“Still I found myself glancing at the paintings and then looking at them. “The Potato Eaters.” “The Cornfield with a Lark.” “The Ploughed Field at Auvers.” “The Pear Tree.” Within two minutes—and for the first time in three weeks—I was calm, reassured. Reality had been confirmed.”
John Berger, “The Production of the World,” The Sense of Sight
The first time I read that essay, I was in my 20s. I didn’t know it then, but Berger’s words about how in a moment of profound existential dread, looking at van Gogh’s paintings had helped him find his place in the world again, would resonate for the rest of my life. I too have found solace in art in countless moments in my life, but more than that, Berger’s words have guided me and comforted me when life felt like it had stopped making sense. They tell me that the emotions we experience when confronted with art are real and worth thinking about and living for.
It was this essay that I was immediately reminded of as I listened to RM’s new solo album Indigo. One-seventh of the massively successful and influential Korean band BTS, RM (real name Kim Namjun) has come to be known as a supremely skilled rapper and an even better lyricist. In the decade since RM has been making music as part of BTS, ARMYs, as BTS’s fandom is called, have found deep solace in his lyrics and words.
Indigo, the follow-up to RM’s solo mixtape Mono (2018), opens with a song inspired by the South Korean painter Yun Hyong-keun, an artist RM has indicated he greatly respects and admires. The artistic and philosophical grounding that RM has found through Yun’s work, reminds me of the reassurance that Berger found in van Gogh on that difficult day, and by extension the permission I feel to lean on both Berger and now RM, to reaffirm my commitment to living a life that honours art every day.
Born in 1928, Yun’s life was full of hardship due to his activism as a young student at Seoul National University. After the Korean War started in 1950, he was imprisoned several times. Despite it all, he became a prominent figure in the Korean art scene in the 1970s and 80s. His abstract paintings, usually using two colours, blue for the sky and ochre for the earth, showed a discipline and rigor born out of the horrors and pain he had experienced.
Similar to the way Yun channeled a life of turmoil into his seemingly simple abstract paintings, RM skillfully distills all of this complex context and background into an elegant and sophisticated track.
“Fuck the trendsetter,
I’mma turn back the time,
Back the time to when I was nine,
좋은 것과 아닌 것밖에 없던 그때
(The time when there were only the good and the bad)
차라리 그때가 더 인간이었던 듯해
(I feel like the me of then was more like a human),” RM raps in the opening bars.
And then, as the pre-chorus builds, we hear the unmistakable voice of Erykah Badu, who RM called on specifically to lend her vocals to the song. Her voice, mystical as ever, introduces the main theme of the song:
“You keep the silence
‘Fore you do somethin’
You be a human
Till the death of you”
The lyrics flow over a sparse piano, bass, synths, flute, and drums mid-tempo track, reminiscent of Robert Glasper’s groundbreaking Black Radio. This is not a coincidence. As RM explained during an interview with Amp’s Zach Sang, it was while listening to Glasper’s “Afro Blue,” from Black Radio and in which Badu features, that he realized it was her voice that would best fit his vision of the song.
In other promotional interviews and his “‘Indigo’Album Magazine Film,” RM also said that he called on Badu because he felt that the message of the song needed to be told by somebody who had “walked down that path first,” somebody who would have the authority to impart such a lesson.
The song is a meditation on the creation of art, a subject that has preoccupied humanity for as long as there has been art. Fittingly, RM doesn’t do this in a vacuum. Rather, he looks at his elders, Yun and his life story and philosophy of art, and Badu and her wisdom and gravitas, as points of departure for his own take on the theme. In doing so, he demonstrates his humility as an artist and an understanding of where his music fits within a long line of music and art. It’s a self-awareness that not only RM, but BTS, have demonstrated throughout their career. It makes for a much more satisfying exploration of the theme than a mere self-reflection.
Adapted from a quote from Yun, when the chorus of the song arrives, it feels like a manifesto, words that RM has fully lived-in and internalized. For the listener, they feel like words to live by.
“I want to be human,
‘fore I do some art
It’s a cruel world, but there’s ’gon be my part
Cause true beauty is true sadness, now you can feel my madness”
You can tell RM loves, and thinks about, form—the shape of things, the vessels that carry meaning. You can see it in the way he explains in various interviews and features how he loves the word “Hectic,” the title of the eighth track in the album; “it’s a word that’s sticky,” RM says. It’s the same way he plays with the meaning of “Still Life,” the title of the second song in the album.
Featuring Anderson .Paak on vocals, “Still Life” touches on the theme of moving forward, of rejecting stillness or limitations in how we define ourselves. RM explained that the idea came to him when visiting a museum abroad and noticing that many paintings were called “still life” in English. Being outside of a language often allows you to see words as objects before they have meaning, and the expression struck RM in its literal and metaphorical sense.
“난 still life, but I’m movin’
I’m still life, but I’m movin’
Just live now, goin’ forward yeah
멈추지 않는 정물
(A still object that keeps on moving)
또 피워 나의 꽃을
(I keep on blooming my flower),” he sings joyfully in the opening verse, referring to how unlike the long-dead flowers traditionally depicted in a still life, he is still moving forward and changing.
With two back-to-back opening songs offering such rich musical and lyrical landscapes, you may think the album is less strong moving forward, but there is nothing further from the truth. Indigo continues to build with thoughtful precision, like a perfectly curated art exhibit.
“All Day,” the third song on the album, features Tablo from the Korean hip-hop trio Epik High, a band RM grew up admiring and listening to. Written by RM, Tablo, and BTS in-house genius producer Pdogg, “All Day” delivers biting social commentary about a world increasingly dominated by trends, many unforgettable lines (“They got you by your balls & your socioeconomics,” Tablo sings at one point), and an addictive bass line. Social criticism never sounded this good.
Then we have a song like “Change pt.2” in which RM collaborated with eAeon, another veteran Korean singer-songwriter with whom RM has worked in the past. Pushing the art exhibit metaphor perhaps further than I should, this song is the equivalent of that small piece placed in the middle of the gallery, but that grabs your attention immediately with its striking form and beauty. It’s not the main piece, but to me, it’s the most memorable one, the painting I’ll be thinking about long after leaving the museum.
In his interview with Zach Sang, RM called eAeon a “mathematician,” and you can see why. There is so much intentionality in this song — RM sings “things change, people change, everything change” over a distorted, electronic track. Strange, industrial-sounding effects disrupt the flow of the music, as if malfunctioning. But then, the music actually changes and transitions into a smooth, sparse, still unsettling, but nonetheless more organic piano and drums. It’s experimental, brief, but really memorable, the lyrics showing RM at his most acerbic.
Like an epic poem, “Wild Flower,” the lead single of Indigo, starts in media res, in the middle of the action. In the video of the song, released simultaneously with the album, a heavily clouded sky is seen from above, the crackle of what seems like lighting but it’s soon revealed as fireworks, piercing through the cotton clouds. A few seconds later, without any buildup, we are in the middle of the pre-chorus:
“Flower field, that’s where I’m at
Open land, that’s where I’m at
No name, that’s what I have. No shame, I’m on my grave.”
The effect is to be immediately swept into the grandeur of the statement.
Booming with rousing electronic drums and featuring the inimitable vocals of Korean rock singer youjeen (Cherry Filter), “Wild Flower” is no quiet confession; this is a profound, emotional declaration, requiring a large canvas to be told. And if each song in the album is a painting, this is the masterwork that awaits you as you approach the end of the exhibit, the one illustrating the catalog and summarizing what this artistic journey is about. Coming at number nine in the tracklist, you can see that this is precisely what RM intended as he built the narrative of Indigo.
Originating from a poetic play on words in Korean (read a wonderful explanation here), “Wild Flower” is about the contrasting realities and desires that RM has experienced during his time as a worldwide-known musician. Fireworks represent his life in the limelight, while wildflowers and their tranquil existence his true heart’s calling. Taking the metaphor even further, in the chorus, youyeen actually doesn’t sing “wildflower” but “flowerwork,” a word that RM created to capture the feeling of laying on a field of flowers and letting their petals fall slowly over him as fireworks do in the sky.
What’s important to understand with Indigo is that despite its massive accessibility—this is a compulsively listenable album—there is no compromise in terms of the depth of artistic inquiry, emotional vulnerability, and aesthetic sophistication. Musically, the album is diverse and warm: the funky bass line in “Still Life,” the overall delicious grooves of “All Day,” or the folk gentleness of 건망증 (“Forg_tful”) invite you to come in, to give in to the music, and then once you are there, to listen to what the lyrics are trying to say, which is substantial.
RM has been incredibly generous in talking about the album, going over each song in interviews and promotional materials, expounding on the musical styles – “boom bap, urban, city pop, folk” – and the artists he worked with to bring it to fruition. And with eight out of the ten songs being collaborations with other artists, you can see how important it was for RM to find the exact colour for each of his canvases, calling on artists he admires to lend their texture and legacy to each of the songs. One more thing that makes my heart happy: five out of the 10 songs feature women, including Kim Sawol, Park Ji-yoon, and Mahalia in addition to Badu and youjeen. This feels very inclusive, and perhaps it’s totally unconscious, but the fact he felt these voices and sensibilities are what the songs needed is really telling.
It is remarkable too that an album made by arguably the most popular musician in the world right now — all numbers related to BTS in terms of music streaming, video views, concert attendance, are always in the millions globally—places two back-to-back opening songs which directly deal with and take inspiration from art, and in particular, painting. It is exciting, refreshing, and validating to so many of us who crave conversations such as this in daily life.
Yes, because in a world where anti-intellectualism runs rampant, here comes an album that sparks thoughtful engagement while still completely respecting its audience through beautifully composed songs, musical diversity, and acknowledgment of its roots. This is not art for art’s sake. This is a coherent and inviting musical journey. It is layered and complex but never alienating.
And as Yun could have never imagined that his work would one day inspire an album or a hip-hop song, there is no telling what RM’s Indigo may inspire among its millions of fans, many of whom are artists, writers, and creators. That beautiful possibility may be this album’s greatest legacy.
An entry point into a discussion about the creation of art, the role of the artist, the complexity and contradictions born of success, and the nature of growth and change, Indigo is first and foremost a reminder of the human being that lies behind any work of art. This is RM’s “diary of his 20s,” a portrait of Kim Namjun, the poet, the thinker, the rapper behind BTS’s “RM,” the global superstar.
Like a gentle spring rain falling on an open wildflower field, it may take a while to fully absorb the beauty of this album. But it’s okay if it takes a season or two, that’s the rhythm of life, that’s the rhythm of Indigo.
Indigo is available everywhere music is sold.
Lyrics translation and transcription by Doolset Lyrics.