J-Hope’s Jack in the Box album helps us understand BTS

TThe men of BTS have always liked allegory and myth. Consider their early albums, riffs on Jungian philosophy. Consider “ON,” her 2020 single, which is full of biblical references and callbacks to apocalyptic movies. To the jack-in-the-boxRapper J-Hope’s first official solo album, he aptly doubles down on Greek mythology and the concept of hope.

This is the first solo project to be released after BTS announced in June that they would be more focused on their solo careers. jack-in-the-box is also a more serious sequel to J-Hope’s uplifting 2018 mixtape world of hope, as well as a sort of mission statement and honest reflection on the pressures, concerns and ultimate ambitions that drive him. It goes into where BTS has been – and suggests where they could go.

Returning to his – and BTS – roots

The album opens with an English voice-over narrating the Greek myth of Pandora, in which the beautiful but ill-fated lady opens a box of secrets and releases all sorts of bad things into the world. (The god Zeus warned her about this, but her curiosity cannot be suppressed.) The silver lining of the incident: hope, the last thing that flutters out of the infamous box. “Hope gave people the will to live on in the midst of pain and strife,” the narrator intones in the intro track.

The rapper is, clear, he doesn’t seek subtlety when it comes to his intentions and belief in the power of his own work and the impact it has on his fans. He also doesn’t try to downplay the impact that the outrageous success of BTS has had on him – as an artist and as an individual. With jack-in-the-boxHowever, he’s returning to his roots as a serious rapper and to the roots of BTS as an act focused on shedding light on the fears that drive us. The album is mostly in Korean with no features. The first half is tinged with darkness in its beats and focus; the second half is a little lighter, with some R&B moments.

J-Hope isn’t interested in gambling for chart status; There are no songs of summer. Unlike recent BTS releases, many of which lean towards bright pop and have been sung in English, his Korean rapping takes center stage with a few English lines added for emphasis. This feels like early BTS: experimental, influenced by classic hip-hop, uncompromising. (He even sampled Wu Tang Clan and Ol Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.”) It doesn’t sound like the K-pop that many newer fans might be used to, with singable choruses and uplifting messages that brighten the summer or the people are meant to dance.

This return to his own identity is, of course, the crux of the matter. In interviews, J-Hope is invariably the BTS member with the biggest smile, but here he purposely lets the mask of effusive optimism drop. The album offers many facets of his mindset: his constant pursuit (“More”, “What If”), his desire to create positive experiences for others and a place of calm for himself (“Equals”, “Safety Zone”), and his personal struggle to decide where to go next (“arson”). In many ways, it’s reminiscent of BTS’ earlier – and more introspective – albums and lyrics. Self-development and understanding have always been at the core of what sets the group apart from many of their K-pop peers; Obviously, J-Hope hasn’t lost that passion for personal growth and willingness to be his own critic. He’s also discovering a new desire to speak frankly with his audience about the pressures of the last decade of hard work.

A hint of what’s to come for BTS

In fact, his words up jack-in-the-box only help to illuminate the group’s decision to focus more fully on their individual works and cite a sense of creative exhaustion in their group projects. After all, where do artists go when they’ve already broken all the records in the book? On “Arson,” the powerful closing track, he brings it all home: “Now I’m wondering, choose what? Put out the fire or burn even brighter? My dreams, done/ Success, done/ My part of the job, done/ What else, none.” It’s a poignant – and insightful – question.

But if jack-in-the-box is any indication of what comes next, this coming chapter should be one of creative liberation and maturity. As he said Rolling Stone, each of the other members inspires him and brings his own “color” to his work. J-Hope’s color might well be a burning red right now: urgent, intense, ready to burn it all down to build it up again and not afraid to alienate those who don’t understand this new, more nuanced version of him. “I crash and fall to make my art/ I want it, stadium with my fans, still,” he raps on “More.” “Get all the trophies and Grammys too, I already know / Fame, money isn’t everything, I already know / My work makes me breathe so I want more.” BTS might be taking a group break, but jack-in-the-box indicates that they are far from finished.

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write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com.

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