BTS Deliver a Hyperactive K-Pop Riot With ‘Map of the Soul: 7’
BTS is emblematic of a K-pop craze that no one in their right mind could have predicted a decade ago. They’ve taken the world by storm, bringing back the boy band theatrics that everyone thought finally got the death knell in the early aughts, fully revitalized, with an exotic appeal that is at once entertaining from its mere novelty, and truly impressive from the peerless skill demonstrated. BTS do pop right, magnifold and raging. Their latest album, “Map of the Soul: 7” is a bit tamer than the outre antics of their last album, “Love Yourself: Answer,” but crams enough personality into its hour plus running time to shock, awe, and amuse.
“Intro: Persona” begins with a quick sweep, and dives right into full guns-blazing hip-hop, with a lone guitar riff to keep the pace, and a few English lyrics thrown in like “Who the hell am I?” It’s a surefire start to what’s expected to be a high energy surge. “Boy With Luv” suddenly brings back all the gloss and sheen, with BTS at their most overtly boy bandish, the ever versatile Halsey on backing vocals, and the whole production is pop perfection. “Make It Right” delves further into this, with honey-soaked harmonies, and full ‘90s NSync-style throwback, with Korean and English interspersed lyrics.
“Jamais Vu” sounds like pouty-lipped karaoke of the absolute most cringey type. There’s one thing to enjoy about camp and kitsch, but this is pushing it to the limits. The chorus of “Please get a remedy” sounds like it needed to be said. “Dionysus” turns up the hype, combining the hip-hop energy of the introductory track with the sugary histrionics of the last few numbers, and is likely the band’s most definitive statement yet, with a chorus that sounds like a parody of a parody, and it’s brilliant. “Interlude: Shadow” begins with ambient washes of sound, and such profundities as “I wanna be rich,” repeated until giving rise to a full Auto-tune frenzy, the true sound of inspiration. Near the end, there’s a sudden shift, with gritty distortion, and Suga getting wildly neurotic with his inflections over the buzzing backdrop. You’ve got to hand it to BTS, for bringing edge and eccentricity to the most unabashedly department store pop.
The band ride the wave on the relatively calm “Black Swan,” a streamlined pop song with a refrain including inserted lyrics that sound lovably awkward, and are very much a hallmark of BTS’s whole appeal. The music is run through phasers in a way that complements the overall aesthetic of the band, a bit like a mirror reflection to the Auto-tune vocal gestures. If the album got blatantly ‘90s pop already, “Filter” outdoes it — think Total Request Live, choreography for screaming teens, etc. This could be a Christina Aguilera song. “My Time” is essentially an afterthought on the same feeling, and this point, BTS are just dwelling on a feeling with no reservations whatsoever, and pulling it off swimmingly.
The promisingly titled “Louder Than Bombs” could be the catchiest song of the whole set, and features especially androgynous singing, wincing, whining, and all the works, interspersed with jokey rap. It would be an outrage if it weren’t so undeniably infectious. Next, “On” begins with a drumline from the UCLA marching band, and rotates singers a bit too hastily, rushing to the chorus faster than needed. There are exhilarating moments, when the singers get wild, hoot and holler, but otherwise it’s a rather tepid track in the mix. “Ugh!” switches gears, full force, back into hip-hop with no reservations. The singers in BTS can rap better than most mainstream rappers, fact — even if you haven’t a clue what they’re saying. Just the cadence, confidence, flow, and charisma is enough.
“00:00 (Zero O’clock)” is an insufferable bout of whining. Even the band’s most crazed devotees might have a hard time getting through this one. The same feel seeps into “Inner Child,” which places the bellowing over an acoustic guitar and kick drum pulse that erupts into a premature chorus of “We gon’ change,” with the “gon’” deserving an award for trying too hard, and exacerbated by the ubiquitous “Oh-oh” chorus that has now even depleted its radio appeal. “Friends” suffers similar pitfalls, exchanging that chorus gimmick for a variation with shouts of “Hey!” It’s a bit of campy fun, and something of a welcome return to form. “Moon” is a buoyant banger, with a hummed chorus and insistent backbone carrying the bad karaoke that’s standard fare by now.
Old school hip-hop makes a resurgence on “Respect” in the most ridiculous way. It’s something that simply has to be heard, if just for comic value. Double-tracked vocals, pitched as if the accompanied gesticulations go without saying, punctuated with chest-pounding exclamations of “Respect,” only to erupt into a chorus that sounds like sobbing to scratches. “We Are Bulletproof: the Eternal” is a calm after the storm, a slow tune that of course breaks into another irresistible chorus. The refrain of “We were only seven” is a bit odd, but then again, so is everything about BTS.
“Outro: Ego” brings back the energy, another hyped, upbeat track with a brass-filled, flamboyant chorus that ends up with exclamations of “Oh my god, god, god,” in a moment that could hardly better encapsulate the band’s whole approach and attitude. Finally, the album ends with an alternate take of “On,” featuring SIa. She chimes in a few lines during the verse, then takes on grand proportions in the chorus. The cameo is a bit underwhelming, as it doesn’t quite capture Sia at her full force, but it puts a spin on an already engaging tune.
“Map of the Soul: 7” is a riot, from start to finish. That has always essentially been the case with BTS. The new record switches seamlessly from old school hip-hop extravagance to full pop fury in a decidedly K-pop style. The songs are at least novel and humorous, at most, downright infectious. BTS is a phenomenon for the ages, and this is a testament. The album is full of hyperactive, sugary pop tunes to keep heads nodding, bodies dancing, and smirks steady.
“Map of the Soul: 7” is available Feb. 21 on Apple Music.