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BTS album review: 'Map of the Soul: 7' charts a path forward for K-pop

August Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

If there's a digital age equivalent to camping outside a record store waiting for a new album to drop, it's what BTS fans did overnight: hovering over Spotify or Apple Music, pouring some very strong coffee and waiting for 4 a.m. EST to arrive, so they could finally stream "Map of the Soul: 7" when it landed.

The new album from the biggest K-pop group in the world is a global record biz event like no other, a comprehensive 20-song collection that looks forward, backward and all around the K-pop landscape that RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, Jimin, Jungkook and V helped create. It booked more than 4 million presales, easily eclipsing the year-end tally of its predecessor, "Map of the Soul: Persona" (and that's not even counting the streams to come).

There's never been a more surefire Billboard chart-topper in recent pop. To quote their countryman, "Parasite" director Bong Joon Ho, it makes any other event in music seem quaintly "local."

But fortunately, the album is also a fantastic summary of BTS' accomplishments so far, and charts a path forward in a tumultuous but exciting new era for K-pop. It's an album about being in a band, about the relationships that form and get tested in the crucible of insane fame, all set to some of the most genre-invigorating music of their career. If you were hitting "refresh" in the blue glow of your phone all night, BTS has richly rewarded your patience.

Dedicated BTS Army troops will immediately notice that the front quarter of this gargantuan album is previously released material from "Persona," the 2019 EP that pivoted the band from their smash hit "Love Yourself" trilogy into this new period.

"Boy With Luv," "Make It Right," "Dionysus" and "Jamais Vu" will be plenty familiar at this point. Maybe there's someone out there hearing them for the first time on this album, but they're likely placed here as context, almost like a map of the territory or a family tree at the beginning of a sprawling novel.

 

Because what comes next is the darkest, strangest and yet most relevant and ambitious music BTS has made yet. It's partly a hat tip back to their roots as a hip-hop act, Bangtan Boys, but attuned to today's misty, hard-kicking sonics and bolstered by everything they've learned in the intervening years as pop stars.

"UGH!" seethes with paranoia and showcases the best technical rapping of BTS' career -- it's closer to drill music than anything casual audiences might associate with K-pop. On "Respect," RM and Suga try their hand at the wavy yelps of Young Thug and emerge with one of the strongest trap tracks of their lives.

"Black Swan" is foggy and arty and catchy as hell: If "7" has a statement of purpose, it's probably this cut. It shows the biggest band in the world as attentive students of trippy modern hip-hop, but aware of the meticulousness and skill they bring to it as well.

On a first pass, the R&B and global pop moments are some of the most affecting, even more so given the breadth of the record. Jimin's "Filter" is a sweaty, Latin guitar-driven single that's his high point as a vocalist so far; "Louder Than Bombs," co-written with Troye Sivan, is a glitchy electro-pop stomper with some of the most moving vocal harmonies in the BTS catalog.

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