A year before Parasite won Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, BTS were at the Grammys. While they didn’t end up winning in the categories they were nominated for, their mere presence was a landmark moment that shows just how much the seven-piece have done in introducing South Korean culture to the rest of the world.
Although a recent Hollywood Reporter profile attracted a fan backlash for talking about BTS as though they were still a new phenomenon, for most people they are now as ubiquitous in pop as Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. They sell out stadiums across the UK, break countless industry records, and perform dance routines with breathtaking precision.
Map of the Soul: 7 is the band’s most ambitious attempt to date to reconcile their staggering range of influences, from US pop and hip hop to Eighties rock. It opens on the chugging guitar riffs of “Intro: Persona”, previously released on 2019’s seven-track Map of the Soul: Persona, incorporating video game chimes in between a blistering rap from RM. Then there’s a drastic shift as US popstar Halsey sings in Korean on the catchy pop track “Boy with Luv”, about finding joy in the small things.
Critical reactions to Persona praised the confidence of the group’s sound but were less impressed by an apparent lack of progression from their previous releases. But as a full album, 7 shows how determined they are to make this record as cinematic and immersive an experience as possible. In earlier releases such as “DNA” and “Euphoria”, the band have explored singularities such as darkness, love, hate and light; on 7, recurring themes speak to a duality in which they weave myriad emotions into one gorgeous tapestry.
The interlude “Shadow” has SUGA detailing how the pressure of responsibility looms larger as the band’s success grows, while the euphoric pop-rock track “Friends” marries the differing vocals of Jimin and V to create something stronger (although the overall effect is rather schmaltzy). Better still is the Latin-inflected “Filter”, where Jimin’s mellifluous vocals drip expressively over a pulsing rhythm.
Ed Sheeran can’t help but make an appearance – he collaborates on “Make it Right”, with its mournful hook and lyrics that hark back to Jin’s monologue from a Love Yourself highlight reel: “If we could turn back the clock, where should we go back to? / Once we reach that place, can all our mistakes and errors be undone?”
Given BTS’s previous output, a collection of slick pop songs was to be expected. What’s impressive on 7 is how they show a fascination with genres that should have no business being on the same album, but without the “smash and grab” attitude of so many Western artists. When it comes to music, 7 is is cast-iron proof we all speak the same language.