Rolling Stone PODIUM: The Timeless Solace of ‘Mono’
Media curator Saniya Shaikh takes a look at how BTS leader RM’s sophomore mixtape continues to resonate as it hits its second anniversary
On October 23rd, 2018, BTS’ leader RM dropped his second mixtape titled Mono. Dubbing the set as a playlist as opposed to a mixtape, the rapper and producer unveiled seven unique songs, announced just two days prior to release. When put together, these tracks created a sonic moment inviting the listeners to escape the trappings of temporality, and attune their state of mind to his musings on honesty, comfort, loneliness, longing, and belonging, narrated through the genius of his lyricism and musical composition.
RM has a distinct style of contextualising a narrative; his lyrical references range from navigating unfiltered emotions, to commentary on the rigid social order. His gift lies in giving sound to these complex experiences, akin to turning the intimidating clunkiness of messed up cables into the feeling of woolen yarn. It won’t pick apart the threads–anyone who has worked with wool would know about its own perils with knots, but it will surely feel softer on the hand, something that might jog the memory of a familiar touch, something that might even let you create warmth.
Relevance is an interesting lens for appreciating art. It can heighten the experience of some works, but for others which are timeless, it dissolves into an eternal feeling. Mono, to me, is one such work of art. I listened to it first when it released, while going through a challenging time full of unforeseen transitions. Music has always helped me out in such times but Mono was special. Its keen awareness of reality chronicled with metaphors felt like an honest account, like the stories your friends tell you in the secrecy of trust. Two years have passed, but for me and for a lot of people who admire BTS for the ingenuity of their music, Mono continues to be a sanctuary of solace.
The songs on Mono are anchored in the personas that RM embodies in his music. In “Tokyo,” you will find yourself listening to him reflect as a city dweller on the loneliness of a bustling city. But the title is also one of RM’s signature wordplays, as indeed the word for the state of longing in Korean is ‘동경/tokyo.’ The song begins with the sound of temple bells and a whistling train passing by. RM’s verses are part conversation, part confession. He starts by singing about the hollowness of waking up in Tokyo, using the metaphors of ‘feeling like a torso,’ only a piece of a whole, but in charge of holding one’s heart nonetheless, and ‘Pinnochio wearing a poncho,’ signaling to the attempts of disguising the pain of that heart– but the more you disguise, the more it becomes evident like Pinnochio’s nose.
The second verse changes the distance between the rapper and the listener as you catch him pondering over the sorrow of inevitability and its power to make impossibilities more apparent. “Why do love and hate sound just the same to me?” asks RM, a thought which will become a recurring conflict throughout the playlist. The bridge takes the form of a final confession where the rapper speaks about homesickness, his desire to choose a dream, and in that dream be next to someone. With this brief journey with a solitary mind, you are left with the haunting sound of a person whistling as the song ends. It is as if they are walking away, like how the train passed you by earlier. RM describes “Tokyo” as a lonely song.
The frost in the sounds of “Tokyo” melts as the beat picks up for the next track, “Seoul,” produced by electronic music duo HONNE. In the opening verse, the rapper seems to have adapted to a biorhythm, almost like an undoing of the aloofness of the previous song. Waking up in a big city is no longer a secluded effort, but an act synced in secrecy with the city’s mood, its cold air clocking the arrival of dawn. The rapper also recognises how the cityscape is replacing what familiarity feels like to him, as the memories of his youth have started to become distant. It’s a declaration of finding a new home.
Snapping away from it with a change in the flow of his rap, RM confronts his thoughts about the city. He questions why, despite not being a part of his past, and also becoming a drab visage of his present, does it seem to hold true to its homophone ‘soul.’ He feels unsettled by the realisation of his newfound oneness with Seoul. The third and the fourth verses of the song are packed with metaphors about the various dichotomies of life in Seoul. The rapper comments on the changing landscape he sees through a single bus ride. The boastfulness of distinction by buildings that look the same. The gloomy emptiness of parks offering warmth for company or for refuge–take your pick as you walk along the Han river which cuts through the city, carrying legacies of ‘한/han,’ a Korean cultural concept that stands for indescribable grief, resentment and loss. The swings which could only reach out to the sky when kids played on it, now stand in desolation. Those who are old have outgrown the swings, and those who are new, like the rapper, are a little too late for that kind of intrepid intimacy.
Not only does RM use lyrical and visual devices to convey the essence of the city, he uses smell to juxtapose the romance of city life with the queasiness of its polluted fumes and fishy stench. He also recalls the taxi driver who laments that the city is only livable for those with money. Yet the awareness of the city’s woes does not make him agree with the desires of his friends who plan to move out. In the bridge of the track, RM uses a wordplay between ‘living’ and ‘leaving’, a dialogue of belonging that shifts as fast as the city itself. This emotional pull-and-push finds reckoning, and an equilibrium of sorts, in the chorus and the outro: “If love and hate are the same words/ I love you Seoul/ If love and hate are the same words/ I hate you Seoul.”
At this point in the playlist, the listener encounters the first switch of RM’s persona as storyteller in Mono, from writing as a city dweller to what can best be described as a companion. The third song, titled “Moonchild,” is addressed in first person to someone who is both affirmed yet occupied by the solace of the night. One can interpret ‘night’ as a time characterised by deep personal contemplation. Moonchildren, then, can be understood as those who may find themselves confronting its overwhelming disquiet, often by themselves. Through this song, the rapper, who posits himself as a moonchild, creates a shared space with the tempo assuming the pace of an empathetic conversation. In the first few verses, RM outlines some harsh dispositions of a moonchild. Discarding the fantastical metaphors of moonlight, he speaks about the distress of hiding one’s truth. He admits with much honesty that there might be no silver linings while being stuck in a life of sorrow. Yet, the rapper pleads the moonchild to dance a dance of resistance. He reminds them of their inadvertent pact with survival, upholding their efforts of making it through multiple hardships. He sings about the antithesis of freedom and freewill for those who feel abandoned.
The tempo of the song picks up from here. The rapper, encouraging the moonchild, implores them to look at the moonlit sky through the window of their soul, not as a metaphor of standalone optimism in the darkness, but through the comfort of science. The moon by itself does not radiate any light of its own, it’s the light of the sun that is reflected by its rough surface. Even when you look at flickering street lights carefully, you can see flocks of thorns. It’s the cruelty of the night that visibilises these fault lines, but it cannot extinguish their illumination. Like the moon and the street lights, you don’t need to be a source of light, your presence is what matters. Thus the heartbreak of a moonchild is not isolated, but a moment of being and becoming someone’s moon in the nightscape of life. It’s a song of compassion, of seeking togetherness with honesty.
The first three songs rely heavily on narrativizing RM’s thoughts by means of confession, introspection, empathising and consoling. The fourth track on Mono, however, can best be experienced as a sonic rambling arranged masterfully to create an interlude for the playlist. “Badbye” disrupts any pattern of storytelling that you might have started predicting, with its almost-eerie sounds building up with synthetic choirs, sharp snares of the drums, and vocals by the musician eAeon.
The lyrics to “Badbye” repeat in cycles to create an imagery of a jarring demise. Endings are commemorated with goodbyes or even goodriddances. There is an assumption of something worthwhile being achieved through the fallout. But what if it is not? The misery of such an ending is lived and relived. The song asserts the absolute unpleasantness of the separation using the tautology ‘badbye, no goodbye.’ As it progresses, the suspense created by the sounds drops and the lyrics become desperate. There is a request for seeing it all as a lie, for reconsideration implied by the words “bad try, you and I,” and even for a soft kill that will fragment the singer, if only to escape this sorrow. Alas with only impossibility in sight, the closing lyrics speak of an unexplained but naturally understood mourning. The song ends on an unsettling musical note, capturing the unresolved tension of being left alone, and the beat fades into a cliffhanger that almost necessitates a segue to the next song.
Introspection is a convoluted affair. By nature, it is not neat. It can hardly be defined as a process. In the economy of optimism, dishonesty can become the discount you avail with structure. So how does one articulate it with beauty? RM’s next song, “Uhgood” is a melodic venting about the unrest of introspection, of navigating the bubbling dissonance between an imagined self and a lived self, and the longing desire of contentment. The title of the song, “어긋” (“Uhgood” in English), is a non-existent noun derived from the verb ‘어긋나다’ which means ‘to be in a state of disagreement’. The rapper opens the song by establishing truths that are self-evident, the wholeness of existing as a being. But between wholeness and wholesomeness, one has to walk the path of growth. This growth invites criticism, the standards of which can be both constructive and destructive. So when RM finds himself engaging with such kind of self-criticism, he speaks about the turbulence of feeling out of place, lost in the vastness of such a trajectory that one has to manoeuvre.
It can be a lonely affair to be at odds with yourself, feeling both responsible for and helpless about your aspirations. RM uses the metaphor of rain to write about this moment, a metaphor he will revisit in a following track. The gloominess of rainfall can relegate you into solitude for days, and yet rain is the very thing that works as a salve in the solitude of a desert. So is it only a matter of perspective? Without diluting the weight of such a tussle, the rapper speaks about the duality of rationale, often dwelling in the holdback of the pessimist, but never refusing to believe in the promise of the ideal. It’s all a part of the dream of true contentment.
“Everythingoes,” the next song on the playlist, is an ode to someone trying their best to persevere through difficult times. The song begins with an assurance that someday, undoubtedly, it shall all pass. The first two minutes are a repetitive meditation of the words, ‘It shall pass; Everything, everything, everything goes.’ Featuring the Korean alternative rock band Nell, the track’s intention of soothing the listener is evident from the get-go, but sonically, it isn’t just comforting but also uplifting in a way that it feels refreshingly uninstructive. Sometimes an effort to comfort someone without knowing their particular circumstances can carry the risk of sounding preachy. Emotional healing is a personal journey with no blueprint. So by invoking the rhythm of nature–of dusk and dawn, of the changing seasons, and of the ripening and wilting of fruits and flowers–RM eases the pressures of performance that someone who is healing might experience while seeking comfort through art. He recognises how even a breath might fill one’s lungs with prickling air, kindling the history of pain that they might have tried so hard to move on from. Heartaches are a part of life, but they are aches nonetheless.
In the final verse, RM refuses to conjure up empty words of encouragement or resort to the lies of destiny’s doings. Instead he bares his honest wishes of becoming better, even if it means reminding oneself of the inevitability of the end–of pain and people alike, and having to face hardships because the comfort of dreams can only offer so much respite from reality. He retires to the movement of time and wind, and hopes that the stillness of all wounds will one day pass like them.
For a playlist that tugs on the ends of dualities, the motif of monsoon is perhaps the most apt tableau. Through sounds, metaphors and memories, RM uses the abundance of rain as an optic for his meditation on the themes of Mono. “Forever Rain,” the last song on the playlist, is a somber prayer by a weary soul for the companionship of the insentient yet emotive rain. The rapper begins with verses dedicated to the space that the rain creates for him, allowing him to obfuscate his sadness, keeping everyone occupied with their own attempts to shield themselves, letting him breathe a bit slower against the brisk backdrop of his life, all while partaking in his melancholia as the sky weeps with him.
In the following verse, RM personifies rain as a silent caregiver who knocks on his window to check up on him. He answers that even though he has not given up on life, he feels shackled and wonders what it might be like to be as free as the rain, reaching all of humanity with a kiss. Would he be embraced then? There is a lonely desperation to the lyrics, followed by a plea for the rain to keep pouring. The rapper expresses how he feels belonged by the overcast that engulfs him with no question. He knows that there’s no eternity, but wishes for the rain to be by his side forever.
Ever since their debut, BTS have broken many barriers in the global pop landscape. With their recent exemplary performance on the Billboard Hot100 charts with the hit single “Dynamite,” they have caught the attention of those who had chosen to ignore their impact all along. Questions are often raised about their ‘formula,’ about what worked for them in terms of strategy. There is no linear answer of course, but one does not find enough writing about their sincerity towards their art, which speaks to their fans in deeply personal ways. To truly understand the success and popularity of BTS, one has to recognise their creative genius– collectively as a team and also individually as remarkably talented rappers, vocalists, writers and performers. RM’s Mono is one of these many brilliant compositions.
Saniya Shaikh is a curator at the Godrej India Culture Lab and has worked on conclaves around queer culture in India, multiplicity of Indian feminisms, and a first-of-its-kind conference on fan culture in India, The Great Indian Fandom Conference.