BTS’s new album Map Of The Soul: 7 arrives with the kind of multi-week media roll-out that’s more commonly attached to artists outside the K-pop industry. It’s billed as a momentous release – possibly the last full group work we’ll hear before members start enlisting. Yet, none of its pre-release material has felt all that exciting to me. Black Swan’s downbeat trap felt needlessly indulgent, while Shadow and Ego were essentially bookends to the real meat of the album. Now, BTS have unveiled 7’s title track On, complete with a “Kinetic Manifesto” (ie: performance video) that showcases their dance skills. With all the sound and fury surrounding it, you’d expect this single to be equally as grandiose. And it is – in spurts.
It seems almost fitting that a group as immensely popular as BTS should offer an equally immense crystallization of my current issues with K-pop. 2020 has seen a major disconnect between verses and choruses, with the former feeling throwaway and – at worst – obnoxious. On’s verses are particularly problematic, shellacked in vocal effects that render BTS second fiddle to the noisy production. Their computer-assisted tones are an unpleasant, grating listen, but even without these filters the verses feel like they’re going nowhere. Rather than support or build upon On’s chorus, they might as well have been ripped from any other autotuned hip-hop song. This gives On a herky-jerky energy that never forges the necessary momentum to see the track flourish. True to modern K-pop form, its second verse is total sabotage, offering a barrage of heavily processed rap that borders on unlistenable.
This is a shame, because On has moments that hint at a much more galvanizing whole. While its chorus is not among BTS’s standouts, it’s given a nice heft courtesy of a buoyant backing choir. This goes a long way towards elevating its ho-hum melody into something anthemic. The pre-chorus is nearly as rousing, though its structure feels in need of some tightening. Its organ-like synths suggest pomp and circumstance, but that sentiment is undercut by the constant effects that mar BTS’s otherwise pleasant tones. It’s frustrating when you can recognize a song’s potential just as clearly as its shortcomings. On doesn’t lack ambition, but its execution gets in the way.
I’ve watched BTS closely since debut, and seen them grow from K-pop’s scruffy underdogs to the world-conquering idols they are now. Over the years, my interest in their music has waxed and waned, largely dependent on which trend or style they were embracing at the time. From 2013-2017, their ascent felt steady, both in terms of popularity and musical quality. Since then, the trajectory has become more unstable, and their current direction – highlighted by amorphous songs like Black Swan, On and Shadow – is much harder for me to wholeheartedly embrace. But, being at the top of the pack gives the guys some leeway. They don’t have to please everyone, and I can’t begrudge them for experimenting with new sounds. Still, as music to mark this important moment in BTS history, On has a heavy weight to bear. You can feel that burden as the track twists and bends in awkward, uncomfortable directions when it would be better off just embracing its strengths.
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