Since skyrocketing to fame over the last two years, Korean star super group BTS reflects and redefines themselves with their newest EP, Map of the Soul: Persona, a sleek, seven track album seizing charts worldwide.
Having developed a reputation for heady themes and hat tips to classic literature, their latest series draws from a Jungian psychology primer penned by Dr. Murray Stein. Projected to be the first of three albums, Persona prods at the group’s identity over upbeat pop tracks that belie the more reflective lyrics within.
“Intro: Persona” opens the album with the group’s leader, RM, rapping about identity over a strong beat partially sampled from a track from their 2014 album, Skool Luv Affair. After wallowing in self-doubt in the first verse, RM revels in the development of his musical persona in the second, triumphantly declaring,
“Yeah, my name is R
The ‘me’ that I remember and people know
The ‘me’ that I created myself to vent out”
Rapping since his early teens in the Korean underground scene, RM wore many personas through the years, from Runch Randa to Rap Monster, before settling on RM in 2017. With “My name is R” he embraces all of his past while acknowledging that his musical persona is something he himself created.
As an artist, RM has always been very conscious of the difference between his public and private life. In the 2018 track, “Airplane Pt. 2” he asks, “Who should I live as today, Kim Namjoon [his real name] or RM?”
Often lauded for their authenticity on and offstage, Persona shows the RM fans know as one facet of his whole self, an identity that’s not a lie, but not his entirety either. He admits that not even he knows himself fully.
The catchy ending verses of the song, “Persona, Who the hell am I? I just want to go, I just want to fly, I just want to give you all the voices ’til I die, I just want to give you all the shoulders when you cry,” encapsulate the theme of the album. Having conquered the world already, the group now finds themselves looking back toward their fans, even describing the album as a “paying off” for everyone that stuck with them.
Shallow reviews point to the references the album makes to their past works, like title track “Boy With Luv” being titled similar to their 2014 track “Boy in Luv,” or call backs to other songs in their lyrics as the “paying off” the group promised. But while those Easter eggs are certainly a treat to the seasoned fan, the much more pervasive theme of the album is BTS dedicating themselves to their fans rather than chasing fame and fickle acclaim.
BTS’s dramatic rise is easily one of the most improbable events in music history. No non-English speaking group has ever had the kind of impact BTS has had worldwide. And in the beginning, even achieving middling success in Korea was far from guaranteed for the group. Coming from a small company in an industry that debuts dozens of new acts each year, and with the odds (and airplay) heavily stacked against them, BTS’s success was a true underdog story brought about through hard work, good music, and dedicated fans.
However, in 2019 BTS can no longer claim to be the underdog they once were. They are undisputedly at the top and that comes with a new set of challenges. Recognizing their change in circumstance, Persona sees the group laying out their new position and goals. Rather than continuing to strive toward greater heights, they express a thankfulness to fans for “giving them wings” and “making them superheroes,” while expressing that their new music and identity will be focused on maintaining a connection with their fans and exploring their artistic side through their music.
RM’s verse in “Boy With Luv” succinctly describes this shift:
“I’ll tell you frankly,
Sometimes I was a little stuck up
Elevated sky, expanded halls
Sometimes I prayed ‘let me run away’
But your pain is my pain
When I realized that I vowed to myself
With the wings of Icarus you gave me
Not towards the sun but towards you
Let me fly”
The pressure slung on BTS after shooting into the world spotlight nearly suffocated them. Rapper Suga revealed that he started crying after their debut performance at the America Music Awards because of the weight of expectations on them and the group seriously considered disbanding in the start of 2018.
Instead they chose to renew their contracts for another seven years. Vocalist Jin expressed his thankfulness to the other members for sticking together in a tearful acceptance speech at the 2018 Mnet Asian Music Awards last December. Persona, the first album released since the speech, shows the group shifting their sights from stardom to the people that brought them there.
The album’s fifth track, “HOME,” meditates on the emptiness of fame and how BTS has found a “home” with their fans. Suga’s verse includes a reference to their debut single, “No More Dream,” and rebukes his past desire for a “big house, big car and big rings” as unfulfilling.
Jin adds in the bridge of the song,
“You knew me when I had nothing else
I could smile at the thought of you.”
In final track, the group adopts the persona of the Greek god Dionysus, drinking the “alcohol” of the arts and comparing their microphones to a thyrsus, the sacred staff of Dionysus and his followers.
The mythology of Dionysus delves deep into metaphors that map remarkably well onto the group. Dionysus is the god of theatre and infamous for his mostly female followers called maenads, often depicted as raving mad. The description isn’t far off from how many paint BTS’s own fandom, though the group has worked hard to push against the hysterical teenage girl stereotype, and fans are quick to supply information about their diverse demographics.
Beyond the connection with art and madness, Dionysus is also the god of rebirth, making him an especially powerful symbol for BTS, a group once dismissed as a manufactured idol group that has now started to win recognition as legitimate artists. Suga’s verse in the song highlights the shift,
“Born as a K-pop idol
Reborn as an artist
Reborn as an artist, reborn as an artist
What does it matter if I’m an idol or an artist, cheers”
The tension between the labels of artist and idol has been a central component of BTS’s music for years. On the track “Awakening” from his solo mixtape released in 2015, RM confidently declared,
“F*ck you, I’m an idol
at one time I hated it but now I love to get that title,
unlike the others that deny it to the end on broadcasts
I accept it fully now and I just do me
Whether I’m an idol or an artist, to be honest, it’s not important.”
While their 2018 title song, “IDOL” opened with the lines, “You can call me artist, you can call me idol, or something else, whatever it is I don’t care.” As “Intro: Persona” indicated, the group is well aware of the various labels their stardom has brought them and the expectations that come with those labels. Rather than embracing either of them, the group created a persona of indifference toward the debate, transcending both labels.
It’s not easy being the group that represents a whole nation’s music to the entire world. Nor is it easy to lose the underdog element of your story and maintain a level of interest and endearment with the public. With Map of the Soul: Persona, BTS sets out their priorities and expectations for the future which are, ironically, what they’ve always done: make music for their fans to enjoy and focus on their art.