BTS make a strong case for pop maximalism on Map of the Soul: Persona

On their newest record, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V and Jungkook make an identity crisis sound fun.

April 19, 2019
BTS make a strong case for pop maximalism on Map of the Soul: Persona Big Hit Entertainment

BTS's new album Map Of The Soul: Persona opens on a question easier asked than answered: "Who the hell am I?" Since debuting in 2013, the South Korean boy band have worked their way to becoming inarguably the biggest band in the world, and at least part of their success has hinged on that very question. Who are BTS? Those in their massive fanbase (dubbed the BTS Army) seem to know everything. Those outside of it don't even know where to begin. Persona is as good a place as any to start.

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The record gets its name from Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction, a 1998 book on Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung by Dr. Murray Stein (copies of which are available via the band's online store). Jung, who once wrote about "the danger" in people "becoming identical with their personas — the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice" provides an intriguing framework for the boys to work with: sophisticated enough to suggest a higher meaning, yet inclusive enough to encompass really anything BTS sing about.

Persona is at its best when it aims broad. The record blasts off with an identity-questioning rap from group leader RM, backed by scrunchy, Warped Tour-ready guitars Dated? Perhaps. Fun? Absolutely. More than anything, it's a worthy pregame for the two knockouts that follow: lead single "Boy With Luv" and "Mikrokosmos," the latter of which sounds like if Oneohtrix Point Never produced old school Madonna.

It's pop maximalism at its finest, overstuffed and optimistic antitheses to the bare and sullen attitude that currently dominates the charts. There's something almost utopian about both songs, in sound and scope. BTS promise a world where nothing's stronger than a boy's love and where each of us possess our own infinite galaxy of possibilities. They deliver those promises with such conviction that it's difficult to not believe in what they're saying.

No K-pop album has ever arrived stateside with the exposure that Map of the Soul: Persona has. Leading up to its release, the boys appeared at the Grammys, the Billboard Music Awards, and on the TIME's Most Influential list. Last weekend, they became the first K-pop group ever to guest on Saturday Night Live, and brought a performance so flawlessly charismatic that it instantaneously rendered each of this season's musical guests before them as kind of low rent.

For album features, they've brought on two of top 40's most nondescript figureheads, Halsey and Ed Sheeran. Here, they're rightfully engulfed by the showmanship of their Bangtan hosts; only Sheeran's presence feels palpable on "Make It Right," indisputably the album's most algorithmic (and schlocky) moment.

Midway, the record dips ever so slightly. Though "HOME" and "Jamais Vu" offer some of the most sincere moments on the tracklist, the energy just pales in comparison to what precedes them. They jack it back up again with the boss-level "Dionysus," in which each of their identity anxieties collide in a booze-filled rager.

If Map of the Soul: Persona feels in any way incomplete, that's because it probably is — BTS's past projects have been released in installments, parts of a larger whole, and the Army predicts Persona will be followed by Shadow and Ego to fulfill an entire Map of the Soul. Still, even at just 26 minutes, Persona feels like an accomplishment. It never quite reaches any Jungian epiphany, but at its finest moments, the album does validate a key philosophy of BTS's mass appeal: the possibility that we can each be the greatest version of ourselves. Sometimes, that's all we need from a pop song.

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BTS make a strong case for pop maximalism on Map of the Soul: Persona