Nothing like BTS has ever happened before. The K-pop kings have taken the sound of Seoul to the top of the U.S. charts, without making any of the usual compromises—no crossover songs in English, no novelty hit, no pandering celebrity duets. Even their Halsey collabo, “Boy with Luv,” has her singing in Korean—and still reached the Top Ten last year, for their biggest stateside hit so far. They’ve managed to invade America on their own terms, filling stadiums without watering down a single detail of their sound or style. Instead, these guys just let the rest of the world cross over to them. Any wised-up industry observer could have advised them why this feat was totally impossible. Yet BTS have proven all the conventional wisdom wrong, blowing up into a whole new kind of global pop phenomenon, triumphing by doing it their own way. Nothing stops the young Seoul rebels.
So let us now praise famous men: RM, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, Jimin, V and J-Hope. They definitely do not lack for personality. Every year they show up on the Grammy Awards for just a few seconds—this year they joined Lil Nas X for “Seoul Town Road,” last year they just mugged in the crowd singing along with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Yet that’s all the time they need to steal the show.
But what makes BTS a great pop group is how they get more ambitiously weird the more famous they get. These dudes specialize in grand concept albums inspired by Herman Hesse or Carl Jung. They’re the kind of boy band that loves to namedrop both Frederich Nietzsche and Justin Bieber. On Map of the Soul: 7, they come on like an all-star team of larger-than-life idols on the level of Kiss or the Wu-Tang Clan, expanding their own elaborate mythological universe. (RM is their Gene Simmons, J-Hope is probably their Ace Frehley—but that’s a debate that could go on all day.)
Map of the Soul: 7 is their most smashing album yet, showing off their mastery of different pop styles from rap bangers to slow-dance ballads to post-Swedish electro-disco to prog-style philosophizing. The seven members have been together seven years, and it’s inspired them to sum up where they’ve been even as they look ahead to their future. A few of the songs are already familiar from last year’s teaser EP, Map of the Soul: Persona—the thugged-out hip-hop bluster of “Dionysus,” the surprising Ed Sheeran co-write “Make It Right.” In “Intro: Persona,” RM drops the English word “superhero” into his Korean rap—he used to dream of being one, then he became one, but now he finds the work has just begun.
On such a broad and diverse 74-minute trip, the stylistic experiments flow together, which is why the Persona songs sound more at home in this context—BTS always work best with a wider thematic canvas. They play on their shared history, as in the Sia duet “ON,” a clever reversal of their 2013 hit “N.O.,” or “no offense.” “Louder Than Bombs” (co-written with Troye Silvan) is a fusion of all their finest musical elements in one place, a lavishly emotional ballad with room for both falsetto harmonies and RM boasting, “Baby, I’m nothing-er than nothing / Brighter than the light.” “Black Swan” and “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” are similarly vulnerable confessions of doubt and fear. Even better, Jin’s “Moon” is a fantastic guitar nugget that could pass for the Smiths—a cosmic love song to a lunar girl that also doubles as a love song to the girls in the audience.
“We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal” is another invincible theme song from the self-proclaimed “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” while “Friends” has V and Jimin bonding in their different vocal styles, embracing each other as soulmates.(Nineties R&B heads may be fondly reminded of the immortal Missy/Aaliyah duet “Best Friends.”) J-Hope, the group’s most acrobatic dancer and usually the one who’s most reliably upbeat, has the album’s most surprising moment with his starkly autobiographical “Outro: Ego.” It samples the Eighties-style rap intro from the group’s 2013 debut album *2 Kool 4 Skool*, as J-Hope ponders what kind of childhood desperation drove him into striving for stardom in the first place, as he admits, “My dancing was chasing ghosts.”
But the peak might be Suga’s audacious “Interlude: Shadow,” where he looks back on his youthful dreams, chanting, “I wanna be a rap star / I wanna be the top / I wanna be a rock star / I want it all mine.” Suga raps in Korean about the terrors of fame, floating up in space and watching his body below. (Rough translation: “Nobody told me how lonely it is up here…my growing shadow swallows me and becomes a monster.”) His different voices weave together, both cocky swagger and scared whisper, switching between languages to gulp in English, “Don’t let me flyyyy.” It’s his own version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” or Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” It’s a prime example of BTS at top strength: a pop moment that feels both intimately personal and exuberantly universal.