One of BTS’ many high-profile fans, Late Late Show host James Corden, says the group is “at their core, a force for good.” With his dimpled smile, warm manner, and fierce stage presence, 27-year-old rapper, dancer, songwriter, and producer J-Hope embodies the group’s combination of fundamental goodness and overwhelming talent; even his choice of stage name radiates positivity. In the first of Rolling Stone‘s breakout interviews with each of the seven members of BTS, J-Hope looked back at the group’s early days, reflected on his musical future, and more. He spoke from a studio room at the Seoul headquarters of the group’s label, HYBE’s Big Hit Music, wearing an olive coat over a crisp white T-shirt. His energy was restrained compared to his relentlessly buoyant TV interviews, but his high-watt smile was never far away.
Did you wake up and come straight here, or did you get a chance to do anything else this morning?
I went to the bathroom! [laughs]
So what have you learned about yourself over the course of this pandemic year?
It was an opportunity to learn how precious our ordinary lives were. I had to think about how my life should go on and how I should just stay calm and focus even during these times. It was a time to reflect on myself a lot.
And what did you take away from that reflection?
The takeaway is I have to do what I can do best. Time goes on and life flows on, and we just have to keep doing music and performances. I just thought that I have to make music that can give consolation and a sense of hope to other people. You know, we’re just people, like everybody else. So we feel the same way as everybody else. So we just wanted to make music and do performances that other people can resonate with and that can give people more strength.
What you’re saying reminds me of the message of “Life Goes On,” which is a beautiful song.
That song came from thinking about what can we do during this time, during the Covid pandemic. It’s about the stories that we can tell at this point in time. It motivated us to really talk among the members about what we are feeling. So I feel that it’s an important song.
In some of your lyrics, you’ve revealed that there is sometimes a sadness behind the smile that everyone loves. How do you balance the positivity that you present to the world with the more complex emotions you may experience in real life?
Things are really different from how it used to be. I just try to show who I really am. I think that’s the most comfortable for me. Everybody has, you know, different sides from what they show. Of course, I do have a burden and a pressure as an artist. I just take them in for what they are. I just try to express that I’m going to overcome these difficulties.
If I express those things, I think that also gives me a sense of consolation as well. We have been communicating with our fans ever since we became artists, but now I think it’s become more natural and comfortable. Before we tried to only show them the good side, the bright side of us. As my name is J-Hope, I only tried to show the bright side of our group and myself. But as the time passes by, one cannot feel the same way forever so I also felt other emotions. I tried to express those emotions through music or dialogue, to express them in a very beautiful way.
One of those songs is “Outro: Ego.” What were you thinking when you wrote that one?
It’s really about self-reflection, reflecting on who I am, my ego, as the name implies. It’s about the life of Jung Ho-seok [J-Hope’s real name] as an individual, and the life of J-Hope. And the conclusion that I draw from this inner reflection is that I believe in myself and I believe who I am, and this is my identity. And then these are the challenges that I have faced, and I’ll continue to face these challenges and do new things by relying on who I am.
In 2018, you released the mixtape Hope World, which was a major artistic achievement. What are your favorite memories of working on it?
You know, looking back, I think it was really pure, innocent, and beautiful that I could do such music at those times. When I work on music right now, I have an opportunity to go back to those emotions and think, “Oh, those were the days.” I think it really has a good influence on my music that I work on now. Through the mixtape I learned a lot, and I think it really shaped the direction that I want to go in as an artist, as a musician. I’m really just grateful that so many people loved my mixtape. I am planning to keep on working on music and to try to show people a [style of] music unique to J-Hope.
What are your thoughts on a second mixtape?
Right now, the goal is to get inspired and make good music. Nothing is decided yet, so I’m just going to keep working on music. I think my style of music will not greatly change, but I think it will be more mature. I will try to contain stories that I really want to tell in the second mixtape.
You just released the full version of the song “Blue Side” from Hope World. Was that just something you had the whole time, or did you finish it more recently?
It wasn’t a full version at that time, so I always had the thought of going back to that song and completing it. I always had that in mind. I think it was like two weeks or one month ago that I finally came to think that “Oh, I want to finish this song.” As I mentioned earlier, I really look back onto the emotions that I have when I worked on the mixtape.
When you started as a trainee you hadn’t rapped at all. You’ve obviously come a long way and developed some serious skills — what was that learning process like?
I still think I have some shortcomings. I still think that I have a long way to go, to learn more things. I have to find my own unique style. But I think I could only come this far thanks to the other members. When I first started training, all the members were rappers in that crew. So when you go into the house, beats were dropping, and everyone was just rapping in freestyle. It was kind of not easy to adapt at first, but I really tried hard to adapt to that new environment. And I think those were good times and good memories, and it was really fun as well.
You were very young when you began as a trainee. What’s it been like to grow up in BTS?
I think during my training, life was far apart from being ordinary. Because other guys, my friends, would do schoolwork at school and go on field trips and build memories as a student. And of course I chose this career, my own path, giving up those things. Maybe I could feel unfortunate to not to have experienced those things, but I was chasing my dreams. And meeting the members during our trainee days was really amazing, because it is just amazing that different people who were so different could come together to form a group. And I really want to thank those guys, and I sometimes I feel like I really want to go back to those days.
What do you think when you look back at BTS’ earliest videos, when you all had this almost tough image?
Back when we had released “No More Dream,” our music embodied the battle against prejudice and oppression. So naturally, such values carried over to the style and visual aspects of the release as well. You could say it was our identity and the image that we also portrayed at that moment. But we can’t forever dwell in that static state. As time flows, things change and trends change, as did our tendencies in music. We took into account the influences around us, including, of course, our audiences. These influences guided us toward our own change in musical style and concepts.
You’ve all said many times that when you first got together, there were conflicts because you had different backgrounds and different values. What were some of the key differences that made it tough early on?
We were just really different from the beginning, so it was awkward. It did take time to get used to it. We were living together, but we had to make sure we each had our own personal spaces. Eventually we learned to understand each other, and now we’ve been doing this for so long together that we have this sort of harmony, an understanding of each other that allows us to have the kind of teamwork we have. And each of us has different roles and different things we do in the music, so we also try to help each other in what we’re doing and try to help each other become better.