Jimin’s FACE: an intoxicating, conceptual ride

Some albums tickle your mind. Others expand your political conscience or soothe your heart. But some albums are entirely for your senses, those that awaken feelings and sensations buried deep within.

Jimin’s new solo album, FACE, is one of those. It is a brief, 20-minute journey into the singer’s confounding emotions during the pandemic and one that takes the listener into a mesmerizing, immersive sonic experience. 

Jimin is one-seventh of the iconic South Korean band BTS. Since his debut with the band in 2013 at age 18, he has been known for his elegant contemporary dance-influenced moves and unique, delicate vocals. Here, in his first solo work, he proves his incredible gift with melody, something fans have previously remarked in his solo songs such as “Lie” and “Serendipity,” but also a newly revealed mastery of mood. 

The album’s release comes in the context of a complex period for BTS and all its members: first, the personal and professional reckoning with the pandemic, which impacted artists and musicians in a particularly acute way by erasing their livelihoods overnight. Unable to perform and interact with their fans, many questioned their very reason for being. Second, the announcement last June of the temporary hiatus BTS would go on to focus on solo music, later confirmed to be prompted by the need of the members to fulfill their mandatory military service. 

In multiple promotional interviews, Jimin has said he started working on FACE after realizing he was not doing well during the pandemic and its aftermath. Encouraged by his BTS members, he decided to pour all of these feelings into music, which resulted in the five songs that make up FACE. I remember the early days of the pandemic and how cultural critics often wondered about the art that would result from this collective horror and trauma. Jimin’s album is a moving example of an artist processing the angst and confusion he felt during that time into a remarkable work of music. 

FACE album cover. Big Hit Entertainment.

While each song on FACE stands perfectly on its own, they gain in meaning and resonance when played in order from beginning to end. The album moves through quite distinct but intertwined emotions: the anger in the opening song “Face-off,” becomes defiant liberation in the closing one, “Set Me Free Pt. 2.” The sensual search for abandon in the main single, “Like Crazy,” is followed by unforgiving self-awareness in the next, “Alone.” Filled with rich synths, electronic beats, vocal distortions, and even a choir and horns used in a quite unexpected way, FACE is a sophisticated 80s-inspired electronic pop album with devastating emotional depth. 

Sonically cohesive, the album also feels like a concept album or the soundtrack of a short movie, with Jimin starting in a disturbing dark place and progressively moving through different emotions until the end, where he does seem to find a powerful sense of resolution.

The cinematic feeling may also be related to the fact that, as Jimin has explained, the title song “Like Crazy” was inspired by the movie of the same name (Like Crazy, 2011), which tells the story of a couple struggling to stay together as they face forced separation and doubts despite the profound love they have for each other. In the song, this is translated into a story of longing and confusion, and of a wish to hold on to a reality that seems to be slipping away. 

“Like Crazy” starts with the wistful strumming of a guitar or mandolin and Jimin’s melancholic vocals. Soon, the acoustic sound gives way to a fully electronic, transfixing beat. “I rather be lost in the lights, I’m outta of my mind,“ he declares in the chorus, giving the first hint that he’s seeking a certain kind of oblivion in the night. Then, when he sings the amazing second or third hook of the song, “Give me a good ride, it’s gon’ be a good night,” drawing out each word slightly on top of the beat, he is fully evoking the delicious feeling of letting go but also, of the choice he is making of letting go—this is a controlled, conscious abandon. 

Still from “Like Crazy” video. Big Hit Entertainment.

A brilliant line in the English version of the song —the album contains a Korean and an English version—further illustrates this when Jimin sings “emotions on ice, let me have a taste,” which could mean both putting his emotions “on ice” (in pause, on hold) as he surrenders to a night of the senses or of choosing to drink to feel more pleasurable emotions than the ones he’s currently dealing with. The Korean version of the lyrics is no less beautiful: “너를 품은 달 (the moon with you in its arms), let me have a taste,” he says, a poetic declaration of love or desire. 

The song then goes into a magnificent electronic break, and now, following Jimin fully into the night and the headiness of drinking and dancing in a crowded room, we feel transported into a delicious musical high that’s absolutely addictive. This is no over-interpretation, as that’s how Jimin has exactly talked about the song, describing it as having  “a feeling of dreamy intoxication.”

The video of “Like Crazy,” released on March 24 at the same time as the album, illustrates all of this but adds a further layer of complexity in which Jimin seems to be confronting multiple dualities – masculine vs feminine, in-control vs trying to let go, virtue vs guilt, keeping up appearances vs showing real feelings. As he told Rolling Stone, with the video and choreography of “Like Crazy” he wanted to portray “the somewhat complex, somewhat lonely, somewhat happy emotions. [To try] to express all these ambiguous and subtle emotions in a slightly sexy way.” 

Despite FACE’s clear pop appeal, there is also a clear artistic vision, with ambient sounds framing nearly all of the songs and which help enrich the narrative concept of the album: A circus-type song opens the album before “Face-off,” while at the end of the anthemic “Set Me Free Pt. 2” (where he triumphantly sings he’s “finally free” like a “butterfly”) we hear him audibly struggling to break free. Ambient sounds actually made the entirety of what for me is a highlight in an album of highlights, the song “Interlude: Dive,” the second track on FACE

Starting with what seems like a rewinding effect, the song then settles on a deep, hypnotic low note contrasted with sparkle-like chimes indicating we are entering a dream-like state where sounds flood in like distant memories: a startling knocking on a door, Jimin’s shortened breathing, walking, pouring of a drink on a glass and drinking, and most moving of all, the audio from Jimin’s introduction to his audience (ARMY) during BTS’ last concert together before announcing their enlistment. 

Jimin has said that with this song he wanted to find a bridge between “Face-off” and “Like Crazy,” and to give the feeling that he was “lost or wondering.” Both goals are beautifully achieved, in addition to creating what feels like a return to a vulnerable primal state, the place where all wounds and joys are imprinted and that we need to painfully revisit to fully “face” ourselves. 

The album keeps building on this musical atmosphere song after song, doubling down on the lushness of the arrangements, and offering complex, unusual melodies that keep us on our toes as listeners–this is where Jimin truly shines, carving and curling and shaping his voice around the words and the unresolved notes and keys like water flowing around pieces of smooth and not so smooth glass.

For this album, Jimin worked with a group of close long-time producers and collaborators, including the brilliant BTS in-house producer P-DOGG and producer GHSLOOP, who also contributed as co-writers together with Jimin. Other co-writers include Evan, Supreme Boi, and Jimin’s bandmate RM in a couple of songs. 

My way into music is usually through the music first (as opposed to the lyrics) and how it paints pictures and creates meaning with sounds. This is a wonderful album to get lost in the musical choices made, such as the way in “Face-off” the explicit anger of the lyrics is contrasted by the controlled elegance of the music through an elusive, syncopated beat. Or the way in “Alone,” the most starkly painful song on FACE (“The me who pretends to be okay every time, I find him pathetic,” Jimin sings in Korean), a gentle guitar seems to suddenly fracture into weaker strains of sounds as if the world is itself fragmenting inside his mind. Later, in the same song, as Jimin sings “it’s gonna be all right,” an eerie high-pitched chorus responds by saying “lie lie” repeatedly, as some mocking, horrifying inner voice. 

“Set Me Free Pt.2,” which came out as a pre-release track on March 17 together with a stunning music video, closes the album (before the English version of “Like Crazy”) with bombastic zeal. Featuring an operatic chorus and an exhilarating horns arrangement, the song sounds almost like a horror movie battle cry as Jimin is simultaneously angry (“Shut up, f*** off, I’m on my way”), celebratory (“지나간 나를 위해 손을 들어-I raise my fist for the past me”) and liberated (“finally free”). 

FACE is an emotional and, clearly, very personal album. Despite this, the main single “Like Crazy” debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, demonstrating not only the power of ARMY in supporting the song but also how both the single and album succeed in capturing the musical mood of the moment: dark, melodically intriguing electro-pop that seduces the senses while inviting us to look deep within an artist’s darkest corners of his soul.

Jimin’s FACE is available everywhere music is sold. The CD version of the album also contains a hidden track called “Letter.”

All lyric translations are by Doolsetbangtan.com.

J-Hope in the Box: A Record of Creation

The process of creation is painful. There’s a reason why it is often compared to giving birth. There is an inevitability: this baby needs to come out whether we want it or not. The elation, relief, and exhaustion of finally bringing into the world a work of creation, resembles the moment a baby is finally out of the womb. In creation, as in birth, there’s also fear, sometimes terror involved.

I thought of all these things when watching j-hope’s new documentary J-Hope in the Box, released exclusively on Disney+ on February 17.

j-Hope is one-seventh of the iconic South Korean band BTS. A rapper and lyricist who has contributed to dozens of the band’s songs over their 10-year career, j-hope, real name Jung Ho-seok, is also the main dancer of BTS. In this role, j-hope has honoured his roots as a young teenage street dancer while elevating many of the styles he’s proficient in to world stages thanks to the success of BTS.

The documentary tells the journey of j-hope’s first foray into solo activities: his first solo album release, Jack in the Box (second after his first mixtape Hope World, released in 2018), and his preparation for his first solo stage: a headlining show at Lollapalooza, the legendary Chicago music festival, in August 2022.

For BTS fans, called ARMY, the context of this album release and concert is heavy in meaning and symbolism. In June 2022, during their annual anniversary celebration as a band, Festa, BTS announced the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another: they would be pausing band activities and embarking on solo projects for a while. While much suspected and discussed among ARMY, and to the fans’ dismay, a general public lacking important context, the reason behind the pause was finally revealed in October: the need for the members to fulfill mandatory military service in their country.

The documentary, however, does not touch on any discussion of the band’s military duty — a topic of contention among many of the band’s fans. Its focus is entirely on j-hope’s vision for his album and the monumental effort of putting together a headlining festival show. Told in non-linear form — the narrative moves back and forth in time from several months before Lollapalooza, to days before, and then back to weeks before the release of the album — J-Hope in the Box is ultimately intimate, intense, and revealing, even for an artist who has been under the scrutiny of the camera eye for the best part of the last decade.

The intimacy and intensity come from j-hope himself. After a brief introduction of j-hope finally coming “out of the box” (like a jack-in-the-box figure) during the opening of his Lollapalooza set, we go back in time to the grueling days when he was working alone in his studio recording the songs for Jack in the Box.

In a fascinating montage, we see j-hope alone in front of his computer recording vocals and ad-libs, typing, thinking, slumped in his chair at moments, a collection of paper cups in front of him. Then the image doubles up and we see two j-hopes, one dancing in front of the computer while the other types, or one sitting working away while another crashes on the couch behind him talking to his mother. It’s lo-fi, self-recorded footage and it’s quite moving. It’s the equivalent of a writer showing all the previous, unfinished versions of an essay along with the finished version, the messiness of the process familiar to anybody who has ever engaged in a creative journey.

While not uncommon, the behind-the-scenes musician documentary has become an almost rite of passage (Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Selena Gomez, and even Lady Gaga have all released documentaries in recent years), there is a raw and unvarnished feel to that sequence that truly brings home, in a relatable way, what it feels to be consumed by an artistic vision and the need to let it out into the world. Here, bare-faced and tired, j-hope is Jung Ho-seok, the writer and musician behind the sunny, brilliantly fashionable persona j-hope represents in BTS.

“This is how you end up in a rut,” j-hope says to the camera. “You don’t know why you’re even doing this. There’s no reason for me to push myself so hard. But I guess this is who I am.”

j-hope working in his studio. Still from the documentary J-Hope in The Box. Photo: BigHit & Hybe.

The sequence is a great example of the type of transparency ARMY has gotten used to receiving from BTS members. They have never been afraid to show the process behind the music and performance, the ugliness of fatigue and self-doubt, or the many failures that make up a success.

And yet, BTS is also intensely private. For a new fan, this paradox is difficult to understand given the thousand upon thousand of hours they have given of themselves to ARMY over the years, not only via regular music promotions such as music videos and interviews, but via personal videos or “lives,” where they chat with fans for minutes or hours at a time, through their long-running variety show Run BTS where they compete against each other in numerous games, their traveling shows, and much more.

The dynamic in those public-facing videos and shows is of a band of brothers working together while loving each other. The bond between the members — its sacredness, its unbreakability — is one of the most magical elements sustaining ARMY beyond listening to BTS’s discography. The music, naturally the core of BTS’ work despite the many prejudices it engenders by being classified as K-pop, is multi-genre, of impeccable quality, wide emotional resonance, and deep lyrical intelligence. A legacy of over a decade of songs that could certainly represent the voice of the first truly global generation.

To see j-hope moving about his creative process and exploring his limits and desires on his own is revealing. It’s a portrait of what it takes to fulfill fiery ambition and creativity, even after a hugely successful career at the top.

“Fame and money don’t mean everything, I already know it. My work makes me breathe, so I want MORE,” j-hope sings in “More,” a moody grunge rap track and one of the two title songs in Jack in the Box. Ambition and drive are also two of the main themes of Jack in the Box, and it’s appropriate that the documentary let us in this crucial moment of j-hope’s life.

Another moving and important moment in J-Hope in the Box is when j-hope visits his family in Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, where he was born. “Safety Zone,” a gorgeous R&B track from Jack in the Box, plays in the background.

“Where’s the ray of light to relieve me in the darkness? Is it a tranquil home? Or the blue that is far, far away? Where’s my safe zone,” the lyrics say as he gets out of the car to photograph the woods or when he talks about his band members on the way there. At home, he is welcomed by his parents (we hear them and see them at the margins of the frame only) who have filled their home with mementos and photos of their son’s career.

The contrast between this j-hope–safe, protected, nourished with food and love by his parents–and the one we will soon see commanding a huge stage in front of thousands of people, is truly staggering, not so much in how j-hope himself behaves, but in showing the extraordinary psychological leap artists at a certain level must make to inhabit their artistic selves. What’s beautiful and telling in J-Hope in the Box, is that we are full witnesses to the transition from person to performer he must make.

In between, we see the toll that it takes: as the performance draws nears and j-hope works with musicians and dancers during rehearsals, he becomes increasingly nervous. Consumed by hyper-concentration, he is unable to eat or sleep — a marathon runner numbing the exhaustion in the last couple of kilometers before finishing a race. It’s almost agonizing to watch.

Thankfully, the documentary also intersperses footage of his performance at Lollapalooza, or Hobipalooza, as the concert was nicknamed by ARMY. Boasting an incredibly satisfying sound mix, these are some of the best moments of the film, where we get to see and hear the results of j-hope months-long labour.

His performance of “Equal Sign,” a gorgeous song where j-hope expresses some of his most personal values about equality, peace, and solidarity, is an unforgettable musical moment. As he reaches the English chorus, and 70,000 fans sign back to him the word “same” with one voice, it is cathartic and emotional as well.

Some of the lyrics of “Equal Sign,” by j-hope. Photo: screen capture Doolset Bangtan Lyrics

Throughout, one more aspect of j-hope’s character shines: his deep collaborative and respectful nature. We see it in the way he greets every staff member at his Jack in the Box listening party in Seoul, attended by a who’s who of South Korean artists and celebrities, or by the way he greets each band member or backup dancer in his crew. It’s not as if this is anything new, BTS is known to be the utmost professionals among industry peers, but it is still admirable and wonderful to witness.

Finally, anytime a BTS member appears next to another, the fun and warmth of any solo member or group activity double or triples accordingly. J-Hope in the Box is no exception. The moment Jimin, j-hope’s bandmate and fellow dancer, travels all the way from South Korea to support his solo concert debut, the mood of the film shifts as if the sunshine has finally appeared. Jimin’s presence has a deeper meaning too: only somebody who has experienced what j-hope is going through can truly understand what he’s feeling.

Although J-Hope in the Box was made very much with BTS fans in mind, it does serve as a compelling introduction to j-hope’s solo and group music. Most of all, it is the record of a moment in time for j-hope, an artist who has reached unimaginable heights but one who we suspect, will just continue to soar.

J-Hope in the Box is available for streaming on Disney+.

All lyric translations by Doolset Lyrics.

RM’s “Indigo”: to be artful is to be human

“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.