The biggest K-pop group in the world try to move their sound forward but spend too much time leaning on their past.
BTS are the superheroes of K-pop, a group of seven young South Korean men—RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—who have carried the boy-band torch into the global arena. Formed in 2013, BTS cut their teeth making rap-centric tracks at a time when hip-hop was just beginning to dominate the Korean music scene. Fans were quickly drawn to their musical self-sufficiency, socially conscious messaging, and the high-art references of their visuals. Last year, their studio album Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ became the first Korean album to ever top the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, earning them a new level of acclaim rarely seen by “international” artists; the superheroes won the day.
With the seven-song MAP OF THE SOUL : PERSONA, BTS are trying to blaze a path forward, further securing their foothold in commercial pop while proving to diehards that they’re still high-minded outsiders who preface their music videos with Herman Hesse quotes and reference Carl Jung with the best of them. But the album suffers from sequel syndrome and suggests that the Bangtan Boys are too willing to lean on their past accomplishments. The arrangements on PERSONA are busy and convoluted, and many lyrical highlights are buried in meta, self-referential schlock rock.
The album is bookended with songs built around the kind of inelegant instrumentation you’d find in royalty-free music or internal corporate videos, with big guitars and drums that sound as if they’ve been airlifted in from a downloadable sampler pack. In the case of “Intro : Persona,” the production is built around a recycled beat from the opening track of BTS’ 2014 debut. But to a new listener lacking context, the song comes across as sour and stale, which is a shame considering bandleader RM waxes poetic about his imposter syndrome and recapturing his motivation to pursue music. Meanwhile, “Dionysus” moves from stadium-ready fuzz to a shoehorned trap section to a contrived breakdown, with the members sounding as if they’re being dragged along rather than leading with their voices. And yet this closing track contains the most fascinating lyrics of the whole project.