A N A L Y S I S – M U S I C
Shammi Syera Simin
BTS’s BE is an album of many words, though most are in a marginalised language. And yet, within its 28-minute length, two words, said in less than 1 second, by Kim Namjoon, seem to articulate not only the themes of the album, but the state of BTS and the world around them today. On track 6, “Dis-ease” at 1:34, the group leader, who goes by RM, says, “I’m ill.” These two words, RM makes a quadruple entendre.
The most direct meaning of “I’m ill”, with ‘ill’ meaning ‘sick’, is that the speaker has an illness. This references the song itself, which is titled “Dis-ease”, albeit with a hyphen before ‘ease’ to play on a second meaning of a lack of ease, and the song’s titular theme plays on the idea, in a year ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, of humans each having their own types of diseases, ones that cause them lack of ease in their own lives.
Rapper Jung Hoseok, or J-hope, the lead composer of the song, leads the song off with a verse about a disease of insecurity within him, based on toxic concepts of productivity.
“It feels like I should be doing something to the point my body shatters,/
But I’m just a bastard who eats all three meals a day.”
The second line about the “three meals a day” — contains Korean wordplay, with 세 끼 (se ki) and 새끼 (sekki), two homophones, meaning both ‘three daily meals’ and ‘bastard’. The choice of self-flagellation to the point of invalidating one’s own need to eat regularly, as J-hope describes, is familiar to many frustrated with their ability to effectively work. And this correlates to the second meaning of the line “I’m ill”.
일 (eil), the Korean homophone for ‘ill’, means work. “Dis-ease” as a song is in part a reflection on work, as indicated in J-hope’s opening verse, but opens into a larger concept. The pre-chorus reflects an apparent type of neurosis familiar to the modern world, and especially a world in isolation.
“Maybe it’s because I’m sick./
It’s because I think too much, I hate that./
My childish self who was unable to keep things simple.”
Before RM says “I’m ill”, he says, “Hey, just do work is work,” which is a signifier of the word ‘ill’ being a play on 일 (eil). The phrase “just do work is work” is a kind of externalised response to the previously referenced neurosis, that, rather than overthink things, one should keep them simple. But RM, in saying “I’m ill, yeah I’m ill itself”, plays with several ideas of being a human embodiment of work.
Is this an expression of defeat? One that laments the overwhelming nature of work eventually turning one’s own perception of self into a mere calculation of the work one does in perpetuity? In this way when RM first says “I’m ill”, is this in-line with the first meaning? A self-assessment, that one is sick with a disease of overworking? Of living to work?
Or is this a positive embrace of the very request from the line prior? Is RM saying that he is work, suggesting that work actually does come naturally to him, that he need not overthink or be overwhelmed by work when it merely requires him being his true self, rather than some complicated equation to solve in his head?
Or is it both?
The yin of work being inescapable, of it being something to constantly deal with and measure yourself by, alongside the yang of work being natural to you, to the point it’s literally who you are and need not be anything more.
“I’m confused whether it’s the world or me who’s diseased,” he says. In this way the verse and the song become an examination of oneself, inside the grand scheme of things, of one being at one with the universe and thus, at one with both its wonders and its evils. He then passes the mic to Suga, or Min Yoongi, who furthers this concept of duality with a sharp ponderance, typical of his work.
“What confuses me is that humans by nature host to things awful;/
Is it me or the world that’s diseased./
Is it simply the difference in interpretations?/
Faster than changing a person is changing me.”
Through these lines, Suga is returning to a focus on the self in order to affect the universe, as the self and universe are one.
This inner-play by BTS’s rap-line, over a beat with old-school hip-hop vibes, through its drum loop and disc scratching, is as pure a return to the old ways of the Bangtan Boys as a song can get. These classic hip-hop influences and reflective messages, recall the early days of the group. This contextualises the third meaning of RM’s words.
When RM says “I’m ill” in the english language, he references traditional hip-hop slang, stemming from AAVE: ‘ill’ means ‘dope’ or ‘cool’ or ‘good’.
Rappers have been boasted of being ill since the formative years of hip-hop, into the 80s when the Jewish rap group Beastie-Boy released licence to ill in 1986, and continuously into the 2000s, when L’il Wayne clarified that he’s ill not sick on A Milli.
Some artists diverge entirely from hip-hop when it launches their careers, even at times showing disrespect for it, but in BE, BTS’s self-proclaimed most BTS-album yet, they feature a song that not only makes use of hip-hop music, but carries on in its traditions, in a manner authentic to the group’s thoughts, statures, and backgrounds — in a return to their roots.
Yet, “Dis-ease” doesn’t solely appeal to classic hip-hop traditions. In its bridge, the instrumental switches into half-time, with a thumping drum track in the vein of contemporary trap style rap and R&B production. The melodies and harmonies crooned over this new beat are also a new age and that they resulted from improvisation of vocal line member Jimin, who crafted the bridge in mere minutes. Through this section the song shifts from thoughtful nimble rapping to musical release. The group’s four vocalists sing resolutions, typical of BTS in 2020. Though they are sick and tired, and walking through the fire, they will, as Jimin belts, walk it as they are.
The refrains of “walk it, walk it, walk it” double as homophones for work it, work it, work it. The bridge serves as a metaphor of dealing with the constant struggle of work, through being true to oneself. It’s as if BTS told us that while we’re all playing by our own diseases, the work we must do to heal and deal with them is two-sided: we must work tirelessly through our own diseases, rather than ignore them and pretend they’re fine, but we can also only do so by embracing our diseases, embracing out warts and breaks. We are ill but are also illness itself. We embody our own illnesses and we cannot deny who we are.
Right now BTS is tremendously successful, and this ties to the fourth meaning of RM’s two words. 일 (eil), in addition to meaning work in Korean, also represents the number 1, in sino-korean numbers. Therefore, when RM says “I’m ill”, he is also saying he’s #1. And BTS, quite literally in some senses, are indeed #1.
For the first time in 2020, BTS reached #1 in Billboard Hot 100 for three separate weeks with the single “Dynamite”. This is far from the only market of BTS’s success, but it is perhaps the most significant of the year’s, especially in the United States. The achievement made them the first all South Korean act to top the Hot 100. They were the first Asian act to top the chart since Kyu Sakamoto did it in 1963 with Sukiyaki, a song originally titled “Ue o Muite Arukō”, or “I Look up as I Walk”, but renamed Sukiyaki after a Japanese hot-pot dish that is irrelevant to the song and absent in its lyrics, but was considered easier for Americans to pronounce, and thus became the title for the popular Japanese song in the United States. Such has been the life of the Asian diaspora in the US. One must strengthen themselves in order to be accepted and heralded by the supposedly open-minded American public.
57 years later, some would argue little has changed.
Some would argue that “Dynamite” itself is a shrinking of BTS’s art, that the group who made diverse conceptual albums in the Korean language, based on words from Herman Hesse and Carl G. Jung, can only now see this success when they release a kitschy dance pop song in English with lyrics “this beat chi-ching like money”.
Some have compared “Dynamite” to a Trojan horse, others consider it an outright letdown.
But my view is that the reality behind “Dynamite” is more complicated. It seems as if BTS were only given crumbs from American music industry when they worked within its infrastructure, US charts, radio stations, and ads — all in part run through three massive corporate labels like Sony, Universal, and Warner. Columbia Records and Imprint under Sony is BTS’s American distributor. While BTS and BigHit Entertainment normally take full creative and promotional control over BTS’s releases, “Dynamite” is somewhat different. The song was ANR-d by Columbia’s chairman and CEO Ron Perry, with help of his wife, vocal producer and arranger, Jenna Andrews. It is BTS’s first original English language single, and Columbia pulled out some unusually strong stops to ship it to radio stations, promote it through media, and push it high onto playlists.
BTS finally got their moment in the sun, but why did it only come through the record Columbia executives had the most control over? Why was Columbia only able to pull out these stops for the English language record they helped engineer?
These questions are worth asking.
But this does not make “Dynamite” the closer on BE some sort of demeaning compromise, or some sinister sell-out move. It is a bright enjoyable song. It carries BTS’s ambitions, desires to heal audiences during a devastating crisis through pure, vibrant song and dance.
It’s fun. It gave us V’s disarming charisma in a green vest suit, Jin’s wholesome cheer and explosive choruses, Jungkook’s vocal dexterity in a shiny soiree. It gave us Jimin’s engaging visual presence, filled with brilliant movements in tandem with his expressive vocals. It gave us J-hope, RM, and Suga, wearing significations of their signature style.
Where songs like “Fake Love” are brilliant in their own thematically stark creative approaches, “Dynamite” dares to offer a new theme: Fun.
Simple, wholesome fun, even if industry co-signed.
Rather than avoid imminent reality, the disease of the world around them, BTS compromised and took part in it.
But their compromise did not lessen them. Oh contraire, it grew them. It showcased BTS being their same old self, just showing off a few new moves.
BE demonstrates that BTS has not suddenly pushed out their artistic explorations off a cliff. Its opener and title track “Life Goes on” is as stripped back and poetic as any of BTS’s hits, still written by and driven through concise verses of RM, Suga, and J-hope, still carried by Jin, V, Jimin, and Jungkook’s diverse and emotive vocal approaches, still produced by Pdogg, still in Korean.
Throughout the record, each member contributes with writing and production, with thoughts and emotions straight from their souls. With Jin’s warm joy emanating on the bittersweet “Stay” to V’s heart-wrenching acoustic balladry, to Jungkook’s dynamic, budding songwriting strengths, to Jimin’s epic improvised bridge. We get Min Pd, philosopher Joon, and Hobi the sun.
Ideas of BTS having lost themselves are not nonsensical, if anything, they are more themselves than ever. Perhaps the sickness of the world around them has caused extra cynicism towards them, towards the idea that they are just as diseased as anyone else.
The thing is, BTS will never deny that. Standing above the corpses of their fears and mistakes, and newly learned knowledge of the world they call theirs, they are now iller than ever.
Shammi is a high penguin who loves planners, highlighters, giant calendars, nice pens, to-do lists, and anything else that gives her the illusion that she’s getting her life together.