In June, pop megastars BTS announced that their seven members would be focusing more on their individual paths, exploring solo projects as a way of strengthening their collective foundation. “I think BTS will become stronger [this] way,” rapper-songwriter-dancer J-Hope said when the group announced its next chapter. A little more than a month after his group’s joint statement, J-Hope is the first BTS member to release his own full solo project, a 10-track concept album that flexes his artistic muscle while paying tribute to his love of hip-hop.
Jack In the Box opens with a disembodied voice retelling, over sparkling chimes and radio static, the story of Pandora’s box, specifically the part where Greek mythology’s first woman finds the last item in her mythological vessel: hope, which “gave people the will to carry on living amidst the pain and strife.” J-Hope named himself after that idea — a tall order, although the responses he and his BTS bandmates have elicited from their devoted and massive fanbase would seem to indicate that he’s lived up to that aspiration.
But Jack in the Box is full of indications that the 28-year-old is hardly done. “MORE,” the album’s first single, is darkly hued rap-rock with lyrics outlining how J-Hope’s aspirations are even bigger than the ones he’s realized with BTS. “I crash and fall to make my art/Still make it move from where I stand,” he growls in Korean over an insistent boom-bap beat and fuzzed-out bass. Guitars explode on the chorus, as he wails, “Hah! Yeah, right! ‘Cause I want some more!” It comes in the album’s first half, which outlines the main character’s time “in the box” and hoping to get out. But when the box opens for the album’s second half, life on the outside isn’t all that it seemed to be, with the frenetic showcase for J-Hope’s mic skills “Arson” ending the album with a question that translates to: “Do I put out the fire/Or burn even brighter?”
The album is held together by this tension, and by J-Hope’s clear admiration for the R&B and hip-hop that ruled American radio in the Nineties and 2000s. The pensive “What if…” spins out from the piano stabs that serve as the backbone of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” while “STOP” has a serpentine robo-funk bassline and a feeling of dread that’s enhanced by J-Hope repeating the monosyllabic title on its chorus. “Safety Zone” is a plush skewed-soul hip-hop cut about seeking comfort; at the end, J-Hope shows off his impressive croon, which is purpose-built for R&B jams.
Jack in the Box is brief — its 10 tracks clock in at around 22 minutes — but potent, with J-Hope’s musical curiosity and dexterity on the mic helping create an immersive world that showcases the inner life of someone who’s in a lot of photographs, but who may not always feel fully seen. Where he and his bandmates go from here is anyone’s guess, but Jack in the Box is a sign that the ride will be full of unexpected turns.