BTSare 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 thehigh-art referencesof their visuals. Last year, their studio albumLove Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’became thefirst 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-songMAP 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 withHerman Hessequotes and referenceCarl Jungwith 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 onPERSONAare 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.
Like Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a meditation on alcoholism that was co-opted by hedonistic teens, “Dionysus” is a moment of existential introspection disguised as a party-starter. The bridge, rapped by Suga in an Auto-Tuned drawl a laTravis Scott, comments on the banality of stardom, as he applies the drinking metaphor to his desire to create lasting art. “Breaking new records means a fight with myself, raise the glass for a shot but I’m thirsty as I ever was,” he proclaims. The obnoxiousness of the production might be the whole point, but the song’s otherwise compelling concept is rendered largely inert by the grueling music that guides it.
Where past BTS albums have been anchored by strong verses from the rappers (RM, J-Hope, and Suga),PERSONAfeels more disparate. On the forgettable “Mikrokosmos,” members hop on and off an expensive but rickety synth-pop treadmill, never reaching the desired emotional apex. Jungkook, Jin, and J-Hope try to craft a dramatic ballad on “Jamais Vu” but again, the rapping doesn’t feel in lockstep with everything else that’s going on.
In contrast, “HOME,” the album’s highlight, demonstrates how thrilling BTS can be when all the members are on the same page. The flows are dynamic, the interplay effortless. There are callbacks to lyrics found in the band’s debut single (“No More Dream”), but you don’t need to trawl the BTS catalog to find “HOME” captivating, a song about pining for a real connection in the face of outward successes. Elsewhere, the collaborations are enjoyable, but far from spectacular:Halsey(minimally) guests on lead single “Boy With Luv,” andEd Sheeran(thankfully) stays behind the scenes on the R&B tune “Make It Right.”
PERSONAis not a failure, but it’s tough to call it a triumph. BTS have a deeper understanding of how to capture global audiences than most K-pop groups would ever dream of: Together, the seven members are a mesmerizing unit. When they sound fully in control of their music and in tune with one another, BTS transcend language and culture barriers.PERSONAfalters because the band and their producers lose sight of crafting airtight songs in an effort to further the mythos they’ve built within their massive audience.
The best superhero stories are written for the whole world: They speak to both diehard fans and newcomers, tackling the human condition while throwing in nerdy references, delivering an epic experience that unifies people who might otherwise not have anything in common. BTS have already proven themselves, but onPERSONA, the band spends too much time looking back and not enough time being the K-pop superheroes the world deserves.