J-Hope – ‘Jack in The Box’ review: bright BTS rapper delves into darkness on sublime solo album

As BTS put their focus on individual activities, J-Hope peels apart his perky public persona to show off other dimensions of his character and musicianship

Anyone who knows even a little about J-Hope, the charismatic rapper and phenomenal dancer who has conquered the world with BTS, will know that his stage name suits him to a tee. On stage and in the group’s many pieces of content, he takes on the role of a bundle of sunshine and light, a smile never far from his face. But J-Hope is ultimately a persona and Jeong Hoseok is just as multi-faceted and layered a human being as the rest of us.

‘Jack In The Box’ – his first solo album and the first full-length release since BTS announced they would be putting more focus on individual projects – presents something darker, like walking behind a sun-dappled waterfall to find shadowy caves and the debris of erosion. It grapples with themes of success, humanity, passion and self-destruction, sharing J-Hope’s anxieties and agonies via often murky hip-hop as he searches for answers to his questions.

My life is becoming my enemy, it’s getting lonesome,” he raps gently over the slowed-down, soulful R&B of ‘Safety Zone’, a track that finds him hunting for a secure spot where he can fully unwind and unload. As a line that comes moments after he reflects on “dedicat[ing] my entire twenties living up to this immeasurable life”, it’s hard not to link it to a sense of exhaustion or the idea that, after a certain point, success can feel like a burden rather than a world-opening joy. “I like animals better than people these days,” J-Hope confides, before wondering and wandering directionless: “Where is the ray of light for relief in the dark? […] Where’s my safe zone? Left, right, go straight?

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On the dark ‘What If…’, which samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’, he contemplates the dichotomy between his public persona and who he knows himself to be. “I ask myself 100 times / Am I really like that?” he ponders. “Hopeful, optimistic, always with a smile on my face.” Later, on a growling, grinding chorus, he speculates about what life would be like if he first lacked the driving forces of “hope”, “dream[s]”, “passion” and “vision”, before moving on to more tangible things like “money”, “house” and “car”.

J-Hope might have taken off his bright, optimistic mask on ‘Jack In The Box’ to show another dimension of his character, but that doesn’t mean those qualities have been excised for good. They still creep in here in places, pushing forward his empathetic, sincere messages with glimmers of positivity. The brilliant ‘STOP’ is a sharp examination of the ills of humanity that at first slams the actions of despicable parties (“The acts of humans who are even worse than animals disgust me / In harsher words, even I doubt whether they’re really humans”) but then takes a step back to “stop, stop, stop, stop / Calm down, down, down” and consider things more deeply.

Yeah, let’s go back to the basic and take another look at them,” the rapper instructs over a snapping beat. “The environment, education, system that they’ve been living in / How is it different from mine?” He remains sanguine as he comes to his conclusions: “We were born through the law of cause and effect / Despite that, our will can change anything / We’re the makers / Because a small start is a big leap / Because there are no bad people in the world.” The album’s concept revolves around the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, which set free all the evils in the world, with only hope remaining in its walls. Moments like these evoke that, showing no matter what dark depths J-Hope plumbs, faith still stays strong within him.

‘= (Equal Sign)’, meanwhile, asks for the rest of the world to join J-Hope in treating our fellow humans with kindness. Over infectious ’90s hip-hop, he sings softly about letting go of our hatred to look “for love in a different light”. The shortest song on the album save the intro and interlude, it begs to be fleshed out more, its glittering message of love over far too soon.

‘Jack In The Box’ is smartly presented with a clearly signposted narrative. It flows in a way that makes it a treat to enjoy from start to finish rather than dipping into songs at random. It opens with ‘Intro’, an English narration of the story of Pandora’s box by a female voice, which ends tellingly with the line: “Hope gave people the will to carry on living beyond the pain and strife.” At the centrepiece of the record is ‘Music Box : Reflection’, an ominous instrumental that combines heavy breathing with an eerie music box melody, bass drones and a scratchy beat. It serves as an interlude to the story, allowing its creator to shift lanes from the album’s first message-filled half to a more introspective second part.

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The sounds on the record add to the atmosphere J-Hope creates in the lyrics. He largely works with old-school hip-hop but adds fresh ideas to the well-worn style. On ‘MORE’, he mixes in flashes of emo rock, shouting the chorus over heavy guitar chugs. ‘Pandora’s Box’ weaves an unsettling piano melody between the beats, while the gleaming ‘Future’ – reminiscent of early Kanye West – lightens the mood with echoes of a children’s choir.

It’s ‘Arson’, though, that feels like the most accomplished piece of work here. The star builds from a minimal, gloomy foundation, using his voice as his main instrument. “Let’s burn, burn, burn, burn, burn,” he raps in its opening seconds. “It’s done, done, done, done.” Each repetition is delivered in a rumbling baritone, revving like an engine warming up to roar off into the distance. As the track progresses, J-Hope’s flow switches from smooth and menacing to something choppier and more urgent, a siren-like sound ringing in the background behind him. It’s a masterful, addictive end to the record that begs you to hit play over and over.

Thought-provoking and full of fresh new flavour, ‘Jack In The Box’ takes the J-Hope the world has come to know and love over the last nine years and sets that figure alight. From the ashes, though, comes a star more thrilling and formidable than ever and seemingly unstoppable.

Details

fzpz Singapore producer album review Death Signs
  • Release date: July 15, 2022
  • Record label: HYBE
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