BTS Brings the Retro Vibes with MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA
Ever since the release of last August’s LOVE YOURSELF 結 Answer, the world has been waiting for BTS’s next move, and as of April 12, the wait is finally over. From its star-studded lineup to its vintage vibes, the group’s newest EP, MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA, is an album filled with unexpected twists and turns.
From Boy In Luv to Boy With Luv
At this point in their careers, BTS has covered most of the standard K-Pop concepts, leaving fans to wonder when they would finally come through with a retro release. After “Persona,” the album’s intro courtesy of RM, dropped on March 27, the possibility of a retro concept seemed all the more likely, with the track sampling BTS’s “Intro: Skool Luv Affair” off their 2014 album of the same name. MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA takes things one step further with its title song, “Boy With Luv,” a clear callback to Skool Luv Affair’s title, “Boy in Luv.” Whereas “Boy in Luv” gave us gritty guitar riffs and aggressive beats, “Boy With Luv” provides listeners with a groovy guitar line, a summery melody, and even a collaboration with Halsey.
Along with a retro touch, summer concepts have been notably absent in BTS’s discography, but “Boy With Luv”—or its Korean title “작은 것들을 위한 시,” which translates to “A Poem for the Small Things”—is here to change that. The track opens with a funky guitar groove and a verse by the vocal line—something not common in the group’s typical song structure where the rap line tends to carry the verses. Jimin’s light voice does an incredible job at setting the tone, building all the way up to the chorus where Halsey finally joins the boys in what’s sure to be the catchiest chorus this summer. With BTS’s steady growth overseas, fans are wondering if “Boy With Luv” could finally be the track that truly breaks into the U.S. mainstream, and this time they may be right: the Top 40 radio play on the first day of the track’s release has already seen new records.
As surprising as Halsey’s inclusion on the track is, it was not altogether unexpected, with fans assuming a collab would one day happen after the artists met in 2017. Considering BTS’s last title track “IDOL” featured a verse by Nicki Minaj, many were speculating how Halsey would fit into the new track, and the answer is: perfectly. As opposed to Nicki’s verse that was more or less tacked on, Halsey’s vocals are utilized in the chorus alongside the BTS vocalists, offering a musical layer we’ve only gotten before with tracks like Answer’s “Trivia 轉: Seesaw" featuring backing vocals by BigHit Entertainment’s female producer, Adora. While “Boy With Luv” is already upbeat and bright in its musicality and delivery, the addition of Halsey adds that extra touch (not to mention, her harmonization in Korean despite being a non-speaker is commendable). The song has two versions: the studio-released one that features Halsey more heavily and another exclusive to the music video where some of her parts are cut.
A Retro Wonderland
The music video for “Boy With Luv” takes things the true vintage route, with the basic premise of the video following a Broadway production. The video opens up with Halsey behind a ticketing booth before cutting to a shot of the boys in front of a theater, donning pink from head to toe. With just the slightest over-the-shoulder gaze of V, BTS proves they didn’t come to play this time before launching right into the first love-drunk verse from Jimin. Other sets include a retro diner, a box office, sidewalks lined with street lamps, and ultimately, a dazzling stage on which BTS performs, surrounded by neon signs featuring titles of their past releases.
Overall, the video is extremely saturated, with bright pinks, peaches, and blues from start to finish, but it’s never unpleasant to watch. Between the vibrant colors and watercolor backgrounds, the video feels like something out of La La Land—fitting for a Broadway-esque concept. Other classic musical references even include a nod to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, which ironically was released the day before BTS’s comeback, albeit in 1952.
While the video itself is nothing short of whimsical, the choreography leaves a little to be desired for a group so known for their dance skills; the moves are on the easier side but do lend themselves well to the light-hearted concept. As promotions have not yet started at the time of writing this review, it will be interesting to see the full choreography in live performances. A bonus to the easier dancing is that it allows Halsey to join along with the boys, which may be one of the most unexpected positives of the video; she’s clearly comfortable with them, as they are with her, and the dynamic between the artists makes this video fun and carefree, just like a video for a song like “Boy With Luv” should be. Overall, it’s an entertaining, wholesome watch that both BTS and Halsey clearly enjoyed making.
An Album Full of Surprises
More than anything, MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA is an album filled to the brim with surprises. As mentioned, the first song on the album “Intro: Persona” is a solo by leader RM and is a track that harkens back to the group’s early-2014 career. The track features a driving guitar line that has been relatively absent in BTS’s work since Dark&Wild and pairs perfectly with RM’s hard-hitting rap style. The opening flow RM sets with his delivery is infectious and sets expectations high for the rest of the album before flowing into the equally irresistible “Boy With Luv.” Following the title track is “Mikrokosmos,” a synth-heavy pop track laden with ‘80s-inspired electric percussion. Lyrically, the song is beautiful with the boys likening people to stars in the sky; however, the most impressive part of this song is its 6/8 time signature—something very rarely found in K-Pop.
Up next is one of the most eye-catching inclusions on the tracklist: “Make It Right,” co-produced by Ed Sheeran. With just the opening notes, the song sounds like something right out of Sheeran’s own discography; it’s only too easy to imagine his vocals in place of BTS’s. Though both Sheeran and BTS had teased a possible collaboration in the past, the announcement of this pairing threw fans into a frenzy when the tracklist was released via social media. The song itself is not particularly the most impressive, but still makes for a good listen all the same. “HOME,” a fan song, follows, and serves as a sister song to 2018’s “Magic Shop,” this time from the point of view of the group themselves. Compared to the rest of the album, this song musically falls a little flat, with the tone and lyrics seemingly at odds with each other; the sentiment, though, is still nice.
In an album with twists and turns at every song, the hidden gem on this release is “Jamais Vu,” a track by members Jungkook, Jin, and J-Hope. Prior to the album’s release, fans entertained the possibility of sub-unit songs, though this particular mix of members was rarely, if ever, mentioned. “Jamais Vu” is compositionally the simplest song on the album: it trades in heavy beats for soaring vocals and poppy synths for soft raps. In an album where the rapline is notably less featured, the vocal line does not get the chance to shine that it should; however, Jin and Jungkook’s vocals in this pleading track are nothing short of beautiful. J-Hope’s singing rap serves as the perfect complement, particularly when it’s layered over the vocalists’ final chorus. Though the meaning may be a bit vague, the desperate tone in the track is gut-wrenching, and makes for an impossibly moving listen.
The album closes out with “Dionysus,” a rock-rap-fusion anthem filled with electric guitars and crashing percussion. The track, mainly composed by J-Hope, is reminiscent of the rock-infused music of Seo Taiji and Boys, whom BTS have cited as inspiration and even collaborated with in the past. “Dionysus” is high-energy and quite different from the rest of the group’s rap tracks, complete with screamo Jin. Unusually, this album does not end with an outro, as most BTS albums do. MAP OF THE SOUL is presumably the group’s next series, with PERSONA being the first installment, so it will be interesting to see where the next release picks up.
Overall, while this album proves that BTS is yet again pushing the boundaries of K-Pop, the music industry, and their own artistry, this release is not their best; instead, it serves as a point of growth for the group. MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA is a great summer release, filled with unexpected collabs and musical choices. As a group, BTS has always been one to go against the grain in order to mature as artists, and this is another step in their journey.