Review: BTS Cement Their Legacy With Magnum Opus ‘Map of the Soul: 7’
It is difficult to sum-up what this album means to both BTS and their fans, but perhaps the best way put it is to call it a promise; there is an assurance that this story is eternal
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
For everyone who has been listening to BTS for the last few years, it’s clear that Map of the Soul: 7 is a summation of the entirety of the South Korean group’s career. Packed with callbacks to the septet’s debut days from 2013 and some of their biggest achievements through the years, Map of the Soul: 7 is BTS’ longest record to date with a 20-song tracklist (the first five being re-releases previously featured on the group’s 2019 EP Map of the Soul: Persona.) The presence of the five tracks bridges both records to make it clear they’re part of the same story BTS have been telling us over the last year: the story of how BTS found their complete selves.
In addition to being an emotional journey full of joy, sadness, nostalgia, victory and love, Map of the Soul: 7 is a highly symbolic record that deals with the various levels that make up the psyche of a human being. The direct references to Carl Jung’s psychological theories act as metaphors to map the evolution of BTS as they climb the ladder of fame and encounter the joys and pain that come with it. It’s a complex record, both in terms of its music and lyricism, but what makes it a stand-out LP and BTS’ magnum opus is its honesty.
Map of the Soul: 7 begins with leader RM’s solo “Intro: Persona,” (originally the opener to 2019’s Map of the Soul: Persona EP) a most fitting start, since this record sees BTS take on the task of understanding who they are as artists, celebrities and seven men on a journey together. “Intro: Persona” also sets the pace in terms of the genres BTS tackle on this record–the group expand on hip-hop, trap, soul, rock and more. “Boy With Luv” and “Make It Right” (also from MOTS: Persona) might seem a little out of place on MOTS7, but their presence is necessary understandable since they’re both singles that brought the group massive success and airplay over the past year, helping them build their global identity. Both tracks also mark two of their biggest collaborations to date–with Halsey and Lauv respectively (although the version of “Make It Right” on the record is the one without Lauv.) “Jamais Vu” and “Dionysus” blend seamlessly.
“Interlude: Shadow” marks the beginning of the new tracks on Map of the Soul: 7 and officially sets the theme of the record with its strength and honesty. Lead rapper and songwriter SUGA ponders his journey to the top, the dreams and wishes he had when he was younger which eventually led him to becoming a world star. He repeatedly questions the price of fame, spitting raw, melancholic verses that compare stardom to a shadow or a burden that hangs above his head: “I’m afraid, flying high is terrifying/No one told me/How lonely it is up here.” The slow-rolling trap and heavy bass are reminiscent of his 2016 mixtape Agust D, adding yet another touch of nostalgia. “Black Swan” is the perfect choice for the follow-up, the segue into its dark trap keeping the flow of the record intact. The track is an ode to self-discovery via art, the self’s identity that art can create and establish and dives deep into BTS’ vision for the album: “Let my own feet carry me/I’ll do in myself/In the deepest depths/I saw myself/Slowly, I open my eyes/I’m in my workroom, it’s my studio.” It’s an extremely personal outline of BTS’ relationship with music, the trials they have faced in their career and the fear of having to stop performing someday.
The vocal line’s solos begin at this point, with Jimin’s “Filter” marking change of pace with bright Latin pop vibes that complement his breezy falsetto. In terms of lyricism, its a play on the filters on social media: he hopes to become a filter to the listener, show them a brand new, positive perspective of life. He explained about the track in an interview with Spotify, “Filters can be the things within a camera application, or social media, but it can also mean people’s perspective or prejudice.” Youngest member Jung Kook wows with soaring vocal runs on his emotional trap-R&B solo, “My Time” which encapsulates his challenging experience as a trainee and being thrust into the spotlight of stardom instead of growing up as a normal teen: “The boy who found the world too big/Keep on runnin’ errday, mic pic it up/Friends ridin’ subway, I’ll be in the airplane mode/All over the world rock on,/I made my own lotto/But is it too fast? There’re traces of losses/Don’t know what to do with, am I livin’ this right?/Why am I alone in a different time and space?” A subtle addition that adds depth to the instrumentals is the keening electric guitar towards the end to pair with Jung Kook’s outstanding adlibs. “Louder than bombs” is possibly one of the biggest surprises on the record, pushing BTS into darker synth-pop territory courtesy Australian singer Troye Sivan who is a co-writer on the track. It’s a glimpse of the painful, sinister decadence of Sivan’s 2015 Blue Neighbourhood record and a fascinating new lens to see BTS through.
The lead single “ON” is an adrenaline rush from start to finish and lifts the energy of MOTS7 again. Flooded with gospel, blues, synth-trap and marching band-style brass and percussion, “ON” is a war cry, an ode to BTS’ own ability to get up and keep going no matter what shit gets hurled at them–the very reason they stand on top of every music chart as pop titans today. The rap line’s “UGH!” continues the adrenaline rush but adds a dose of trap aggression to complement its blistering criticism of online hate. The following “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)”‘s instrumentation falls a little flat in comparison to the vicious “UGH!” and blends quickly into V’s “Inner Child.” V has one of the most diverse vocal ranges in BTS and gets a chance to show it off on this emotional track that ponders childhood, struggle, growth and assures his younger self that everything will be alright. The pop/soft rock instrumentals don’t stand out as much when compared to some of the other tracks on MOTS7, but perhaps it’s for the best since it allows V’s husky voice to take center stage. There’s a slight danger of a lull to the record at this point due to overdose of soft pop, but Jimin and V’s endearing “친구” aka “Friend” defies expectations and lifts the pace, keeping things light (without compromise on emotion) but fun as it outlines the vocalists’ relationship as best friends: “I met you when you were clammy with sweat/A somewhat strange kid/Me from the moon, you from the stars/Our conversations were like homework/BFFs on one day, enemies on another.” The duo consider each other their soulmates and the lyrics are packed with inside jokes and references to past memories from when they attended school together or met as trainees at BigHit. The song also marks Jimin’s much-awaited debut as a producer. “Moon,” vocalist Jin’s sweet pop-rock love song to the group’s fandom ARMY, comes in next and feels like a song to play on a Sunday while on a long drive along the coast, an instant mood lift with one of the brightest choruses on the entire LP. The lyrics see Jin promising to light up his fans’ world even in the darkest night, considering himself as the moon to ARMY’s Earth: “You are my planet/I’m just a moon to you/Your little star that lights up your heart/You are my Earth/And all I see is you/Just staring at you like this way.” The background vocals over the chorus especially stand out, showing off Jin’s effortless falsetto harmonies.
“Respect” changes gears drastically, swerving the record back into hip-hop with SUGA’s signature scratching and RM’s confident swag. The track plays out like a casual conversation (commonly seen in old-school Nineties hip-hop) and the two rappers ponder on the concept of respect and what it takes to earn it: “It’s obviously superior than love/Probably a concept that exists at the most superior rank/Out of all the superiors/Isn’t that called respect, huh? (what I’m sayin’)/”Re-spect” means as it sounds, to literally look again and again/Look again and again and you’ll see faults…So I can’t get myself to easily say/The weight and thickness of it is vague.” The track begins with RM’s declaration of “Ayo, SUGA!”, a direct reference to the group’s 2015 track “Move” which opens the same way and marked one of the first big years of success for BTS. Also present is a reference to the group’s 2015 track “Young Forever”– the lyrics “Money, honor, forward, forward,” are a direct parallel to “Young Forever”‘s “Dream, hope, forward, forward,” signifying the group have fulfilled their dreams together. It’s fun and cheeky, with the banter between RM and SUGA at the end bringing a smile to the face.
The most emotional point on the record is without at doubt “We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal.” It’s an instant tear-jerker thanks to the title (a direct callback to the group’s 2013 releases “We Are Bulletproof Pt. 1” and “We Are Bulletproof Pt.2”) continuing the story that builds the bricks of BTS’ formation. It’s the kind of track that you know will have both the group and their fans in tears when it is performed live, a track that serves as a thank you and a promise to keep walking this path together; “We were only seven/But we have you all now/After seven winters and springs/At the tips of our entwined fingers/Yeah, we got to heaven…I will never stop again/For we are together here/Tell me your every story/Tell me why you don’t stop this/Tell me why you still walkin’/Walkin’ with us.” The steady Eighties synth and running bass pack a firm punch, adding sonic depth to every string of soaring vocal harmonies and adlibs. The vocal line give it their all, hitting impossibly high notes that induce goosebumps. The best part of all is the clever use of “we are bulletproof” in the refrain; ‘bulletproof’ translates to ‘bangtan’ in Korean–BTS’ name.
The opening bars of “Outro: Ego” sample BTS’ debut trailer, the end of the album coming full circle to the beginning of BTS’ journey from the seven young boys who were ridiculed and labeled underdogs in 2013, to global pop titans they are today. Rapper and dancer j-hope goes solo to relay his and BTS’ growth artists as well as their experience navigating fame while being so young. While SUGA’s “Interlude: Shadow” examined the dark side-effects of fame and pondered the price of BTS’ position at the top, j-hope’s “Outro: Ego” celebrates it, viewing it as the ultimate fruit of all their labor. The struggle and sadness the group faced in 2013 is now just a memory to j-hope: “Life not of j-hope but Jeong Ho-Seok flashes by/It must have been full of regret with no hope till I die/My dancing was chasing ghosts/Blaming my dream, asking why I live and breathe.” With its jazzy, energetic blend of pop and African rhythm–sampling beats from the intro of BTS’ debut album 2 COOL 4 SKOOL (2013)–“Outro: Ego” drips with swag and positivity to end Map Of The Soul: 7 on the promise that BTS are now confident, successful men who have faith in themselves, their talent, their fans and their art.
While was a ton of hype around Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Sia joining BTS on the digital version of “ON,” the final result falls flat–the Australian artist seems out of place as she sings over the chorus, almost drowned out by BTS’ powerful vocals and it’s quite the pity. Another small disappointment is the absence of the haunting string version of “Black Swan” (played over the art film the group released earlier this month) which would have been a lovely addition to either the physical or digital release–it’s just too beautiful to be excluded.
On Map of the Soul: 7 BTS have shown us more about themselves than they ever have before, given us deep glances into their deepest fears and biggest aspirations. It’s overwhelming at times but leaves the heart feeling full and a little less alone–a familiar Bangtan move. The members have all flexed their various skills to the max, whether vocals, rap, songwriting or production and the effort to make it as diverse a record as possible comes through right away. It is difficult to sum-up what this album means to both BTS and their fans, but perhaps the best way to put it is to call it a promise; there is an assurance that this story is eternal, a legacy carved into pop culture for our generation to pass on to the next. A lot of chapters concluded with Map of the Soul: 7, but several more have already begun.