BTS is currently the biggest boy band in the world. And now that more people have begun to notice, all eyes are on the South Korean septet’s newest release. Some expected them to bend to Western audiences, making something palatable for those whose tolerance for foreign language ends at “Despacito.”
After the band became the first Korean act to land a No.1 album on the Billboard 200 in 2018, the pressure to have a huge first single land outside of South Korea was even greater. Then came the big news a few days before the release that they had landed two high-profile collaborations, Halsey and Ed Sheeran, essentially confirming for many that their sixth EP would be framed with the English-speaking pop mainstream in mind.
But this is Bangtan Sonyeondan, who thrive on the unexpected. Instead of sounding like an album for a party they were just invited to, Map of the Soul: Persona is an invitation into the deeply philosophical, expansive recesses of what fans like to call the BTS Universe.
No song makes this more clear than Map of the Soul: Persona’s sparkly lead single, “Boy With Luv” featuring Halsey, a favorite to hit No.1. It’s light, funk-laced pop. But members RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook subvert what a foreign boy band trying to get on American airwaves would be expected to do. Halsey doesn’t have a standalone English verse and is instead folded into the chorus, singing a fluid blend of English and Korean. The song features live instruments and not machine-generated sounds expected of the “K-pop factory.” And even in a song that is meant to be especially appealing to a wider audience, BTS’ lyrics speak to fans directly.
“Boy With Luv”’s Korean title, "작은 것들을 위한 시" translates to "A Poem for the Small Things." Its title suggests a follow-up to their intense 2014 teen anthem "Boy In Luv,” about the confusion of young love that seems out of reach. Now, five years wiser, BTS acknowledge the love that they already possess: sweet-voiced Jimin sees it in the simplest gesture of asking about your day while rapper J-Hope sees it as knowing that while he can’t be a superhero to everyone, he can do his best to protect those he cares about.
And even more surprisingly, in the brassy Ed Sheeran collab “Make It Right,” Sheeran’s voice is completely absent. New listeners can likely recognize faint echoes of the singer-songwriter’s “Shape of You,” but in the end, this track isn’t about him. It's about BTS and those they count on. They sing that their most successful moments (described as "the sea”), would feel like a desert without their fans and loved ones.
Early on, it was revealed that the themes of Map of the Soul: Persona are grounded in Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung's theories of psychology, "persona" being an archetype of the human mind that deals with who we present ourselves to the world. With their introspective Love Yourself trilogy, BTS explored the joys and difficulties of learning self-acceptance. Now, they’re looking outward, trying to make sense of the world around them and their place in it. Intro: Persona has leader RM rapping over a sample of BTS' 2014 song "Intro: Skool Luv Affair," “So I’m asking once again, who the hell am I?” and acknowledging that as an artist in the public eye, he’s conflicted in his public image. "The 'me' that I want myself to be/ The 'me' that people want me to be/ The 'me' that you love/ And the 'me' that I create/ The 'me' that's smiling/ The 'me' that's sometimes in tears/[...] Persona,” spits RM in the final verse.
Map of the Soul: Persona closes with “Dionysus” (the indulgent, Greek “masked god” of wine), which feels like BTS’ most extravagant persona of them all. Its rollicking prog rock-infused hip-hop/trap can feel largely overwhelming, like a party gone too out-of-control. But this “victory song” is perhaps meant to unsettle you. Another look at the lyrics shows a deeper commentary on the emptiness of stardom if there’s no artistry behind it: “Born as a K-pop idol and reborn as an artist,” Suga raps, “[...] A new record is a fight with oneself/ Make a toast and one shot/ And yet, I’m still as thirsty as ever.”
Further showing their penchant for Greek mythology and philosophy, BTS liken their fans’ individuality and diversity to stars in “Mikrokosmos,” a name borrowed from the Greek philosophical concept that each human being contains entire worlds inside them. It’s an airy, twinkling pop anthem made for stadium encores, much like Love Yourself: Answer’s “Answer: Love Myself.” Then there’s “Jamais Vu,” named after the opposite of “déjà vu,” in which a person is faced with a situation they’ve seen many times but can’t seem to remember. While it’s sonically a soaring ballad — and shows off eldest member Jin's often underrated vocal stability — the lyrics reveal it to be one of Map of the Soul: Persona’s darkest moments, as members Jin, Jungkook, and J-Hope describe reliving the same pains over and over and begging for a remedy.
Nobody has been nearly as crucial to the championing of BTS as ARMY has, and in the end, Map of the Soul: Persona is a gift for the fans. Sprinkled throughout, the EP has references that only BTS insiders would know and recycled sounds that may seem out of place to first time listeners, but draw excitement for those who take time to dive into the band’s history a bit deeper. Like Wings’ “2! 3!” and Love Yourself: Tear’s “Magic Shop,” Map of the Soul: Persona’s most poignant ARMY-dedicated song is smooth R&B track “HOME,” a metaphor for the comfort they find in the love from their fans. “The world thinks we’ve got everything in it/ The big house, big car, big rings of dreams,” raps Suga, directly referencing what he yearned for in their 2013 debut single “No More Dream.” “Even If I possess all the things I want/ I’m still somewhat empty now [...] But a door I exit because I have a place to return, even if I leave.”
BTS know they’re on top of the world, and are no doubt hungry for more. But with Map of the Soul: Persona, the septet make it clear they aren’t trying to just fit in, and if they do reach to even higher heights, it will be on their own terms. The only people in their way of climbing higher are themselves.