Back in 2015, RM (aka Kim Namjoon) became the first member of BTS to release a solo mixtape. That self-titled collection, while technically good and an enjoyable listen, sometimes felt like the work of someone trying to fit the mould of what they thought a rapper should be. Though it contained similar messaging to the songs of the Korean boyband (‘Do You’, for example, encouraged listeners to be themselves, flaws and all), it also veered away from their perceived “clean-cut” image into squealed swear words and eyebrow-raising brags. As an homage to western hip-hop, it worked but, when considered in the context of one artist’s unique voice, lacked the originality needed to make it truly distinctive.
On the 24-year-old’s second mixtape (or playlist, as he’s termed it), things have changed dramatically. Last year, the rapper took to a BTS fan forum to describe himself as a fan of “that moment where twilight and evening transitions to night, and the moment when dawn transitions to morning”. ‘Mono’ sounds like it was created with those moments in mind. This is a soundtrack for walking the streets, contemplating life and working through your thoughts as the sky changes gears. It’s atmospheric and reflective, and shows his impressive growth since its predecessor’s release.
Loneliness and longing are the main themes this time around, as RM puts his life under a microscope. On the low-key, shuffling ‘Uhgood’, he asks, “Why do I feel lonely? / I feel so lonely when I’m with me.” On ‘Forever Rain’, which sounds as grey as its title suggests – not a dull, lifeless grey, but one that’s comforting and dynamic – he admits, “When it rains I get a little feeling that I do have a friend.” On piano-led opener ‘Tokyo’, he sounds like he’s searching for the root of those feelings as he wonders, “Do I miss myself? / Do I miss your face?“
Similarly, the dichotomy between love and hate – or lack thereof–- is also on the rapper’s mind. “Why do love and hate sound just the same to me?” he ask on ‘Tokyo’, while, on ‘Seoul’, he examines his love-hate relationship with the titular city he calls home. “I’m leaving you / I’m living you,” he whispers at one point, stuck between opposing forces.
The latter track is the first of the record’s collaborations, and was produced by London synth-pop duo HONNE. Elsewhere, he features two figures from the Korean indie scene. First, eAeon of MoT appears on the tantalisingly short, dark ‘Badbye’ (which bewitches instantly and eerily drifts out all too soon) and, later, NELL’s JW on the album’s crowning glory, ‘Everythingoes’. Based around the idea that all things must pass, it builds slowly over a beautiful, revolving melody and swelling production, holding back RM’s vocal until almost two minutes in. It eventually arrives just in time for the track to hit its peak – a spine-tingling mix of needling synth lines, thunderclap percussion and passionate delivery.
“Moonchild, you shine / When moon rise, it’s your time,” the musician sings on the auto-tuned, bass-y hip-hop of ‘Moonchild’. He’s benefited from the space to find his own voice and sound, and has gained the confidence and perspective needed to be comfortable as himself. ‘Mono’ suggests RM’s own time is now.