Artist Review: BTS – Part 1

Looking back at the past year in the world of Korean music, it would be safe to dub 2016 as the Year of Bangtan. This will be the first of many artist reviews in honor of their accomplishments, and each one will take into consideration details like sound progression, concept execution and standout moments for each comeback. Due to the length of their discography, the following BTS review will be split into two parts, with the first covering everything from debut to “Dark & Wild.”

Debut & 2 Cool 4 Skool

On June 12, 2013, BigHit Entertainment debuted a seven-member group by the name of Bangtan Sonyeondan (or Bulletproof Boy Scouts). The uniqueness of the group was palpable with the release of their album “2 Cool 4 Skool.” Heavily influenced by ‘90s hip-hop, the group stood out from the rest by choosing to use hard, rough, aggressive beats and growls.

The retro influence did not stop there, as the group employed the use of intros and outros — features that had not been widely used in the Korean market before but were common in the West circa the late ‘90s and early 2000s. This practice has become one of their staples and something ARMYs look forward to when any new project is released.

The tone of “2 Cool 4 Skool” was dark and laced with willful intent. Even though there were only seven tracks, there were still quite a few standout moments. The preamble to “No More Dream,” Bangtan’s debut single, made it clear that this was a group that was bred of different stock; Rap Monster’s delivery was almost primal, and the song creates an atmosphere of heightened expectation for what is to follow.

Their music videos brought about another revelation: Jungkook had already been identified as a competent vocalist and lyricist, but the video for “We Are Bulletproof” revealed that he is an accomplished dancer as well — a true triple threat worthy of his “Golden Maknae” title.

The final full track of the album, “I Like It,” gave listeners a glimpse of some of the variety that could be expected from the group. The last track, “Outro: Circle Room Cypher,” also gave a preview of the latent talent the members possess, with each contributing at least one or two lines to the cypher. It was a fun tune that showed that there was more in store. Overall, it was a good introduction for the group, giving them room to grow in a lane less traveled. They’d successfully called attention to themselves, and everyone was anticipating what was next.

O!RUL82?

Sept. 11, 2013 saw the release of BTS’ first mini-album, “O!RUL82?”, and marked the beginning of an era. The production was of higher quality, and the intro turned out to be the start of the members’ solos. This time, the intro was done by Rap Monster, who put his entire being into the short track. The modulation used was very reminiscent of Jay-Z, one of his many influences.

“N.O,” the title track, was a melodic throwback to the energy of their debut album, carrying their bad-boy concept over to this comeback. They also broached a subject that rookie groups rarely do: The music video for “N.O” had strong symbolism for underlying issues that are felt throughout all educational systems, namely, the death of creative thinking. This is not the only tough subject the group has tackled; they’ve also addressed topics such as bullying and high suicide rates among students due to ranking pressures.

The rapper line started distinguishing themselves during this era, which is most obvious with “We On.” It was a calmer, almost chilling, dark hip-hop track that gave the rappers room to breathe and flex their lyrical muscles, and the feeling was similar to that of NAS or Tupac. Rap Monster played with cadence and rhythm variations; Suga showed his versatility, employing various vocal tones and growls, even laughing at one point to create space and assist in pacing; J-Hope gave us our first look at his melodic rapping. An added surprise was Jungkook singing instead of rapping. “O!RUL82?” also showed their budding ability to mix genres, as seen in “If I Ruled The World.” Their old-school hip-hop vibe mixed with R&B in a manner reminiscent of LL Cool J and Ja Rule.

Another noteworthy track was “Cypher Pt. 1.” Before this, cyphers had not been seen in the mainstream Korean music market. While the overall effect of this cypher was not as compelling as the their later ones, it gave a small taste of what the three main rappers had the potential for. In addition, it proved that they had the ability to feed off each other’s flows and cadences to create a singular sound.

Other songs, like “Coffee” and “Attack On Bangtan,” were examples of them experimenting with more live instrumentation and sounds other than synthesizers, such as piano and guitar. This album also had more features from the vocal line. The third standout moment of this era was the outro “Luv In Skool,” because it gave an excellent transition to the next album. BTS’ overall mission this time was to show their growth from debut through their willingness to experiment and tackle issues, both of which were readily apparent. No one, however, was ready for what was coming next.

Skool Luv Affair

“Skool Luv Affair,” BTS’ second mini album, dropped on Feb. 12, 2014 and represented the end of an era and the beginning of a new sound for BTS. Using even more daring experimentation, the group displayed through storytelling how far they’d come both as a band and individually .

The first inclination of growth was the triple-member intro. Each member had his own style, and it closed with a slightly updated hip-hop feel. The real surprise came with “Boy In Luv.” For the first time, the group fused hip-hop and rock, and it turned out in the best way possible. Fans also rejoiced over the added treat of hearing more of V’s vocal abilities. His raspy tones in the pre-verse created a memorable moment since, until that point, there had not been many opportunities for V to really shine. He had another significant role during “Just One Day,” in which his more husky and soulful tone can be heard. It’s a total juxtaposition from “Boy In Luv,” and it works.

”Skool Luv Affair” offered yet another surprise: the debut of Suga as a producer. He is the primary producer listed on the tracks “Tomorrow” and “Jump,” and both showed his good instinct and attention to detail. “Tomorrow” in particular stands apart from the rest, as it sounds like nothing else in BTS’ discography. It provided the vocal line a place to shine, and a production choice was made that could easily be missed if one is not paying attention: Jimin has a long, well-sustained falsetto note in full voice that is hidden in the guitar rift. It is reminiscent of “I Care” by Beyoncé, where a similarly effective production strategy is used.

More individual growth of the rapper line was apparent with “Cypher Pt. 2.” J-Hope had a more prideful delivery, while Rap Monster’s was firmly rooted in calm aggression. Suga, who had improved the most at that point, relied on pure vocal power; in one section, he began to rapid-fire rap, something that had only been done successfully by two rappers, namely T.O.P and Busta Rhymes.

Another throwback was “Spinebreaker,” a song that was similar to “Blow Ya Mind” by Eve ft. Gwen Stefani. The lyrical content, however, was definitely not. It demonstrated the group’s ever-present fearlessness in honestly speaking out on issues that they experience. In this case, it was on a call to their peers to change their lazy habits and stop breaking the backs of their parents.

The outro of the mini-album, “Propose,” was the song-writing debut of Jin. It was the first time the vocal line had a song that allowed them to demonstrate their abilities in a manner that did not conflict with the rapper line.

Overall, “Skool Luv Affair” further showed the versatility and adaptability of BTS. The plot device of storytelling is something that has been seen repeatedly in their later comebacks. But if this was a surprise, no amount of preparation could have helped with the release of their first full album.

Dark & Wild

With the days of “American Hustle Life” behind them, BTS used the lessons learned to transform themselves and their sound. The result was the Aug. 19, 2014 release of “Dark & Wild.” The melodic transition becomes apparent starting from the intro, where there was even more instrumentation than before and fewer synthesized sounds. The use of strings and cymbals in the intro track “What Am I to You” created audio drama while allowing for the rapid change in tone between the lyrics of Rap Monster’s second intro.

The title track “Danger” was a polished fusion of rock and hip-hop and gifted vocalists Jin and Jimin with more parts during the pre-chorus.

Their second single, “War of Hormone,” had a small nod to their debut with the DJ scratching in the beginning. BTS had become more adventurous and incorporated sounds from the classic Mario game as well. ”War of Hormone” was the first BTS rock track, though the group still keeps to their hip-hop roots. Jimin’s vocal ability was given room to shine here, as he replaced what would have been the climaxing guitar rift in the last chorus. His improved vocals can also be seen in “Let Me Know” during the last chorus, where, even though he is not the focus of the part, one cannot help but listen in awe of his range and the incredibly high note that he hits.

“Dark & Wild” was full of spectacular moments, the most surprising of which was “Rain.” For the first time, the group attempted a jazz/hip-hop fusion. They used the vocal line as instruments, placing carefully chosen harmonies in the place of a hi-hat that goes undetected until the very end.

Their lyrics showed their growth as well. “Cypher Pt. 3: Killer” displayed yet again the advancements of the rapper line, as Rap Monster dabbled in word play, J-Hope experimented with the different tones of his voice and Suga varied his delivery even more. The vocal line had multiple tracks where this was also seen, such as “Would You Turn Off Your Cell Phone” and the outro “Does That Make Sense?”

With “Dark & Wild,” BTS gave a final submission of what they can do with instrumentation and sound play. This can we heard in the songs “Blanket Kick” (through its use of horns and keyboards), “Second Grade” (which incorporated a xylophone) and “Look Here” (which echoed to “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I.), without the lyrical creepiness of the latter.

This first album served to introduce the vocal line more while cementing the credentials of the rapper line. But their journey is not over, although this era is. The next phase would prove to be a time of phenomenal and explosive growth in concept development and execution, as well as instrumentation and vocal/lyrical ability, all of which will be considered in Part 2.

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