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Exploring BTS’ ‘Map of the Soul: Persona’

By Mariejo S. Ramos
04/28/18 6:33 AM

Seven is a magic number for BTS.

Yet for the seven-member Korean superstars, the seven tracks in their latest album, “Map of the Soul: Persona,” are more than the sum of its parts.

In fact, the thematic and musical merits of the album bank not on sustaining the grand narratives of their past albums or expanding the borders of a genre. It is a deconstruction: Bangtan’s universe is all of space, history, time and its little contents.

That each track in “Persona” tackles its own little universe seems to be the very purpose of the album. Listeners perceive themselves, the band and others differently, and the songs reach out to this individuality.

The album’s melodic anthem “Mikrokosmos” provides the backbone for this tedious process: “One history in one person/One star in one person/7 billion different worlds/Shining with 7 billion lights.”

Just as how David Bowie’s “Heroes” became pop’s homage to the human spirit (We can be heroes/Just for one day), BTS’ “Mikrokosmos” triumphs in the ability of the human soul to cherish the little connections with others.

But BTS doesn’t strive to become heroes. The band may have created a vast universe beyond their nexus in Seoul, South Korea: with sold-out stadium tours, three Billboard No. 1 albums in less than a year (a 23-year record previously held by The Beatles) and a solid global fanbase.

“Persona,” however, is not a sequel or a bookend to the more thematically colossal Love Yourself series. It is a carefully curated homage to their musical journey with their ARMY (fandom name).

That BTS is a “super band” devoid of the “superhero complex” is evident in the album’s title track, “Boy with Luv” or “Poem for Little Things” (“Not for world peace, or a great order”).

The album “Persona” is making history in global charts since its release on April 12.

Stripped of the complex theories of the past eras, the Bangtan Universe becomes a celebration with their fans of the members’ growth while renegotiating their music’s trajectory—“the deeper the night, the brighter the starlight,” or the farther they go, the more they have to go back to their roots.

This very process is evident in the album’s opening salvo, RM’s “Intro: Persona,” a full rap track that sampled their 2014 album’s “Intro: Skool Luv Affair” and heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s concept of mapping the soul. Self-reflexivity is a concept that Bangtan’s leader used as his own poetic justice: “The ‘me’ that I remember and people know/The ‘me’ that I want myself to be/The ‘me’ that people want me to be/The ‘me’ that you love/And the ‘one’ that I create.”

But just as Persona is reflexive, it is also retroactive. Perhaps no other track in the album is tied to their past narratives than “Jamais Vu” and “Make it Right.” The subunit song of Jungkook, Jin and J-Hope borrows the concept of jamais vu, a psychological phenomenon associated with doing or seeing the familiar but momentarily not recognizing it.

In hindsight, both tracks could work as generic love songs. But “Jamais Vu” is a lyrical ballad that explores BTS’ common theme of dream versus reality, being trapped in the complexities of youth, and trusting one’s inner voice.

What brushes some as a surprise track in the album is actually the song that’s inherently Bangtan: the rap-metal fusion “Dionysus” that scores as a thematic victory and homage to the “old BTS.”

The track, which refers to the outcast Greek god of wine and theater, is different from the “Cypher” tracks because it wasn’t crafted for their critics’ consumption. It was a liberation from the very criticisms that have initially tied them down as “K-pop nugu (nobodies).” Finding their artistry while staying true to their hip-hop and R&B roots, however, is a cautionary tale: Born as a k-pop idol, reborn as an artist/Art at this level is overdrinking.

“Home” is easily Persona’s standout track—not only because of their classic mashup of rap and melodies, but because it’s their most honest song to date.

A fitting postscript to their debut track “No More Dream,” the song’s lyrics explore how the band had successfully turned their “desert” to “sea”—but staying in the middle of that sea means being farther from home, and worse, dissolving its image altogether.

But BTS are voyagers, and the effortless sail of “Map of the Soul” series’ first installment is, above all, a blanket of comfort for these young sailors and their fleet of fans: “The whole world is my home/With you, anywhere will be my home.”