For nine years, BTS have never stopped running. It began in 2013, when the South Korean septet, repped by a small, virtually unknown label, burst onto the scene with the brazen and critical “No More Dream,” and were constantly told they didn’t have what it takes to succeed. Still, they kept running — to their first Korean Number One, to the top of the Billboard charts, and eventually to the world stage. Proof, the group’s latest release, is its most ambitious yet, but not necessarily in the way many would expect. Over a three-volume anthology, BTS not only chronicle their tireless, ultra-successful journey thus far, but also give listeners an intimate look into the hard work that has gone behind it. Finally, they’re letting themselves take a moment to stop and enjoy the view.
It would be too simplistic (and frankly, inaccurate) to call Proof a greatest-hits compilation. The first disc tells the story of BTS’ career by way of their 17 lead singles, from “No More Dream” to “Butter.” It’s bookended, however, with two particularly significant tracks: To start, a remastered version of 2013’s “Born Singer” (which samples J. Cole’s “Born Sinner”), in which rappers RM, Suga, and J-Hope detail their experiences going from trainees to idols and fire back at the naysayers who said they were crazy for dreaming. It ends with a new track, Proof’s first single, “Yet to Come (The Most Beautiful Moment),” a classic BTS blend of sparkling pop and old-school hip-hop that offers a hopeful promise of an even brighter future: “We ain’t about it, that step of being the best/(We ain’t about it)/Crowns and flowers, countless trophies/(We ain’t about it)/Dream and hope and goin’ forward.”
If the first disc provides an overview of the group’s story for the uninitiated listener, the second, filled with handpicked solo and sub-unit B sides, offers an even deeper dive into the different textures and aesthetics of each member — RM’s introspection; Suga’s self-awareness; J-Hope’s vivacity; Jin’s warmth; Jimin’s emotiveness; V’s contemplation; Jungkook’s ease. The standout here, though, is a new track, “Run BTS,” a lively hip-hop number backed by a wailing rock guitar that showcases the group’s power when all their unique qualities are harnessed together — and, notably, some of Suga’s most rapid-fire bars to date.
There’s a reason disc three is hidden, only available on the physical album — this one is for the real fans. Filled with demo versions of existing BTS tracks and unreleased songs that never made the cut, the CD is in many ways one of the group’s most intimate offerings yet, laid out like torn-out pages from a diary nobody was meant to read. On a demo of the group’s first hit, 2015’s “I Need U,” RM stretches to sing a sketched-out chorus, cracking and carrying on as if the real melody were somewhere just ahead. Jin’s “Epiphany” could have been in English, and fan-favorite “Spring Day,” according to V’s demo, could have carried listeners along a different lush path. The tracks don’t feel like wistful what-ifs, nor are they regretful detours, but, rather, fascinating and beautiful lookout points along the road. And “For Youth,” a new song that features a live clip of fans and BTS singing 2016’s “Epilogue: Young Forever,” serves as Proof’s closer and emphasizes the artists’ strong bond with ARMY. “I run/And I stumble/You pull me up/Then fall down again, oh/Will you give me a hand?/I’ll get up over and over,” they sing to their fans, who they later call their “best friend for the rest of my life.” This volume’s show of vulnerability may be the most meaningful gift BTS could give to their fans. And Proof shows that whatever direction they take going forward, a wide-open future is stretching out ahead of them.