BTS Grow on 'Map of the Soul: Persona'

From the second the first teaser, “Persona,” from BTS’ new album Map of the Soul: Persona dropped, fans realized that the band would be referencing their 2014 record, Skool Luv Affair. The title of their newest single, “Boy With Luv,” recalls SLA’s title track, “Boy In Luv,” and to watch the two music videos back to back is a stark contrast. In “Boy In Luv” the seven members swagger around a fictional high school in disheveled uniforms and aggressive eyeliner. Suga and Jin immaturely push and taunt the video’s designated girl in the kind of way we’re told is “because he likes you!” Their only smiles are sneers, and throughout the video, you get the sense that the band is trying to be something they’re not. Five years later, the video for “Boy With Luv” is pure joy. I had several people separately tell me it was so surreal and exciting it felt like a fever dream; a campy pink-scape full of Singin’ In The Rain references, roses, and feather boas. This time the girl in the video is Halsey, an outspoken feminist who’s portrayed as their equal, and the group’s genuine happiness is on display. “Boy With Luv,” for all its camp, never feels inauthentic.

The album’s title, Map of the Soul: Persona, is a reference to the book Jung’s Map of the Soul, about psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theories on what makes the self (their label, BigHit, is currently selling the book in their online store to encourage fans to read it as a companion piece; BTS might as well present their albums with an APA style works cited). The concept of “Persona” refers to the way we present ourselves to the world, and many fans have interpreted this to mean BTS are reckoning with their past public image and their current status as idols. “Something very satisfying,” writes one Twitter user, “about this being a throwback to days remembered for a sense of hyper masculinity but the album colour palette is pink and the concept is self reflection and discovery.” RM, the group’s leader who has writing credit on all seven tracks of the new album, has said, “I read lots of newspapers and books to study social phenomena. After I finish writing lyrics, I get experts such as a professor of women’s studies to objectively examine the lyrics.” The album’s first song, “Intro: Persona,” is a solo effort from RM, in which he references the aforementioned Jungian psychology as well as the speech he gave at the UN last year ("I want to hear your voice... No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, gender identity: speak yourself”). It’s a Beastie Boys-style, guitar-heavy hip-hop track about self-reflection, which is the kind of thing you didn’t think you needed but now can’t live without. Persona as a whole is the representation of the kind of work the band have put in to grow, and it’s paid off beautifully well.

As much as the album references the past, it’s really about BTS’ present and future. Over the last few years they have been consistently making some of the most interesting pop music, or rather music in general, in the industry. America and other Western countries see K-Pop as a genre in itself because we don’t know how to place it, with its elements of pop, r&b, hip-hop and rock—BTS use the lack of genre clarity to their advantage. “Boy With Luv” is pure pink pop perfection, with Jimin’s dreamy opening vocals, but Suga sounds almost unrecognizable at the beginning of his verse when he experiments with the kind of Soundcloud rap sounds that American radio absolutely devours. There are elements of it in J-Hope’s verse that follows as well—at first I was disappointed, thinking it was just a ploy for radio play, but the more I thought about it I realized that even if it is, BTS are proving they can do anything, and do it extremely well. Halsey’s addition is a perfect fit, and the collaboration was born out of their mutual respect. Beyond any technicalities though, the song is just an absolute bop, sure to be an instant hit.

“Mikrokosmos” is a sparkling electro-pop song that feels especially cinematic—its title references the ancient Greek idea that every human is their own little world. It’s reminiscent of a song off of last year’s Love Yourself: Tear, “Magic Shop,” that also has the ability to make you feel like you’re in your own little universe. BTS have sung about space and stars before, but the lyrics of these two seem to be directly connected; “Like stars (We shine) / Don't disappear / 'Cause you're a big existence” on “Mikrokosmos” and “I do believe your galaxy” on “Magic Shop.” The next song, “Make It Right,” is the least memorable of the bunch, as Ed Sheeran-penned songs can tend to be. Despite that, it still showcases the members’ unique and sometimes unexplored vocal abilities, especially Jungkook and V’s. In the same vein, “Jamais Vu” is a pretty ballad that features only Jungkook, Jin and J-Hope, a combination the group’s never used before, but works like magic. “Home” is a standout moment that, when I asked fans to tell me their favorite songs on the album, seems to be a favorite. Though the production is big and shiny, they grapple vulnerably with the reality of being the biggest band in the world: “Whatever I fill becomes emptier / The more we're together, I feel lonelier,” sings Jin, while Suga raps, “Totally pitiful / The world thinks we own the whole world.” It’s ultimately a joyful song, though, about finding solace and home in someone else, and you can’t help but smile when the mi casa chorus hits.

“Dionysus,” the album’s closer, is another fan favorite, with a title and lyrics referencing the Greek god of wine. It’s another example of BTS’ ability to destroy genre—the song feels just as much a rock song as it does a rap song, and its highlight is Jin’s closing emo screams. Like “Home,” it sees the group reckoning with their status; “Drink up (the torment of creating) / One mouthful (the scolding of society),” J-Hope raps on his verse. “Born as a K-pop idol / Reborn as an artist,” Suga offers in return. Like the (rather creepy) giant animated representations of themselves that pop up in both the music videos for last year’s single “Idol” and “Persona,” Dionysus and the rest of the Greek gods (BTS portray in one of their album photoshoots) seem to be a metaphor for their the way people see their idol personas, at once both untouchable and a platform for any criticism.

Whenever I write about artists who are adored, I think about the singer Mitski’s review of Harry Styles’ album. She writes, “I’ve been projecting onto him our cultural ideals of the cute, popular boy in school; the Mick Jagger-inspired, charismatic rocker; the solo sensation recently graduated from boy-band stardom. He’s likely aware of his audience perceiving him thus, and because he’s spent so many of his formative years being an ideal, it could very well be that the way his audience perceives him is, in turn, how he truly perceives himself. Perhaps these projections put upon him have since become an authentic and natural part of him, and all of his words, even the ideals he projects onto others in his songs, are as real to him as his body.” It’s this which BTS are reckoning with on Persona, maybe best summed up simply when RM raps, “So I'm askin' once again yeah / Who the hell am I?”, and when he turns it outward, “I just wanna give you all the voices till I die / I just wanna give you all the shoulders when you cry.”