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Review: BTS’ ‘Proof’ is a Victory of Pure Musicianship and Nostalgia

The South Korean megastars’ new anthology album finds its power in their understanding of music and its relationship to the human condition

Riddhi Chakraborty Jun 10, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of Big Hit Music

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It’s always difficult to put into words the feeling that exploring BTS’ music awakens. There’s a welcome familiarity of nostalgia and comfort for fans who have been here a while, and for new listeners, the thrill of discovery every time they dive into a previous release. With Proof, the pop titans manage to do both at the same time and it is glorious. The sprawling three-disk anthology is a summation of BTS’ incredible journey thus far, presenting a whopping total of 48 tracks including their biggest hits, solo and sub-unit tracks selected by each member, previously unreleased tracks, and special tracks like demos or studio versions of songs that we’ve only heard live.

As BTS have grown from underestimated teen rookies into the biggest band of our time in the last nine years, Proof is a powerful reminder of what the South Korean septet are truly capable of. Each disk moves chronologically to create a timeline of sorts to take us through the band’s various eras. Rapper Suga explained in a statement, “We carefully finalized the order of the tracks as the album speaks of BTS’ history. My suggestion would be to listen to the album in the order.” As new audiences join the conversation every minute, this anthology serves to introduce them to the faces behind the pop personas we see on our screens; they are the artists who have given us symbolic and powerful songwriting blended with hip-hop, blues, rock, soul, funk, alternative, trap, tradition and more. Because let’s be honest – BTS have always been that good. It’s time the whole world sees it.

Starting the record off with “Born Singer” (the group’s own interpretation of American icon J. Cole’s “Born Sinner” which fans have waited to have a studio version of for nine years) on Disk One is a brilliant move, evoking emotional catharsis for long-time fans, while presenting new audiences with BTS’ undeniable prowess for hip-hop and R&B. These are genres the band has shown expertise in since their debut in 2013, and “Born Singer” brings this talent to the fore with its old-school, soul-influenced beats, allowing the members’ sleek harmonies and simmering rap to finally be heard clear as day within the sleek new remastered version. If you’re not familiar with the track, the members have reworked J. Cole’s original version to include their own lyrics, ad-libs and production to sum up their feelings around coming together as BTS and their hardships as trainees: “Remember the days we’ve been through/ Three years, we were as one/ My blood and sweat drench me/ After the stage tears well up in my eyes/ Every single time I swear not to forget the very first intention/ Always myself, live up to myself.”

From here we move on to meeting young BTS again, fiery, brave rookies who dove into rock and hip-hop to outline their views of the world with tracks like “No More Dream” (their 2013 debut single), it’s follow-up “N.O” and then 2014’s “Boy In Luv” and “Danger” – all of which were their first steps in the journey from youth to adulthood. Arguably the most important era in the band’s discography comes next, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series (2015-2016), represented by the lead singles “I Need U,” “Run” and “Burning Up (Fire).” These three songs were the first instances of BTS completely reinventing themselves, which led to albums that explored R&B, soul and alternative rock to showcase a more emotional take on life, stepping away from the pure frustration of youth to jump into its complexities that include grief, loneliness, heartache and eventual catharsis. Vocalist Jimin stated in 2020, “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt.1 was the album that first allowed us to win awards at music shows in Korea and attract more fans. Nobody expected it to be a first win and a massive hit, but it became a key stepping stone for us moving onward.”

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Their 2016 LP Wings – yet another moment of transformation – comes next with the lead glimmering moombahton trap single “Blood Sweat & Tears” and the politically charged ever-relevant chart titan “Spring Day” (2017). Both tracks were emotional dives into death, youth, freedom and adulthood, featuring a plethora of literary and pop-culture references to finally cement BTS as the voices of youth in South Korea. As we move further, we enter the Love Yourself Trilogy era (2017-2019) – the albums Her, Tear and Answer are represented by the EDM-fueled “DNA,” rock-trap number “Fake Love” and traditional instrumental and pop blend “Idol” respectively, and kick off BTS’ timeline to official global domination. “DNA” marked the group’s first entry on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at Number 67, while “Fake Love” saw them climb higher with a debut at Number 10. Then, the Map of the Soul series makes an entry with “Boy With Luv” (Persona, 2019) and “On” (7, 2020) to usher in an era that was full of symbolism and learnings about one’s own self thanks to its themes born of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theories.

The group’s first English single “Dynamite” is the next stop on the ride, and earns its spot thanks to its achievement of making BTS a household name and awarding them their first Number One spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2020. Later that same year, the septet soothed hearts worldwide with their EP BE and its lead single, “Life Goes On,” which appears next on Proof, before Disk One begins to round off with the dance-pop English singles “Butter” (2021) and “Permission To Dance” (2022), both of which scored the group two more Number Ones on the Billboard Hot 100 and further pushed the band’s global radio play. At this point, the first new track and Proof‘s lead single “Yet To Come (The Most Beautiful Moment)” finally crops up and it’s the perfect finish to the section of the record that outlines BTS’ journey; co-written by the rap line (RM, J-Hope and Suga) along with the group’s longtime producer Pdogg, and American artists Max and Dan Gleyzer, the alternative hip-hop track sees the members look back on their journey thus far as they prepare for a new chapter. “Crowns and flowers, countless trophies/ We ain’t about it/ Dream and hope, and goin’ forward/ We so about it/ It’s back to square one after making one long turn, back to one.” Throwbacks are aplenty with references to tracks like “Young Forever” and Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky,” while the production is mellow with arresting background synths and old-school hip-hop beats reminiscent of the early 2000s as the band promise that while one chapter is closing, they’re ready to begin a new one. “We gonna touch the sky, ‘fore the day we die/ Moment is yet to come, yeah/ This is only the beginning, the best yet to come.”

While Disk One serves as a presentation of BTS’ group triumphs, Disk Two celebrates solo and sub-unit releases. We get glimpses of each individual member’s songwriting and performance styles over the years with tracks like “Intro: Persona” by leader and rapper RM (2019), “Moon” by vocalist Jin (2020), “Trivia: Seesaw” by Suga (2018), “Outro: Ego” by rapper J-Hope (2020), “Filter” by Jimin (2020), “Singularity” by vocalist V (2018) and “Euphoria” by vocalist Jung Kook (2018). Sub-unit bangers like “BTS Cypher Pt. 3: Killer” by the rap line (featuring the group’s longtime collaborator Supreme Boi), V and Jimin’s uplifting “Friends,” the vocal line’s “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” and more, also make the cut. We also did hope for an appearance of the 2018 fiery rap-line SoundCloud release “Ddaeng,” but the presence of Disk Two’s outstanding opener “Run BTS” more than makes up for it; the hip-hop/rock track is the highlight of the entire anthology, radiating confidence with its thrumming guitar riffs, bold autotune vocal warps and spitfire rap verses. The vocal line (Jin, Jimin, V and Jung Kook) deliver some of the most soaring falsettos of their careers while the rap line absolutely take off as they experiment with their individual flows. Suga’s verse is particularly scorching as he raps, “I was right, in the rain-leaking studio in Nonhyeon-dong/ Opening a bottle of soju and talking about my hardships/ If we succeed in the words that we’ve promised, everybody is dead. The reason behind Bangtan’s success?/ I don’t know if there’s something like that/ All of us just run hard/ No matter what, we just run /That’s the answer, ha-ha-ha!” Some unforgettable sonic moments include the searing guitar solo at the bridge, J-Hope’s voice with gritty autotune, and Jin and Jimin’s powerful background ad-libs.

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Disk Three of Proof is undoubtedly a gift for BTS’ fandom, ARMY. Packed full of unreleased tracks (including the shimmering “Quotation Mark” reminiscent of R&B-heavy BTS from 2013-2014) plus demos of favorites like “Jump” (2014), “I Need U,” “Boyz With Fun” (2015), a V-led verse of “Spring Day,” and more, this part of the album gives us an intimate look at BTS’ studio process and evolving musical style, while birthing a whole legion of ‘what ifs’ – for example, what if the “DNA” we had originally gotten was J-Hope’s breezy, vocal-heavy, electronica version? Or perhaps, what if Jin had dropped the dreamy English version of “Epiphany”? Unexpected surprises add to the thrill, of course, like the studio version of Agust D’s (Suga’s solo moniker) “Tony Montana” featuring Jimin (seen and heard only once before at BTS’ 2017 Muster), an a cappella version of Jung Kook’s “Still With You,” and RM and Jung Kook’s sweet, collaborative unreleased track “Young Love,” which again harkens back to BTS’ love for traditional R&B.

Circling back to being a gift for ARMY, the septet end Disk Three and Proof as a whole with the heartwarming new song, “For Youth.” In addition to the title being a shout-out to the entire The Most Beautiful Moment in Life era, the track sets the tone with an introductory audio clip of BTS and ARMY singing 2016’s “Epilogue: Young Forever” live at a concert. The soulful piano ballad highlights all the precious moments the septet have spent with their fandom, and is BTS’ promise that they are here to stay. The lyrics are filled with references to “Spring Day,” “Epilogue: Young Forever,” “Friends” and moments from the band’s hardships in the past nine years including black oceans, trainee days and more: “It was dark everywhere/ In the meantime, a ray of light/ I’m really glad it’s you/ We shine because we are together.” It’s a brilliant way to signal the end of chapter one in the group’s artistic book and aims to prepare everyone for the next part of BTS’ story.

Proof finds its power in BTS’ understanding of music and its relationship to the human condition. The anthology is not just a compilation of the band’s greatest hits; it aims to connect with listeners through a variety of shared emotions, memories and experiences. After listening to it, RM’s statement about the record rings absolutely true: “Proof is a special album that closes the first chapter of BTS before going into our 10th year. We especially paid more attention to the lyrics as our message to our fans, ARMY, who have been with us for nine years, is the key to this album.” While Proof does signal an ending of sorts, it also builds an excitement for what’s next.

The future for BTS is limitless.

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