Last October, the biggest boyband in South Korea, BTS, announced they were taking a break. Instead of following the traditional ways of Western pop, they shared this news in an intriguing manner. During their yearly YouTube broadcast of having dinner together, the band was seen drinking whisky and visibly intoxicated. They used this platform to openly criticize K-pop’s strict system of producing pop stars, expressing their frustration with the lack of time for personal growth. The leader of the band, RM, stated that there is constant pressure to keep producing music and not enough time to mature. Rapper Suga also voiced his concerns about running out of ideas and not having a clear message to share with their fans.
Drunk band members telling an audience of 32m that inspiration has run dry: it goes without saying this is not the normal way for boybands to announce their disbandment, temporary or otherwise. But in one sense at least, BTS’s hiatus is proceeding according to the standard script. When a boyband splits, it is invariably the lot of one member to embark on a solo career plying a more raffish, R&B-inspired musical direction. Which brings us to Golden, the debut solo album by BTS’s Jung Kook.
It is accompanied by two successful singles, 3D and Seven. The first includes verses from Jack Harlow discussing drugs and promiscuity, while the second has a 2-step UK garage influence and features rapper Latto with more explicit lyrics compared to BTS’s album, Map of the Soul: Persona, which was inspired by Carl Jung’s theories. One does not need to be familiar with psychoanalysis to understand Jung Kook’s intention of expressing sexual desires in the lyrics: “Night after night, I’ll be satisfying you sexually.”
The transition from the youngest member of a K-pop band, known as the “maknae,” to this psychedelic and drug-influenced realm may seem difficult, but BTS fans are devoted and dedicated. Their album Seven debuted at No 1 on the US charts and their single 3D reached the Top 5 with 104 million streams in just one week. The loyalty of BTS fans is so strong that even if one of the members, Jung Kook, had released a cover of a heavy metal song, it would have still reached No 1. The 10 tracks on Golden are well-produced and written, thanks to the talented team behind them, but some may sound too similar to their original sources. The album seems to take inspiration from Justin Timberlake’s career-reviving Purpose album from 2015, with tracks like Jung Kook’s Major Lazer collaboration, “Closer to You,” leaning into the tropical house sound of Bieber’s “Sorry.” Another track, “Too Sad to Dance,” clearly draws from Bieber’s smash hit “Love Yourself,” written by Ed Sheeran.
Ed Sheeran is responsible for the songwriting here, but his contribution leans towards the R&B-influenced side of his body of work. While trying not to stir up any legal issues, there is a faint hint of R Kelly’s Ignition in the catchy melody of Yes Or No. Jung Kook’s soft vocal style is impressive enough to raise questions about the necessity of AutoTune, and there are plenty of catchy hooks in the ballads that showcase his voice: the fragile Hate You, with its Bee Gees-inspired harmonies, and the powerful, anthemic Shot Glass of Tears. The only real letdown is Standing Next to You, which starts off strong with a lively, live-sounding intro reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, but then falls flat into a lackluster mid-tempo disco-house track.
Golden is a well-crafted and catchy album, but it may leave non-believing listeners wondering what all the hype is about. If you remove the music from its pop origins, which include young stars, annual televised events, albums inspired by Jungian concepts, and other unique customs that appear more intriguing than anything happening in western pop, it simply sounds like typical mainstream music. While there is nothing sonically groundbreaking, its singles have proven to be successful in terms of sales, making the opinions of non-believers irrelevant. Golden’s triumph is already guaranteed.
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