Album Review: BTS – ‘Map of the Soul: 7’

Most pop acts that have been deemed worthy of the title of “the world’s most popular group” over recent years decide to play it safe after hitting it big. Songs about vague love and heartbreak over droning trap beats that sound just-different-enough from the last big hit are hard to avoid in the 21st century.

BTS, the most-famous seven-member South Korean group of all time, could easily slip into that lazy pop-genre pattern without much notice if they allowed themselves to. Luckily for all of us, Map of the Soul: 7 isn’t a “pop” record. Or a “K-pop” record. If anything, it’s a record that refuses to stay within any genre.

The secret to the LP’s success is right in the title. The number “7” addresses the number of years the band has spent together since their humble June 2013 debut. While the majority of those years were spent fighting for acclaim just within their home country, BTS used that time wisely. Their slower rise gave them chances to learn from early failures, while also growing a fanbase that supported experimentation. Those experiments, featuring expert-level choreography paired with self-written lyrics singing and/or rapping about suppressive class structure, loving one’s self, and youth rebellion, paid off beyond the septet’s wildest dreams!

So, after seven years, what does the opposite of a “lazy pop album” sound like to BTS? A truly genre-less LP, with three loosely-defined acts, spread across 19 tracks that dip into every corner of the global soundscape while exploring intimate psychological themes inspired by the book Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction. Nothing in recent Billboard Hot 100 chart history has touched upon this level of introspective territory with such variety.

The three movements of the album, Persona, Shadow, and Ego, are defined by the namesake solo tracks written by rappers RM, SUGA, and j-hope, respectively. While the first movement was first released last April as the EP Map of the Soul: Persona, all but two tracks from that EP reappear here.

The Persona movement further examines the band’s perception of their outward-facing personalities. RM uses “Intro: Persona” to explore all of the roles he plays: the rapper; the group’s leader; and the “superhero”/idol. Rapping over a reworked sample from 2014’s “Intro: Skool Luv Affair,” he wrestles with feeling deserving of his heightened status (“What do you mean, someone like me has a calling/What do you mean, someone like me is a muse”*).

As the last Persona track finishes (borderline-pop-punk thrasher “Dionysus”), the next movement creeps up in SUGA’s “Interlude: Shadow.” The self-produced track follows the rap line’s theme of reworking beats from the band’s initial releases, taking “Intro: O!RUL8,2?” and bending it into a Shadow of its former self. Lyrically, SUGA first uses all-English lines to declare his life-long ambitions (“I wanna be a rap star/I wanna be the top/I wanna be a rockstar/I want it all mine”). Suddenly, he abruptly attacks those dreams with Korean lyrics filled with raw anxiety and despair: “I’m afraid, I’m terrified of flying high/No one told me how lonely it is here.

On this track, SUGA dives into the deepest insecurities his subconscious Shadow will allow him to see. At the song’s end, a sudden tempo change and harder-hitting beat back up his shadow’s final warning: “you’re me and I’m you, you get that now?/We’re one and will sometimes clash/But you can never break off from me, you got that?

The Shadow section, much like how the line of where anxiety ends and true thoughts begin can be hazy, weaves itself into the rest of the tracklist at varying levels. “Black Swan” and “Louder than bombs” are Shadow’s thematic highlights, as the full group further analyzes the lingering fear of losing one’s passion.

Among the remaining songs, answers are offered to the questioning Shadow as the final movement of Ego arrives. In the ambitious marching-band thumper, “ON,” both sides of the self are acknowledged as equal, integral parts:

“Hey na na na/I throw all of myself into this world with two sides/

Hey na na na/Can’t hold me down cuz you know I’m a fighter/

The beautiful prison I step into with my own two feet/

Find me and I’m gonna live with ya”

The four BTS vocalists (Jung Kook, Jimin, V, and Jin) play with the “reset” each day brings after a tired, beaten-down night at “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” over a gentle pop lullaby. In stark contrast, gunshots signal “? (UGH!),” a hard-hitting trap banger where the rap line unleashes their frustration with fleeting anger from others over trivial matters, urging them to use real anger over true injustice.

The album plays lightly with all three movements across solo vocalist tracks and “sub-unit” groupings. These songs are where the genres truly roam the gamut! You’ll find a bouncy pop-rock anthem in V’s “Inner Child,” slick electro-R&B grooves in Jung Kook’s “?? (My Time),” old-school hip-hop jams in RM & SUGA’s “Respect,” flirty Spanish guitars in Jimin’s “Filter,” and soft rock strumming within Jin’s “Moon.”

In the final two songs prior to the closing remix of “ON (feat. Sia),” the Ego movement demonstrates how the only way to overcome darkness is to walk right alongside it. The stadium-ready sing-a-long of “We are Bulletproof : the Eternal” is BTS’s thank-you to their “ARMY” of fans, as they credit them with helping them face fear: “Throw stones at me/We have no fear anymore/We are, we are together bulletproof.”

Finally, j-hope shines in “Outro: Ego,” where he examines his life’s journey from the child known as Jung Ho-seok to the 26-year-old j-hope he grew into. Where others might take a darker-sounding route as a soundtrack for an emotional road trip, the rapper samples BTS’s first-ever track, “Intro: 2 Cool 4 Skool” and speeds up its tempo. Making for a ride that begs for a stop by a dance floor, with horns and gospel singers a-plenty, j-hope wraps up the trek across the Map of the Soul on an earnest, hopeful note: “Just trust myself!”

If the feat of trying to comprehend a 76-minute-long Korean-language record that sprawls genres as it dives into several corners of the human self-concept sounds daunting, fear not. As different and challenging as BTS are to the pop landscape of old, they also understand those fears. Take a seat with them, and maybe you’ll be able to begin to appreciate all of the parts of your “soul” — the Persona, the Shadow, and the Ego — with more trust and clarity.

*quoted words shown in italics indicate translations of Korean lyrics from fan translators at

  1. Intro: Persona
  2. ?? ??? ?? ? (Boy With Luv) feat. Halsey
  3. Make It Right
  4. Jamais Vu
  5. Dionysus
  6. Interlude: Shadow
  7. Black Swan
  8. Filter
  9. ?? (My Time)
  10. Louder than bombs
  11. ON
  12. ? (UGH!)
  13. 00:00 (Zero O’Clock)
  14. Inner Child
  15. ?? (Friends)
  16. Moon
  17. Respect
  18. We are Bulletproof: the Eternal
  19. Outro: Ego
  20. ON (Feat. Sia)

Post by Elizabeth Owens


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About Elizabeth Owens 23 Articles
Graphic designer, illustrator, & Concert Crap photographer based in the DC area. Fanatic of live music, comedy, & sci-fi. Usually writes with more wit.

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