BTS’ ‘BE’ Review: A Triumphant Record Of Pandemic Life In Retro-Pop Palettes
“Like an arrow in the blue sky / another day flying by”, BTS sings in their latest release, “Life Goes On”, title track to their latest album ‘BE’, just nine months after their widely acclaimed ‘Map of the Soul: 7’ earlier of this year, which went on to break a few handfuls of records, including the biggest debut of the year in terms of album sales.
It’s only one in a myriad of lines in BTS’ uniquely dynamic discography that feel so innately visceral, and strike a chord in their millions of fans. This is, after all, one of the signature components of the band’s sound: their unique capability to forge connections with fans through their many various media outputs, from reality shows to intimate live broadcasts to unfiltered social media accounts — and most of all through the very emotional vulnerability that’s an ever-enduring presence in their discography, no matter what genre or concept the band takes on.
And on that note, if there’s anything that solely characterizes ‘BE’ from their past catalogue, it’s an inherent sense of polished scrappiness and heterogeneity — a lack of an overarching complex narrative that supported most of their previous catalogues. ‘BE’ is, after all — similar to Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ before it — a product of pure creation and artistic initiative; if anything, a response to the complete madness and nightmare that this year has been.
This was, after all, made clear from the very beginning of ‘BE’s creation process: like the single ‘Dynamite’ before it, BTS set out to create a record as a means of soothing and comforting fans in the midst of the pandemic. And with ‘BE’, the band seemed to have taken that very idea and extensively expanded on it — both in terms of mission and sound — spinning off to create a record that’s equally encapsulating and emblematic of how many of our lives have been under quarantine, in all its confusion and comfort, and all the other paradoxes that have made it nearly impossible to navigate.
The result, then, is an album that’s a heady, enigmatic, and alluring mix of some of BTS’ best and most familiar pop sounds — perhaps more than anything an indicator for how the band have grown to become experts at their craft — blending and balancing a wide variety of genres from slow-jam hip hop to accentuated rap to full-on EDM, all the while fulfilling and bolstering their always-present message of hope.
But what’s even more surprising, perhaps, is how a seven-member band remain ever so dedicated to such an earnestly simple mission in an industry that’s so cut-throat, in a world that feels more especially cruel than ever. For all its emotion and sentimentality, BTS’ musings on ‘BE’ feel more relatable than ever, in part due to the very visceral-ness of it all. That is, despite being artists with realities undeniably different from many of ours, the band have shown an innate understanding of the very things that make us all invariably human, throughout it all, as well as an almost admirably earnest sense of hope for the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long this particular one may seem.
And yet, within all this, the band’s musings never comes off as inauthentic. When BTS sings of hope, of comfort in loneliness, it never comes off as mere sentimentality for sentimentality’s sake, nor does it feel like an obligation owed to their steadily multiplying fanbase. But in retrospect, BTS have never been inauthentic, and it times like these, it feels like a superpower, another addition to the list of things that makes the band such outliers — and by extension — standouts, in both the Korean and Western industries.
‘BE’ opens with ‘Life Goes On’, and it’s clear from the get-go what BTS’ visions for this particular record are. The band are no stranger to catalogues of ‘comfort’ songs — in fact, this is one of the aspects they’re most loved for — and ‘BE’ opens with a track that’s equally a contemplative ode to the heavy-footed placidness of life under quarantine, as much as it is a call for hope and faith for better days.
Threaded throughout the album are familiar callbacks to some of their previous works, and it is in these particular moments that BTS’ own style and prowess shine the clearest: in the EDM experimentations in ‘Stay’, in the low-fi hip-hop sounds of ‘Life Goes On’, which many an ARMY has drawn comparisons to their earliest sounds from the ‘2 Kool 4 Skool’ trilogy. Even the ‘Skit’, a candid recording the band’s reaction to their Billboard success with ‘Dynamite’, is a fond throwback to their earlier years, while ‘Telepathy’ and ‘Disease’, which I’ve come to regard as opposite sides of the same coin, offer yet another new sonic direction into retro-funk for the band — no surprise there, as BTS have since solidified their status as one of the most versatile acts in music today.
‘Fly To My Room’ echoes the staccato retro-pop of their Japanese single ‘Stay Gold’ from earlier this year, while the zingy, shimmery ‘’Telepathy’ is reminiscent of their polished pop from the ‘Love Yourself’ series, a la ’134340’ — one of their best tracks to date. In ‘Dis-ease’, one of the album’s personal standouts, the rap line (RM, Suga, and J-Hope) abandon their usual rapid-fire takedowns for friendlier (and yet still equally rapid-fire) verses, before leading into a swinging retro-pop chorus sung by the vocal line (Jin, V, Jungkook, and Jimin) that feels like a triumphant rallying call, an ode to the very act of being alive.
The album balances all this, however, with more emotional anchors, most particularly in the lullaby-like ‘Blue & Grey’, an honest, sometimes heartbreaking ode to the emotional rollercoaster ride that this year has been. “Oh this ground feels so heavier / I am singing by myself”, V sighs in his falsetto, and it feels more than anything like a moment of affirmation. As I sit here typing this, listening to the track for the third or fourth time, the tears start flowing involuntarily right as the vocal line sing, “I just wanna be happier / Am I being too greedy?” over a melody that’s so soft, it’s almost quiet. It’s an indescribably comforting thing, to realize that such desires, such aches, are a universally shared thing in a period of time where the world feels, as the band sings, like a “ground so much heavier”.
For all its black-and-white aesthetic, ‘BE’ feels more colorful than ever, a bright shot of pure hope and understanding and companionship painted in palettes of very well-crafted retro-pop. If last February’s ‘Map of the Soul: 7’ was an exercise in self-reflection and nostalgia, ‘BE’ is, well, about being in the here and now, for all the rollercoaster of emotions that entails. As ‘BE’ dictates, this quarantine, we’ve danced, we cried, and perhaps most important of all — we survived. We’re still here. Life goes on.