UPDATED: As the first South Korean band to attain superstar status in the United States, BTS have done an remarkable job of maintaining it. Each album has topped its predecessor, and the group’s fourth full studio outing, “Map of the Soul: 7,” looks to be no exception, with all 20 of its titles landed in the Top 20 of iTunes’ top songs chart — even the five that had been previously released on their 2019 EP, “Map of the Soul: Persona” — within hours of release.
Taut and primal, “MOTS: 7” is a kind of self-referential homage. Currently in their seventh year together, the septet has always put forth an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude, and although each of the group’s members — rappers RM, Suga and J-Hope; and vocalists Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook — each get solo turns to shine here, their collective work is what stands out.
(See and read Variety‘s Friday interview with BTS about “Map of the Soul: 7.”)
BTS kicks the album off with familiar hits from “MOTS: Persona,” including their collaborations with Ed Sheeran (the delicate ballad “Make It Right”) and Halsey (the bright bop “Boy With Luv”). But the best of these “old” numbers is the underrated RM baller “Intro: Persona.” Filled with scratchy riffs and echoing background, the guitar lines take listeners back to a retro era (think Beastie Boys) as BTS’ leader admonishes haters in both Korean and English.
The new tracks start with Suga’s introspective “Interlude: Shadow,” where he raps about paranoia and fears. The whole group performs together in the hypnotic “Louder than Bombs,” which was co-written by Suga, RM and J-Hope with South African-born, Australian pop singer Troye Sivan. The metronomic precision of the beat offsets Jungkook’s falsettos before Suga’s droll delivery kicks in, giving it a dreamy vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on a James Bond soundtrack: “People say they’re jealous of us/ That my pain is hypocrisy.”
Jin’s power pop “Moon” speaks directly to their fans (“You are my Earth/ And all I see is you”), while V’s brooding “Inner Child” touches on the challenging times he has faced. Jungkook looks back at growing up within BTS in “My Time,” and Jimin’s “Filter” begins with a seductive Latin feel as he calls for attention (“That uninterested face of yours … Please look at me now). Elsewhere, V and Jimin chronicle their friendship in the playful duet “Friends”: “Seoul that used to be so unusually sparkling/ Was another new world to me … One day when this cheering dies down/ Stay by my side.” The song unites a number of seeming incongruous elements: a pair of Korean pop stars singing to a calypso beat, and then are joined by a gospel choir.
Both “Black Swan” and “UGH!” start off with distinctly East Asian riffs. While the former has a rhapsodic melody that segues into a sea of trap beats and distorted voices that trill of bittersweet moments, “UGH!” is their latest onomatopoeia diss track (in the spirit of 2018’s “Ddaeng”) by the rap line: “The truths may become false/ The lies may become true/ In this place/ Everyone becomes someone with perfect ethics/ And perfect judgment, that’s funny.”
The power ballad “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” neatly encapsulates the theme of “MOTS: 7,” promising listeners that no matter what they are going through, everyone has the chance to be happy at the start of a new day.
RM and Suga trade verses throughout “Respect,” thumbing their noses at snobs. With the haunting and pensive ballad “We are Bulletproof: the Eternal,” BTS reflects on how they made their dreams come true: “We were only seven / But we have you all.” J-Hope’s “Outro: Ego” offers a more overt nod to BTS’ past, featuring samples from their 2013 album “2 Cool 4 Skool.” It’s an upbeat, joyous celebration of the rapper’s determination, which got him through challenging times.
Of course, there are several tracks with an anthemic, stadium-ready quality. The lead single “ON” appears twice, first with just the group and in a closing-track remix with Sia tackling the chorus in her unmistakable fashion. Kicking off with an implosive drumroll signaling a marching band, Jimin sweetly ponders the confusion that comes from being constantly scrutinized and judged. A breezy “Hey-na-na-na” precedes their declaration of nothing being able to “Hold me down/ ‘Cuz you know I’m a fighter” makes it obvious that, like this entire album, “ON” is an exhortation to their fans, but also homage to their own career.
[Editor’s note: the penultimate paragraph of this review was inadvertently left out of the originally published version; it has been added.]