In terms of pop culture, it is impossible to reflect on 2020 without dedicating some time to BTS. Earlier this year the biggest group in the world, arguably the biggest musical act in the world, dropped their Map of the Soul: 7 album which housed the #4 Billboard Hot 100 hit, “ON,” and “Louder than Bombs” which I named one of the best songs of 2020 so far. The high energy collection compiled tracks from their previous EP, Map of the Soul: Persona, and brand new tracks to create one incredibly solid body of work. The momentum didn’t stop there. In August, BTS launched “Dynamite,” their first completely English-language song. The song exploded with the biggest first-day streams total of the year on Global Spotify (7.778 million) and currently holds the record for the 2020 song with the most weeks at #1 on the Billboard Digital Song Sales chart (10 weeks). With their biggest song ever Stateside, BTS had unlocked a new level of global success that eclipsed basically every other artist on the planet. Their new album BE, could have been a victory lap. Instead, the album sees BTS delving into the complicated emotional depths of life under a pandemic, the loneliness of quarantine, and the joy of unabashed optimism in the face of this awful year. BE is a layered artistic statement that doubles as a wonderful addition to the group’s already stellar discography.
BE begins with “Life Goes On,” the group’s latest single, a song with an unexpectedly more somber sound relative to the disco and funk inflected “Dynamite.” With a soundscape informed by 2010s indie pop and hip-hop, “Life Goes On” is colored by a delicate acoustic guitar and drum pattern that feel contemplative and reflective. The track holds a poignant message of quiet strength and optimism in the face of the pandemic. Lyrically, the chorus is particularly beautiful thanks to the double entendre of the first line. “Like an echo in the forest” is sung in English while the following two Korean lines translate to “The day will come back around/As if nothing happened.” When the English line is taken alone, the simile recalls the seemingly eternal ramification of sound that echoes produce in a forest. When contextualized with the following two lines, the lyrics touch on the philosophical phenomenon of humanity’s ability to keep pushing forward after the most horrific tragedies. It’s fitting that “Life Goes On” opens the album and “Dynamite” closes it; it’s a testament to the two lyrical and sonic approaches to the album’s theme and a reminder of BTS’ attention to detail.
“Fly To My Room” takes elements from alternative R&B and pop as it plays with loudness and silence. The tension between those two sonic characteristics and the plucky keyboard and drums are reminiscent of Lukas Graham. On this song, the boys sing of the innovation of imagination in an age defined by the physical restrictions of quarantine and lockdown. The organ and choir towards the end are the perfect amount of cheesy and really fit the pastiche they’re going for. Also, V’s soaring falsetto in the final chorus coupled with the staccato melody is an absolute winner. On “Blue & Grey,” a devastating ballad about the pressures of their fame and burnout from their grueling schedule, the boys pull out gorgeous harmonies that highlight both their rich lower registers and piercing falsettos. The end of the chorus, “I am singing by myself/I just wanna be happier/Am I being too greedy,” are some of the most honest and devastating lyrics of the year. The album is separated into two sonic halves, a relatively downtempo side and a staunchly uptempo side, by a skit that sees the boys celebrating their first #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. As messy as Billboard is, BTS didn’t need to hit #1 to validate their immense success, but the achievement is still nice to have. The skit acts as a sequel to the skit on Love Yourself: HER where the band reacts to their first Billboard Music Awards win thus future connecting BE to the other albums in the BTS Musical Universe.
The ballads and midtempos on BE are more consistent than the uptempo tracks, but they still deliver. “Telepathy” is a sonic sibling to “Dynamite” with its stacks of synths and retro feel. “Dis-ease” connects to the album.s central theme of the pandemic and general discomfort with its foundation of old-school hip-hop tropes (boom bap influence, record scratches, etc.) and funky bass. SUGA’s rap is a clear standout on this track and the album as a whole, yet another solid showing from the group’s rap line. Finally, there’s “Stay,” the weakest track on the record. The song isn’t terrible, but its take on EDM feels dated and the production doesn’t transform its influences into something more interesting or innovative. The song is saved, however, by its central meaning — a heartfelt dedication to their fans that perfectly sets the stage for the victory lap closer of “Dynamite.”
BTS has done it again. BE is an unequivocally great album that feels in touch with reality without being preachy or tone-deaf in the way that it addresses the pandemic. The album is a killer capstone to a landmark year for the impressive group. If anything, the album is so great that its brief runtime leaves more to be desired from music’s biggest sensations.
Key Tracks: “Life Goes On” | “Fly To My Room” | “Blue & Grey”