“Untitled.” Go to an art gallery anywhere in the world and you’ll inevitably find that word on the wall. It’s a title with no intention of being one; an invitation to interpret a piece however the viewer sees fit. With any ‘Untitled’ work of art, there are no wrong answers and no definite conclusions.
The first time BTS leader and rapper RM noticed this labelling, he was perplexed. “I was like, ‘Why are these guys so irresponsible? You just paint it and [call it] ‘Untitled’ – what you see is what you see?’ I was like, ‘OK!’” he smiles, that last word delivered in a bark dripping in scorn, like wet paint trickling down a canvas. Since then, though, he’s come to not only understand those creators’ decisions but to relate to them, too – so much so that on ‘Still Life’, a gloriously positive, forward-looking hip-hop track on his first official solo album ‘Indigo’, released today (December 2), he commands: “Gimme no name ’cause I’m untitled.”
“There are a lot of names that symbolise me – maybe mostly RM or BTS or Kim Namjun for my friends,” he explains from across a wide table in a room high up in the Seoul office of his label, HYBE. “But I felt like if there’s an artwork of my 29[th year], it should be named ‘Untitled’, because nothing is decided. I don’t know what to do right now – I just made some album and this is me. I’m just figuring it out.”
‘Indigo’ captures snapshots of navigating that uncertainty and change, from relationships to a life that’s unfolded under the scrutiny of the public eye. Elsewhere on ‘Still Life’ he raps: “The past’s gone, the future’s unknown / Catching my breath on a crossroads.” This record, which RM describes as being like a diary of his life between 2019 and 2022, feels like that pause, looking left and right, north and south, trying to work out which way to turn next.
Searching for direction has been on RM’s mind of late. In BTS’s latest Festa dinner party video – part of the group’s annual celebrations marking the anniversary of their debut – released in June, he spoke candidly of feeling lost as to where the seven-piece should go next. In the same video, they announced they would be focusing more on solo projects for the foreseeable future.
“I tried to balance the team and myself through this whole decade, but it was really hard because BTS really required a lot of time and a lot of mind and heart,” their leader says now. But even with this burden temporarily relieved, he still struggled to know how to move forward: “I feel like I was stuck at some big stone and I couldn’t move because it was like, ‘OK, now I’ve got to really concentrate on my own thing’.” Recalibrating his compass required RM to go right back to the beginning of his journey, back to the kid dreaming of being a poet and the teenager who fell in love with hip-hop, and remind himself just why he set out on this path in the first place.
“I don’t know what to do right now – I just made some album and this is me. I’m just figuring it out”
He might not have known exactly what direction he wanted to take but, as RM mentioned in that same Festa dinner video, he knew he wanted to make something long-lasting and timeless: to build a legacy. It’s a grand and ambitious desire that should fuel all art, but being hyper-aware of it can also be the very thing that thwarts your attempts to get there.
“I’ve been thinking about that too,” RM replies when NME puts that conundrum to him. “If you do it on purpose, can you have it?” He’s come to the conclusion that the answer is no, he explains while adjusting his circle-framed glasses beneath short curtains of black hair. But being aware of that goal is still “really important”, he adds. “I just want to have it in my mind and enjoy every ride and then, maybe, at some point, like when I turn 60 or 70 or after I die, I can have some textures of [timelessness] – like old clothes, or when we look at our grandfathers or grandmothers. I love [the idea of] it, but I’m too young to have it, so it’s my dream.”
Someone he feels has reached that dream is Erykah Badu, who appears on ‘Indigo’’s opening track ‘Yun’. It’s an exciting cameo from an artist who “barely”, as RM notes with a broad grin, features on other people’s songs. After hearing her on Robert Glasper’s ‘Afro Blue’, the neo soul icon was the only person the rapper wanted on the track: “Her voice is really magical and has its own power – it’s like a spell. It really changes me and moves me somewhere.”
‘Yun’’s hook – “You keep the silence / ‘Fore you do somethin’ / You be a human / Till the death of you” – is a declaration by the painter Yun Hyong-keun, one of RM’s favourite artists and a leading figure of the Korean art movement Dansaekhwa. “If I sing [those words], I thought it wouldn’t be that convincing because I’m too young to preach or tell people to be somebody,” he explains. “With Erykah, it can be convincing because she has her own narrative through her life and she has a castle – she’s living in her own kingdom. She has nothing to do with the hype or the viral[ity] and the noise, but everybody knows her and respects her.”
The hypnotic track also chimes with the BTS member’s desire to “enjoy every ride” – an attitude that Yun shared. “He always said you have to be human first / Don’t try to do art, just have fun, savouring all the sorrows and joys of life,” RM raps in one of the verses, referencing a lesson he drew from the hardships the artist went through for most of his life. Although Yun was arrested, tortured, and had several stints in prison for standing up for what he believed to be right, he maintained that “to live most beautifully means to survive after experiencing extreme suffering and hardship”.
“In his time, people were starving and there was art, but most people were [focused on getting] food and [the need to] survive,” RM explains, his voice solemn with respect. “I could never imagine how they could think of art at those times – [through] the wars, the fights, the politics. That’s why I have a big respect [for] especially him. He never bowed down to the bad things.” Now, the musician wants to “be an ambassador of him ’cause I’m in his debt” and spread Yun’s messages to the world.
Although ‘Indigo’ is, at its heart, an ode to change, one thing in RM’s life has remained constant since he was young – his love of language. As a child, he dreamed of being an author or a poet. “Especially a poet,” he recalls. “But I thought realistically I’m gonna be starving and die at some point, because I was not that confident to be a pro poet. I was just like, ‘It’d be romantic to be a poet’.” He still sees his lyrics as a version of the art form – “rap stands for rhythm and poetry,” he points out – and is grateful he gets to “harmonise” his twin passions for writing and hip-hop: “My thing was just to spread my voice to the world and I think I’m doing it and realising it in my own way. I’m trying to keep my young dream from when I was a kid [alive].”
Over the years as a member of BTS, RM has become known for another harmonising act – of both Korean and English, acting as the group’s translator as they broke through worldwide. On ‘Indigo’, there are two fully English songs, ‘Change pt. 2’ and ‘Closer’. These, he laughs, are no attempt to appeal to global listeners, but an organic consequence of his music-making process. “I think language has its own worlds or textures,” he explains. “Sometimes I watch interviews [I’ve done] in Korean and English [and] it’s really strange – the frequency and the dynamics are really different. But I love it and I’m satisfied that I can do both because I’m lucky – I can be on the land or in the sea.”
“Erykah Badu’s voice is really magical and has its own power – it’s like a spell. It really changes me and moves me somewhere”
Satisfaction – and specifically having no regrets – is something RM is keen to feel with this album. Since debuting with BTS nearly a decade ago, his life has played out in full view of the public.
“There are lots of regrets because my whole twenties were an exhibition,” he sighs. “There are a lot of images and videos and pictures of my past online and still remaining on a lot of people’s phones or social platforms – too many memories I want to be forgotten. Maybe the technology’s too great so it’s gonna stay somewhere forever, and sometimes it’s really horrible and scary. But it’s my destiny because I chose to be a star and to be a boyband member.” Although there are downsides to his status as a global superstar, you won’t find RM longing for another life. “Doctor Strange taught me this version of the universe is the best one,” he smiles.
As he and iconic Korean singer and actor parkjiyoon sing in the beautiful closing track ‘No.2’, right now, RM isn’t looking back but focusing on what’s ahead. For the private person Kim Namjun, that means “growing up”, trying to be “a greater adult so he could be sharing love and having a nice influence on people” and indulging in hobbies. For the public-facing RM, things are more complicated.
“RM is doing OK,” he says hesitantly, drawing out his words through a wry laugh. “RM is having a challenge. He’s been making music for 15 years now, but he’s managed to have his first solo album finally. He’s like the young bird from the egg in the novel Demian, but he’s a veteran at the same time because he’s been through BTS for a decade.” As he mentions the group’s name, he drops his voice to a dramatic, reverent hush. “So it’s really tricky. We’ll see what he’s doing from now on.”
As life and the world continue to change around him, one lyric from the bouncy ‘All Day’ provides some indication of how RM will continue to move forward. “I’m digging all day,” he raps exuberantly. “I’m finding real me.”
RM’s ‘Indigo’ is out now via Big Hit Music