(The album artwork for BTS’s new project, “Love Yourself”)
It’s hard reviewing BTS. BTS is the breakaway group K-Pop had been seeking for years. They recently got a Billboard award for top social artist, a collaboration with the Chainsmokers and international recognition. It might seem sudden, but it was a long time coming. BTS has been quietly building up a massive international fan base for years. It is entirely deserved. BTS are deeply talented and creative. They are on a smaller label that allows them creative control most K-Pop groups only dream of and it radiates in their music. Every album sounds like one all of the band members wanted to make.
Their fame and talent hypes them up and makes them transcend their genre, making them hard to review. Listening to their newest album, “Love Yourself,” I found myself applying a higher standard to them than I would any other K-Pop act. It might seem unfair, but “Love Yourself” is a victory lap–BTS acknowledging their own skill–so shouldn’t it be held to a Caesar’s standard?
As far as triumphal parades go, “Love Yourself” starts off strong. “Intro: Serendipity” is a pretty and relaxing song with a mellow late-summer vibe. It doesn’t wow but that’s fine because it builds interest for the big single, “DNA.”
“DNA” is infectious from start to finish, moored by a sublime whistle and full of the BTS staples that make their hits simultaneously smooth and wildly hyped up. The quiet “hey” chant, the way someone yells out the last word of each line of the chorus, the building bass thumps, Jimin (one of the band’s singers) nailing a dramatic line before a full instrumental drop– these are things that appear in most of BTS’s big hits and “DNA” is no exception. It still sounds fantastic.
“Love Yourself” has three big love songs endemic to K-Pop – a genre made for boy bands. “Best Of Me” and “Dimple” are both solid love songs. “Best of Me” really shines when the beat drops, whereas “Dimple” has excellent bridges. Then “Pied Piper” comes in, with the best of both worlds–excellent bridges in between delightful choruses.
“Pied Piper” deserves its own article. I’d write one, but I’ve been beaten to the punch by this point. This song is a beautiful and terrifying ode to the young, largely female fandoms that are crucial to K-Pop’s culture and checkbook. The lyrics are masterful for how they can be read straight as a love letter to the fan, and a mournful acknowledgment of how predatory K-Pop can be as an industry. The song lays bare both positive and negative repercussions of K-Pop for its fans by using the metaphor of the pied piper. They employ the metaphor literally (“follow the sound of the flute” a line goes), which makes the song all the more chilling because in the pied piper story, the pied piper lures away children when towns refuse to pay him for his magical music that lures away rats.
How ominous do the lines get? Translations are never perfect but here are some:
“You may struggle but it won’t matter anymore”
“Don’t reject me”
“It may be a little dangerous but I’m very sweet.”
“I’m taking over you”
Here is the ringer:
“I’m here to save you / I am here to ruin you”
It is a beautifully heavy and frightening song that sneaks into this victory lap album and grounds the celebration. This success is built by the fans, but is the K-Pop industry relying and playing dangerously off that obsession?
After “Pied Piper” BTS inserts Rap Monster’s full acceptance speech at the Billboard Awards. It cements the album as a victory lap. Right after the skit comes “Mic Drop.” “Mic Drop” challenges anyone to hate on BTS after their accomplishments. It is wild, loud, and loaded with distortion throughout. It is exciting to start, but after a while the aggression and energy stops being impressive. In my eyes it does not play to all of BTS’s strengths as their more varied songs do.
“Go Go” and “Outro:Her” close the album. Both tracks are solid, but not outstanding. “Outro: Her” suffers from some strange lyrics (“You’re my tear”) and overly deep sentiment that Rap Monster sometimes falls into as a writer. “Go Go” drags in the middle and uses some deep slurring vocal segments that feel awkward against the super clean flute beat that centers the whole song. The rising action at the end of “Go Go” is nice and “Outro: Her” has a fun, 90’s hip-hop sound, but the way “Love Yourself” ends still feels lackluster. Another K-Pop group could get away with a weak ending, but this is the victory lap for K-Pop’s Caesars and so the weak latter half is hard to ignore. It sounds good, but for BTS good isn’t great anymore. “Love Yourself” is good, but I leave it feeling BTS could do better.