Most acts would hack off an arm to be welcomed like BTS. On Friday, the K-Pop juggernauts debuted “Boy With Luv,” a harmless nu-disco single featuring Halsey. By Monday, it had already shot to the Top Five on Spotify’s U.S. chart and been embraced by pop radio.
That enthusiastic reception demonstrates the extent to which BTS have solidified their position in the American pop establishment. They used to be underdogs — in 2016, their Wings album peaked at Number 26 on the U.S. albums chart; the next year, they climbed to Number Seven. Now they’re ascendant — last year, they debuted at Number One on two separate occasions.
Since major labels have largely abandoned artist development in favor of amplifying acts that are already buzzing, BTS and other like-minded K-Pop groups have an open freeway: As they play with the sound and acrobatic showmanship of big-budget R&B and pop from 20 years ago, they can be confident that few American artists will even attempt to compete. So it’s no surprise that BTS’ new release, Map of the Soul: Persona, is expected to be their third consecutive Number One. But the lack of competition might also come with dangers, because this is one of BTS’ droopier releases.
As always, the group flits through styles, from early Def Jam rap-rock to galloping electro-pop to breathy balladry, and languages, singing in Korean, English and a sprinkle of Spanish (see “Home”). For BTS, these zigzags are standard. But the new songs feel checklist-y — they’ve done nu-disco, electro-pop and rap-rock before, but it’s been zippier, fiercer, grimier. The most convincing production is “Make It Right,” surprisingly co-written by Ed Sheeran, which loops a lone horn line to great effect; it could have come out in the mid-2000s next to Amerie’s “1 Thing” or Mario’s “Let Me Love You.”
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Mostly Map of the Soul: Persona serves as a reminder of BTS’ impregnability. One of the primary qualifications for modern pop stardom — any modern enterprise, really — is maintaining upward growth. Map of the Soul: Persona is projected to break BTS’ previous first-week sales record in the U.S.; “Boy With Luv” set a pair of global YouTube views records. The juggernauts roll on.