Although BTS’s latest album, Map of the Soul: Persona, is a bland attempt to cover all bases, the enormous appeal of this K-pop band is ultimately undeniable.By Shaad D’Souza.
BTS’s Map of the Soul: Persona
Can you name the most famous pop group in the world right now? Here’s a hint: it’s not Coldplay, though they still sell out mega-stadiums, or Australian chart-beaters 5 Seconds of Summer, or even the now defunct though once world-hallowed One Direction. The world’s most popular pop group may be one you’ve never heard of, but rest assured, much of the global population is losing its mind over BTS – the seven-piece South Korean boy band that has crossed cultural barriers to become one of the most successful K-pop groups to date, and the first to successfully take root in the oft-xenophobic American pop scene.
Known also as the Bangtan Boys, BTS formed in 2013 and released their debut single that year. But it was only recently that they began their rapid ascent to the heights of American pop stardom. BTS didn’t break through with a huge hit song or album – their 2018 album trilogy, Love Yourself, performed well on the American charts, but not to a particularly noteworthy degree – instead, the band was propelled by a heady combination of talent, telegeny and social media savvy. BTS fans are known as the “BTS ARMY” and they rival Beyoncé’s Beyhive and Nicki Minaj’s Barbz for how quickly they can ruin the lives of their idols’ naysayers.
With the release of a new album, Map of the Soul: Persona – which reportedly racked up some three million pre-orders ahead of release, an unprecedented figure – BTS appear primed to enter the Western consciousness as a fully fledged cultural force. Critics and fans are positioning the group as the one to finally break pop’s glass ceiling. Those predictions aren’t far-fetched – BTS have become pivotal in pop history, paradigm shifters following in the footsteps of The Beatles, Madonna and the now culturally reassessed Michael Jackson. Which makes it all the more of a shame that their latest album isn’t really any good.
Map of the Soul: Persona is an almost offensively palatable mix of rap, R&B and big-tent EDM as those genres existed in the early to mid-2000s, but this has long been par for the course for BTS’s records, including Love Yourself.
As with girl group BLACKPINK, another K-pop band making a splash in America this month with a much-hyped Coachella debut, BTS make music that sounds inexplicably dated. The reference points here are the early 2000s work of rapper Eminem, “bro-step” producer Skrillex’s most juvenile compositions and the blue-eyed R&B of boy-band forebears the Backstreet Boys.
There is nothing wrong with any of these styles, and nothing wrong with a constructed boy band adopting them. I am a devout believer in the power of “manufactured” pop music; there are moments of unparalleled brilliance in the catalogues of One Direction, NSYNC, the Spice Girls, Fifth Harmony and their ilk. But in fusing these idiosyncratic genres, BTS find themselves making music that sounds a little bit like a lot of pop history, without any particular anchor to a scene or an aesthetic.
This is not iconoclastic mishmash in the style of, say, Kanye West’s early work or Rihanna’s Anti. It is aimless bet-hedging, a crass attempt at covering every possible base. Map of the Soul: Persona takes the standard signifiers of the genres it’s attempting to work within and airbrushes them to within an inch of their life, sucking them dry of any quirk or sound that made the genre compelling in the first place. The result is the musical equivalent of the uncanny valley – songs that are technically perfect but terrifyingly, upsettingly lifeless.
The tracks on Map of the Soul: Persona that lean heavily on rapping are generally the worst of the bunch, which is unfortunate, as BTS seem intent on increasing the amount of rap in their music. RM (formerly known as Rap Monster), the group leader, translator and key rapper, tends to deliver his lines with a goofy, conversational style, which recalls the worst of squeaky-clean pop rappers such as Logic and Drapht. Album opener “Intro: Persona”, performed entirely by RM, is an exercise in radio-friendly rap-rock that feels straight out of the credits of a 2008 children’s movie. Supposedly about RM’s journey of self-discovery, “Intro: Persona” ironically ends up sounding like any number of G-rated rap songs: RM generally raps with the kind of wordy flow that feels painfully out of step with contemporary rap.
While placing your art outside a trend may be admirable in some cases, it seems that BTS are aiming for overwhelming cultural relevance, so it’s strange to hear so many of the group’s songs augmented with RM’s chunky verses. Suga and J-Hope, also rappers in the group, sound a lot better and a lot less outdated during their verses on lead single “Boy with Luv”, but both have only seconds to make an impression. It seems a misstep – Suga, with his lisped delivery, raps with a particularly compelling verve.
Map of the Soul: Persona is at its most listenable when BTS aren’t attempting to escape the trappings of traditional boy-band performance through genre experiments. Rapped verses aside, “Boy with Luv” is a cavity-inducing confection that justifies its generic pastel-pink synth-pop production through sheer conviction. With guest vocals from American pop singer Halsey – a perfect fit for BTS, considering her seemingly innate ability to write painfully dull pop music – “Boy with Luv” is a swooning self-love anthem buoyed by its “whoa-oh-oh” and “my my my!”-heavy chorus. The track is as thrilling as the initial stages of a new crush, all blue skies and toothy grins, and it’s impossible to deny BTS’s charm in this mode.
“Make It Right”, a collaboration with Ed Sheeran, wins favour through its surprisingly modern production – for BTS – and its airy, magnetic vocal performances. Crooners V, Jimin and Jungkook take centre stage, and all three are gobsmacking, enthralling presences. Jungkook, in particular, proves a scene-stealer with his haunting falsetto. Anchored by a earwormy synth-horn riff, the track’s relative minimalism is curious in the otherwise overcrowded world of Map of the Soul: Persona, but in the space it affords to BTS’s less ostentatious members, they are able to quickly make themselves known.
These brief moments of respite are few and far between across Map of the Soul: Persona. The album is only seven songs long, yet by the time the execrable final track, “Dionysus”, arrives, it’s hard not to feel as though you are in the final phases of a marathon. As with many pop records, the highlights of Map of the Soul: Persona are impeccable. But the lows are dire enough to burn through nearly all the goodwill that those highs produce.
To discuss BTS in terms as simple as “good” or “bad”, though, feels like missing the point. The power of the band’s celebrity is all-consuming; all seven members are so outlandishly beautiful and intoxicatingly charismatic. After watching just two video interviews with the group, I already felt connected to them. I have my favourites – V and Jungkook – and find it undeniably charming when, say, J-Hope talks about his love of shopping. And their music is context dependent. While I find the recorded version of BTS’s 2018 single “Idol” absolutely repellent, I can’t look away from videos of its live performances, where the seven band members dance with such synchronicity they seem beyond human.
Map of the Soul: Persona is not a very good collection of music but BTS are very good at being a boy band, and, in truth, that is probably more important in the long run. Gargantuan success is inevitable for Jin, Jimin, Suga, V, Jungkook, RM and J-Hope. It would feel wrong to begrudge them that success.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Split personality". Subscribe here.