"BTS of the House Big Hit, First of their name, King of ARMY, Breaker of Records."
Among both BTS and their producers, a complicated question has surely come up over the last few months, at once forcing them to contemplate both their success and their unknown future. "How do you keep being the biggest boy band in the world?"
It seems that Bang PD and his troupe of talented young men have cracked the code together, with 'Love Yourself - Her' attracting so much anticipation ahead of its release that fans were going on scavenger hunts for clues, eventually working with Billboard journalists like Jeff Benjamin and Tamar Herman to figure out where to go next.
Each teaser video brought out more excitement; each image released was retweeted and edited into oblivion. In an unusual but impossible to ignore statement of how big BTS has gotten, the album actually leaked shortly before its release after some "fans" had procured it via hacking, a fate that seldom affects artists in the Korean music industry. Indeed, these boys have put in the "Blood, Sweat and Tears" to get to such a point, and now they're trying to prove that it's in their "DNA" to be great and represent the Korean music scene.
Following the unprecedented worldwide success of "Blood, Sweat and Tears" and its subsequent international tour, BTS was tasked with making an album that has as much impact as their cultural power (through means like ticket sales and chart positions, both of which they're doing splendidly with). Based on a skit in the middle of the album, they know that the pressure is on to keep up that "big deal" status; the speech clipped from the Billboard Music Awards is unique because it's a message for fans, a thank you, a teaser, and a declaration of intent of sorts.
On one hand, it tells fans to love themselves, but on the other, it's a flex, an impossible to ignore statement of how well they are doing and their impact as K-pop artists. It's this kind of self-awareness that informs the sound of the album, their most mature to date. In this case, though, "mature" hardly means slowed in pace; with "Love Yourself - Her," BTS came to turn all of their best qualities up to 11.
The album starts off with an intro that's hardly over two minutes, but still manages to pack in a whole lot of sensual, mature vocalization, under which the smooth digital bass comes in just right. It is most definitely a "big boy" intro and not really corny at all, an issue that a lot of K-pop album intro tracks can suffer from. After all, nothing makes a statement quite like cutting to the chase instead of announcing your intentions.
The intro sounds quite a bit different than follow-up song "DNA," also the title track for this album. Upon first listen, this song stood out as really interesting for a title track because it goes in two different directions. It has dance funk on one hand, with abstract future bass production and drops on the other. It starts off disorienting but slowly becomes cohesive as the different pieces of the song come together and allow it to climax. There was, however, a thought of confusion that passed through the ears of many while hearing it: how is this song not the Chainsmokers-produced one? For it to have been would explain the anomalies in production style compared to their usual fare, but instead, the song leaves listeners with a pretty fresh and forward-thinking perspective on K-pop.
Its accompanying music video is colorful and playful, like following the group through a living art gallery as they pull off some of their slickest dance moves yet. The art direction and fashion are both great, with warm hues working perfectly for clothing like the Golf Wang brand sweater seen midway through the MV (perhaps approved by designer and self-professed K-Pop fan Tyler, the Creator). The CGI is a little bit behind the curve compared to everything else, at points, looking like the intro sequence for a certain nerdy American sitcom, though it could be argued that the same qualities are charming. On a decent TV of any size, the MV is sure to make you get up and dance along, and perhaps make you feel like you're right among the art and statues with BTS their selves.
That Chainsmokers moment indeed came as the next track on the album, with "Best of Me" showing that the groups both can still do emotional well - go figure. If all you had to reference when you heard that the Chainsmokers would be producing was "Closer" or perhaps "Something Just Like This," this reserved and straightforward midtempo track might have come as a surprise for you. That said, for how much of an event as the song was hyped up to be through PR, the actual results are kind of indistinct and sadly underwhelming.
"Dimple" moves the album forward into a more romantic direction, with the boys layering their voices for some nice harmonies. The lyrics dance between cute and clever, with an "illegal/illy-girl" tradeoff that would make Western artist M.I.A. proud. It's a well-produced take on the slower more dramatic style. It has enough sub bass to make you want to get up and dance, but just enough ambiance to make you want to sit down and think.
Following it up was "Pied Piper," a song that you would expect to be a little bit dark based on its title. Unfortunately, it ended up being crushed under the weight of its own epic ambitions and resulted in one of the most forgettable tracks on the record. It had all the foundations of a perfect summery Calvin Harris-style funk romp, but ended up trying to be too epic - too BTS-by-the-numbers.
After the clip from the Billboard Music Awards, the group moves into the thematically appropriate "Mic Drop." The song kicks off with more distortion than this listener was expecting as if the group wanted to go as aggressive as possible while still maintaining their normal chic edge. Once a groove was established, something became super apparent (as it does during every BTS album): these boys can absolutely rap their asses off. Even though it's a little bit shouty and the "I'm so violent" line in the hook was questionable, this is the kind of rap track that probably helps them gain credibility to someone like Seo Taiji. It's both aggressive and a little eerie.
The hip-hop flavor continues with "Go Go," which interestingly takes two of the biggest trends of the last year and gives you little of what you were expecting from both (pan flute and marimbas, of course). While the boys lament how quickly money is spent in this expensive world, musically this is another track that shows how the group favors contemporary hip-hop and R&B from these recent abstract, distorted and experimental years. With songs like this, BTS prove they don't need to have all the out of body experience to make music that sounds like it can take you there. Simplicity and referencing ringtone rap production styles can work for or against you in the modern age - and even with that bizarre mush-mouth portion of the vocals, they come out on top.
By the time the outro started playing for this album, I knew I was perhaps the only K-Pop fan out there saying "I could really go for a straight shooter ballad track right now." Indeed, the song has a fake-out that leads you to believe that's exactly what you're getting, but BTS isn't your average K-pop act. Once it turned into something else entirely, I realized that it's great when music has a pulse instead of slowly swept wind chimes, and the listen finished unbothered.
As far as this particular review goes, there is no conclusion that could necessarily sway someone who has been paying attention to K-Pop at all in the last few years. If you were aboard the BTS hype train a long time ago, it's highly unlikely that you're getting off it anytime soon, because it seems like they're heading to more and more exciting places. If you didn't particularly like the group before, the album is light on shocking moments or game-changers, so you might not find it worth exploring. BTS are without a doubt the future for boy bands across the world, though. From calculated hype to self-composed lyrics, from quirky social media video series to high energy on stage performance, BTS are performing at a level of extreme technical proficiency when it comes to pop music. There is no reason to doubt that they will continue to be big stars on the world stage as they have more time to grow, and 'Love Yourself - Her' is something of a victory lap for fans who have been watching, listening, and dancing along until this point.
MV SCORE: 8.3
ALBUM SCORE: 8.3