BTS’ J-Hope on new album Jack in the Box, Lollapalooza and more

RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jung Kook have officially been together as BTS since 2013 and work tirelessly to become the biggest band on earth. The group recently announced that they are starting a new chapter together, which will focus on solo activities for the time being. Though individual members have released mixtapes or singles in the past, none have officially released a full-length solo album — until now.

At first glance, J-Hope can seem like the most light-hearted and upbeat member of BTS, with a big smile on his face all the time. But there is a lot more than meets the eye. He’s the group’s lead dancer, but he’s also involved in the creative process for every BTS album. He takes the utmost care in his craft and is not afraid to experiment.

With his new album jack-in-the-boxJ-Hope – born Jeong Hoseok – becomes introspective and shows a darker side of his personality, not to mention how multidimensional he is. With “More,” the album’s rock/hip-hop prerelease single, he surprised audiences and even bandmate RM with his approach. (The album title is a play on Pandora’s box, which also inspired his stage name.)

In conversation with Rolling Stone In Korean, via Zoom, the 28-year-old dived into the creative process and what jack-in-the-box meaning for him and his identity.

The whole world will hear it jack-in-the-box. How do you feel?
It’s half nervousness, half excitement. Being the first to travel alone makes me feel responsible and there is definitely some pressure. jack-in-the-box is just filled with things I personally wanted to do, almost to the point where I worry, “Did I focus too much on what I wanted to do?” [Laughs.] I think that’s where half the nervousness comes from. This album is really meaningful to me and most of all I’m proud and excited that it’s coming out.

Although BTS members have released mixtapes and singles in the past, you’re the first to release a full-length solo album. How did this decision come about?
Instead of thinking of an order of who would release first, during the promotion as BTS, I kept asking myself, “What kind of music can I make as J-Hope of BTS?” This is a question I keep asking myself over and over a plan. I think in doing this, of course mine [2018] mix tape world of hope came out… and after thinking about it more, I realized I wanted to show more dancing, which you can consider my main foundation. This led to the creation of [2019 solo single] “Chicken Noodle Soup” which has more of the same. I started thinking that J-Hope should show more sincerity in music, and that’s what I focused on as I approached jack-in-the-box. I think in terms of time I was the first because I was constantly preparing. I didn’t approach the project wanting to be the first.

How long has jack-in-the-box been in the making? You’ve mentioned in the past that you always have a plan, and in a recent V Live you confirmed that the artwork for last year’s full version of “Blue Side” was something of a spoiler for this album, with which jack-in-the-box Illustration and the words Pandora’s Box.
The jack-in-the-box concept actually has a strong connection to my stage name, so I think I always had the idea in my pocket. I’ve long felt the need to reveal music thematically tied to Jack in the Box. Pandora’s box is also an analogy for my name. “When can I publish this? When can I make an album that contains these elements?” These questions were always on my mind. I wanted to include spoilers of these themes in the artwork for Blue Side and during the discussion with the artist behind the work I made it clear that I wanted to include these elements. That’s how systematic I had been in preparing the album and its tracks.

You showed your darker side on tracks like 2015’s 1Verse. Even with world of hope, while it may appear colorful visually, the lyrics show depth. How did you decide to go darker and heavier visually with “More” and the whole album?
First of all, how do you know “1verse”? [Laughs.]

I think it’s like this: During the 10 years that I’ve been a part of BTS, I’ve experienced a lot. From that point of view, of course, there are stories I want to tell, and I realized that it might be difficult to tell some of those stories through music with the existing image and vibe of J-Hope. I felt the need to show some of my darker side… and I think that’s something I really wanted to do. I wanted people to realize that J-Hope isn’t limited to bright things. He knows these concepts and has a wide spectrum. I wanted to draw attention to this ability by challenging myself. I didn’t think much about the future.

Just totally focused on what I wanted to do, what I wanted to express, what I wanted to show. That was the focus, and jack-in-the-box has these raw elements. When this album gets “opened” I’m a little concerned because it only contains what I wanted to make. [Smiles.] I’m very excited to see how people will react. But what I really want to say is that the album is filled with my soul and my sincerity. It’s a unique album in that way, and the album is very meaningful because in terms of musicianship, it will serve as a stepping stone for J-Hope to move forward.

With the Beats you use more of that old school hip hop sound as a base; “What If…” even samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”. What made you decide to take the album in this direction?
If you hear the music you will know, but this sound is my fundamental basis. The music I heard while dancing [dances]the mood I was in… that’s what I’m expressing in the music and that’s what’s in it jack-in-the-box, back to what I wanted to do, what I am capable of, as my base. I think that made it more genuine, more J Hope-esque, while visually allowing me to show something completely different. I think the album contains elements that are fun and both visually and aurally pleasing. I think for fans there are definitely elements that they will find very J Hope-esque.

When “More” came out, some people were shocked. “J-Hope? J-Hope makes music like this? Rock? emo Hip hop? Emo rock?” But I think if you listen to the album you’ll realize that there’s a clear reason why J-Hope chose music like this, why he chose this track, why he chose this line.

Jack in the Box contains two title tracks, “More” and “Arson”. [In the Korean music industry, “title track” is often used to describe the lead track of an album, regardless of whether the track shares a title with the album.] You mentioned that you were surprised when More was chosen as one of them. How did you decide on “Arson” as the second title track?
When I heard it, I felt like it was meant to be. I put everything I can convey and most of my… my energy into this song. I chose it because I felt the style of the song shows the zenith of J-Hope’s emotions. “Arson” is a song that feels like a turning point and a crossroads. It has the fire, the passion this album should have. The song is also the last one in the track list. One of the reasons is that I felt this song summarized my thoughts on why I made this album very well. The track acts as a period at the end of a sentence and makes it clear what I wanted to express with this album.

You had stated that the members of BTS were all with you when “More” was released. Have the members heard the full album? Do you have any favourites?
The first person I shared the album with…it’s always the same for me. I always share with RM first. I could have shared it with Suga too but he is very respectful of the process. He told me, “I’ll listen to it when it comes out.” That’s what he always says to me. There is a bit of shock and motivation when you hear that. “When it comes out, I’m going to look it up and then listen to it.” So I let RM hear it first… and then came Jung Kook. I showed the other members the title tracks, but not the full album.

Upon hearing the album, RM said, “Wow, I didn’t think you would make music like this. I have some kind of brain freeze.” [Smiles.] “And you are. The fact that you brought that music with you at that time … I really respect it and I love that you’re like that.” He gave me that feedback.

It was really funny for Jung Kook. After hearing the album, he suddenly went to his studio. [Laughs]. I think he felt the motivation to start. I love that one of our biggest motivators is each other. I am like that myself. When one of my members makes a certain type of music or works on an album, I see their individuality and color and I think to myself, “I have my own color too. I want to reveal mine too.” We positively influence and motivate each other.

When “More” came out, we were all together for work. [Smiles.] They were very surprised by the strong visual direction that J-Hope made this kind of music… They were surprised.

And of course, congratulations on Lollapalooza. You’re the first South Korean artist to headline a major US festival, which is huge news! How did you react when you found out about it?
It’s such a great honor to be invited to such a big festival and also to be a headliner. If you’ve heard “More” and if you’re listening jack-in-the-box, you will clearly see why I said OK to Lollapalooza and decided to participate. I really want to show my musicianship and show J-Hope live [show] to a large audience. When practicing, I’m used to performing as BTS’ J-Hope, one of seven. Now that I’m trying to fill an hour-long setlist on my own, I realize it’s difficult. [Smiles.] I feel the need to really focus and be detail oriented when picking things up. That’s the headspace I’m currently in while preparing.

It may seem haughty or like a reckless challenge, but even that depends on how you want to perceive it. There’s a lot to learn and I’m up for the challenge. I would like to give some spoilers but I think it would be best to be there in person to see it. I’ll show musicality the way I did jack-in-the-boxbut not only that, there will also be elements of the J Hope image expressed… That’s my not-so-spoilery spoiler.

You said that with every album you learn something new and mature. what did you learn with jack-in-the-box?
I think it’s a bit early for me to say that. I like to hear it regularly. If something comes out, I like to listen to it consistently and constantly collect feedback. I asked a lot of people for feedback on this album. There are a lot of things that I start to realize when I get the feedback. I’m doing a listening party with artists and industry people to enjoy the music together. One of the reasons is to show them, “J-Hope makes this kind of music. What do you think about it?” To get that feedback and take it and improve.

I think at the moment it’s too early to say what I’ve learned. I think by the end of July or maybe early August I’ll have a clearer picture of what I’ve learned. This is the beginning now. This is the beginning of everything I wanted to challenge and show myself with jack-in-the-boxso I think there will be more for me to process in the future.

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