Life, according to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, moves in seven-year cycles. You’re born a total dependent, before beginning to find your own sense of individuality, you grow up and hit puberty, the get taken over by hormones and go through all kinds of teenage drama (sound familiar?). Then you become emotionally mature, begin to grapple with your ego, become a responsible adult and look at the world through a wider viewfinder. And onwards for the rest of your life!
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It makes sense, then, that BTS‘ latest album ‘Map Of The Soul: 7’ looks back on the last seven years. All of the members are currently in that latter phase, while 2020 marks their seventh anniversary. As on 2019’s ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’ (five of that record’s songs also appear here), they draw on the work of another scholar in psychologist Carl Jung to loosely frame conversations about coming to terms with who you truly are, flaws and all.
After they encouraged self-love on the ‘Love Yourself’ series, ‘7’ serves as something of a deeper meditation on BTS’ path to self-acceptance. It first questions the faces we show to the world on ‘Intro: Persona’, before moving on to address the sides of us we keep hidden from everyone else with Suga’s ‘Interlude: Shadow’. The emo-rap track struggles with success’ effect of heightening insecurities and, in a brand new verse bolstered by melancholy guitar strums, he chides himself: “Try smiling, what are you hesitating for? / Wasn’t this the kind of thing you were hoping for?” Finally, on ‘Outro: Ego’, J-hope flips the usual script that sees the ego as a negative concept with bright Afro-pop, recounting his journey from Gwangju’s Jung Hoseok to his globally-known rap star alter-ego, happily and confidently concluding to “just trust myself.”
Before much was known about ‘7’, fans were expecting BTS’ fourth Korean studio album to be full of pain and anguish, having theorised it would continue Jung’s map of the soul theory with a journey into their shadows. While there are some displays of darkness (e.g. ‘Interlude: Shadow’, the fear-driven ‘Black Swan’ and Troye Sivan co-write ‘Louder Than Bombs’), the record is a monument to strength – after all, as Jung’s work spells out, acknowledging your shadow is the only way to access your true self.
‘Black Swan’ grows more defiant against the fear of losing passion for music and ‘Louder Than Bombs’ details the consequences of hearing others’ stories of pain across the world (“The hushed sadness of yours shakes me / In the quiet sea of mine, the waves rise”). But as its rumbling electro-pop intensifies, so does the band’s resolve, until a final chorus declares: “Louder than bombs I sing / I make a promise to you and me / Whatever waves crash over us / We’ll forever sing towards you.”
Given the idea behind ‘7’, it’s no surprise that this album is a deeply personal ride. Each member has his own solo opportunity to reflect on their lives. On Jimin’s ‘Filter’, which swings to a Latin-pop rhythm ready-made for his fluid dance skills, he presents himself as a versatile figure who can shine in any role. “I can be your genie / How ‘bout Aladdin?”, he suggests playfully. “I’ll be whatever you want.”
Across the wobbling R&B of ‘My Time’, Jungkook acknowledges his charmed life as a member of the biggest band in the world, but questions the normal experiences of youth he’s had to sacrifice (the group’s youngest member, he was just 15 when BTS debuted). “I feel as though I’ve become an adult faster than anyone,” he begins, adding later: “I rock on all over the world, I made my own lotto / But is it too fast, the traces of what I’ve missed.”
V uses his time to speak to his former self on the swelling strings of ‘Inner Child’, reassuring the memory of younger V that the hard times will subside. “Now I have become the stars reflected in your eyes / You’re my boy,” he sings fondly. “We gon’ change.” It’s nestled in the middle of a four-song run that sees ‘7’ reach its emotional peak (and occasionally veer into cheesy pop territory sonically), ending with Jin’s ode to the band’s fans, ARMY, on ‘Moon’.
Known as one of the BTS members who is most consistently outwardly confident and happy, he’s suggested in the past this is merely a persona he uses to mask his own troubles and give strength to his bandmates. He hints at that notion again here when he sings: “Everyone tells me I’m beautiful/But my sea is all black.” Later, he adds, “Suddenly I wonder if you are watching me too/I worry if you would discover all of my hurting wound,” and extends his support to the fans who “became my reason”.
’00:00 (Zero O’Clock)’ is about “how everything resets at zero o’clock and a new day begins”. It’s a tender ode to not letting yourself get pulled under by life’s drudgery, the chorus line “and you’re gonna be happy” serving as a mantra that grows in power each time it’s repeated. Jimin and V, meanwhile, team-up on the joyful ‘Friends’, sharing stories from a friendship of the rarest, most special kind. “Hello my alien / We are each other’s mystery,” Jimin sings at one point.
‘7’’s feelings don’t just manifest in the beautiful, though. There’s also the likes of ‘UGH!’, a fiery rap track full of gunshots, with RM, J-hope and Suga going full force against a world run by rage. “Someone’s anger becomes someone’s life,” Suga sagely notes of the hurt that comes with being the victim of anonymous internet dwellers’ anger. He and RM join forces again on the more laidback ‘Respect’, which examines the real meaning of a word that they consider over-used in today’s society.
‘7’ arrives after the longest gap between BTS releases (10 months in all) but, as an album full of big ideas, strong conviction and unguarded emotion, it’s more than worth the wait. Last month, on the Grammys red carpet, J-hope told E!: “You will know when you listen to our new album and watch the performance liking BTS was the best decision ever.” As it turns out, he wasn’t wrong. Here’s to another seven years with Korea’s global heavyweights.
Label: Big Hit Entertainment
Release date: February 21, 2020