their 2014 single ‘Boy In Luv’. Her star power doesn’t overshadow BTS’, with her contribution – a handful of lines in the chorus and hook – fitting in naturally and seamlessly. It’s addictive and deftly balanced, and has smash hit written all over it.
‘Make It Right’, however, is just… fine. Ed Sheeran might have only co-written the track rather than cameoed on it, but his vocal doesn’t need to be present for it to exhibit his DNA. Along with ‘Waste It On Me’, its probably the most typically Western track BTS have put out so far, coming off like ‘Shape Of You’ minus the Afropop rhythms. It might be the weakest track on the album, but its saving grace is that it’s infinitely less annoying to have stuck in your head than that aforementioned Sheeran chart-topper.
‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’ wouldn’t be a BTS album without some emotional moments. Those arrive in two tracks collaborated on with London-based production duo Arcades, ‘Mikrokosmos’ and ‘Jamais Vu’. The former, co-written with former X Factor hopeful Ryan Lawrie, is a widescreen and glittering electronic pop beauty that takes its title from ancient Greek philosophy and the concept of each individual human being their own world.That idea most obviously manifests in RM’s relaxed verse that, when translated into English, finds him rapping: “One history in one person / One star in one person / Shining with seven billion lights / Seven billion worlds.” The latter, which features only Jungkook, Jin, and J-Hope, references the opposite phenomenon of déjà vu – when something familiar and that has happened before feels weirdly foreign and new. Comparing life to a computer game, it opens with Jin sighing, “I think I lost again” before a chorus that has him and Jungkook begging: “Please give me a remedy / A remedy that will make my heart beat again.”
One of the reasons for BTS’ trailblazing success is their intensely deep connection to their fanbase, known as ARMY. They often include songs dedicated to their loyal followers on their albums (see ‘Love Yourself: Tear’’s ‘Magic Shop’) and here ‘HOME’ takes that honour. Mixing a classic, soulful R&B sound with modern production, they describe their fans as a place of refuge from the isolation of being a world-famous band and all that brings, while detailing the inaccuracies in people’s perceptions of their lives. ‘Totally pitiful / Seems like the world thinks we have the whole world,” raps Suga, before nodding to their 2013 debut single ‘No More Dream’. “The big house, big cars, big rings we dreamed about / Even if I get everything I wanted / I’m still lonely with this unfamiliar feeling of someone who had everything come true.”
As they continue to break records and defy expectations, BTS’ metaphorical (and already palatial) home is only going to get bigger. ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’ is proof of that, and finds them setting the bar intimidatingly high – for fellow K-pop artists, ones across the globe, and themselves. As their story shows so far, it’ll be no surprise if they raise it again next time round.