On the day BTS released their fourth Korean studio album, Map of the Soul: 7, the world couldn’t have looked more different.
It was Feb. 21, 2020, and RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook sat on a stage at the Today show plaza surrounded by hundreds of their fans, known as ARMY. It was freezing cold — they were all bundled up in coats, and clutching disposable hand warmers, and you can see their breath condensing in the air in photos and videos from the day — but for both the members of BTS and the ARMY who had slept on the street for days to catch even a fleeting glimpse of their idols, there was nowhere else they’d rather have been.
The release of MOTS:7 marked the beginning of what was expected to be a milestone year for BTS. It had been seven years since they made their debut as a scrappy hip-hop group from a startup label, singing and rapping about the unjust pressures of Korean society on their teenage peers, and as a group of seven, the number was significant to them. The album existed as a comprehensive diary of their journey throughout the years since their debut, with tracks that detailed each member’s motivations, their dreams, and their fears. It explored their unshakeable relationships not only with each other, but also with their fans. It was, as the members themselves put it on the Today show stage, a declaration of their belief that making music, as a group of seven, had always been their destiny.
The weeks leading up to the album drop had been jam-packed. The beginning of 2020 saw BTS launch Connect, BTS, a global project aiming to “redefine the relationship between art and music” and introduce visual art to new audiences. They had become the first Korean act ever to perform at the Grammys, as part of a collaboration stage with Lil Nas X, and fans tentatively hoped MOTS:7 would lead to a nomination for the group the following year. A little more than two weeks previously, tickets had gone on sale for the band’s Map of the Soul Tour, which was to see them perform in swiftly sold-out stadiums across North America, South Korea, Japan, and Europe. Talking to the Today show hosts at Rockefeller Plaza on Feb. 21, the members joked about returning to play a concert that summer, when the weather would be more accommodating. But that would be one of the last times BTS was able to see ARMY in person. By the time they returned to Seoul a few days later, the world was already beginning to change.
Cases of COVID-19 were rising rapidly worldwide, and it would only be two weeks before the situation was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. For BTS and ARMY, that meant the concerts they had planned their summers around were indefinitely postponed, and the group’s music show performances were conducted in empty TV studios. (They have yet to perform the songs from MOTS:7 in front of an audience.)
In a livestream on V App in early March, their leader, RM, expressed his feelings of helplessness, frustration, and anger at the situation at hand. But, in the same breath, he explained he knew he had to keep going if BTS and their music could bring fans even the smallest comfort. To alleviate another person’s pain, he said, even if only by the slightest amount, was his “one and only reason.” It always had been.
And so, when they could easily have taken a break, and jumped at the opportunity for a well-earned rest, BTS began a relentless mission to provide comfort and entertainment and, most importantly, a distraction from the increasingly desperate situation happening around us. Their variety show, Run BTS, still aired weekly, and in addition to that, the members would stream live on V App every couple of days, solo or in groups of two or three, doing crafts or playing video games or eating, all while talking to ARMY, for an hour at a time. Rapper Suga conducted a weekly radio show, with special guest appearances from the other members; for one episode, he asked ARMY to send in questions on Twitter and spent an hour giving them advice. The weekend of April 18 and 19, when the Map of the Soul Tour was due to start, played host to a two-day event dubbed Bang Bang Con, during which ARMY could stream 24 hours of past BTS concerts and events on YouTube for free.
And that same week, in yet another livestream, RM made an unexpected announcement: They had begun work on a new album, and would, for the first time, be sharing every stage of the journey with ARMY. “We don’t know what direction it will go,” RM said in the livestream. “But we will work hard.” As it turned out, that announcement was the first stepping stone laid on a path that had never been in their original plan, but that would eventually lead BTS to achievements and accolades they had only previously dreamed of.
On Friday, BTS released BE (Essential Edition), a streamlined, slightly more wallet-friendly iteration of the original album, which came out in November. The music is the same, but the album itself is less expensive, and not marketed as ~deluxe~, so this version’s photobook consists of fewer pages, and there aren’t as many fun extras included in the packaging. There were a couple of notable additions to the album’s new edition, though, that got fans excited when it was announced: two stickers, placed smack-dab on its front. “Featuring Billboard Hot 100 singles ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Life Goes On,’” the first reads. “63rd Grammy Awards nominee,” says the second. So. I guess 2020 was a milestone year for BTS after all.
If Map of the Soul: 7 was an introspective reflection on BTS’s journey as artists, BE is personal in a more of-the-moment way. Perhaps it’s because the group had such a hands-on involvement in its creation that it is so intrinsically them — each member’s fingerprints can be found on every single element, from the album artwork to the video production to, of course, the music. Vocalist Jin described the completed record as “comfortable” in a video on the group’s YouTube channel; V agreed, saying BE feels “more valuable and precious for us than any other album.”
Written and recorded during coronavirus quarantine, the album’s seven new tracks offer an intimate insight into the members’ mindsets during a time so many of us are struggling, anxious and isolated by the current situation, to articulate how we are feeling. With BE, BTS reaches out a companionable hand and promises that they are dealing with those feelings too. “It was a year that we struggled a lot,” Jimin told Time in December, when the group was named Entertainer of the Year. “We might look like we’ve been doing well on the outside with the numbers, but we do go through hard times ourselves.”
That unflinching honesty and sincerity is just another facet of the deep connection BTS strives to maintain with their ARMY, even when physically apart — and it’s reflected, time and time again, in the music on BE.
The album’s third track, “Blue & Grey” — written originally by vocalist V for his much-anticipated solo mixtape, but adapted for the group after the other members heard and loved it — presents that understanding of isolation most explicitly. The lyrics describe the experience of burnout caused by feelings of exhaustion and loneliness, and the apparent inability to escape the gloom. But the song is far from hopeless; the ending note is optimistic, suggesting that pouring those feelings into lyrics and sharing them with others is what finally brings peace. Over the warm strum of an acoustic guitar, and drums that echo the sound of a heartbeat, V sings: “After secretly collecting words that wander in the void / Now I fall asleep at dawn / Good night.”
That optimism is reflected in “Fly to My Room,” a subunit track featuring Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, and V, which explores the merits of creating new experiences inside your own familiar space. The members sing and rap about the despair of feeling trapped inside your room, unable to leave, and the eventual determination to make the best of a bad situation. “Even though I was stuck feeling lonely at home, I started to think of it as another trip instead,” J-Hope explained in an interview. “I thought of my room as my world, and delivery food as a three-star hotel meal.”
In “Dis-ease,” the members explore yet another reality of life in quarantine, agonizing over the restlessness, overthinking, and self-inflicted guilt that come hand-in-hand with a sudden overwhelming influx of free time. The title itself is a play on words, both in English — “Dis-ease,” of course, refers to the pandemic, but also to the sense of unease explored in the song’s lyrics — and in the group’s native Korean — 병, pronounced “byeong,” means both “disease” and “bottle,” invoking a feeling of being stuck in a small space with no way out. The track's composition was led by rapper J-Hope, recalling sounds of old-school Korean hip-hop that wouldn’t feel out of place on his 2018 mixtape, Hope World. As that name suggests, the song is hopeful despite its subject matter: The production intensifies at the track’s conclusion as the members sing about building strength, waking up every day and persisting on the knowledge that nothing, including life’s current turmoil, lasts forever.
Just as BTS would not be BTS without ARMY, a BTS album would not be a BTS album without at least one song about their cherished relationship with their fans. BE has two. In “Telepathy,” Suga speaks directly to ARMY, expressing hopes that they are doing well and staying healthy while the pandemic is keeping them apart. “For me, these days, well / I feel like I’m floating up in the air,” he raps in the first verse. “Thanks to all this time on my hands / I get to write a song like this / This song is for you.” In “Stay,” RM, Jin, and Jungkook sing about being physically separated from their fans, but secure in the knowledge that the relationship they have with ARMY is strong enough to persist. “Wherever you are / I know you’ll always stay,” sings Jungkook, who originally wrote the track in English for his eagerly awaited solo mixtape, in the song’s hook. Both are upbeat — “Telepathy” funky and retro, “Stay” an EDM-esque club banger. It’s almost as if they were made to be performed, someday, in stadiums to crowds of tens of thousands of the people they were written for; in times where the possibility of that happening is uncertain, they feel like a promise for the future.
Bookending it all are BTS’s two biggest singles of 2020, “Life Goes On” and “Dynamite.” The latter was released in August, and promptly — pun absolutely, 100% intended — exploded. It shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, both BTS's first single and the first by a Korean group ever to do so, and it stayed there for several weeks. In BE’s fourth track — the first “skit” the group has released since 2017, and a staple of their earlier discography — the members invite us to listen in on their celebration in the studio the day they found out the news. It was their youngest, Jungkook’s, 23rd birthday, and they joked he wouldn’t need any other gifts. When RM chastised the members for not responding to his text about the news, Suga replied that he had been too busy crying. The achievement was, to both BTS and ARMY, a huge deal. And three months later, just a few days after the album was released, “Dynamite” got BTS their first Grammy nomination.
But such achievements and accolades were never the motivation behind releasing the song. In countless interviews in late summer, the members explained they wanted “Dynamite” to reach as many fans as quickly as possible, providing them a source of comfort and joy during a difficult time. That was also one of the reasons the track became the first BTS has ever released fully in English. “We were trying to convey the message of healing and comfort to our fans,” Jin explained in November, in the band’s cover interview with Esquire. “World domination wasn’t actually our plan.”
If “Dynamite” is the sweet summer pop song made to act as a momentary joyous escape from the world’s woes, then BE’s title track “Life Goes On” is its balancing force. As the members explained in a press conference to mark the album’s release, the song took its inspiration from the same place as “Dynamite”; like its predecessor, “Life Goes On” was made to provide comfort and companionship to fans by conveying, as RM put it, “the somewhat obvious but unyielding truth about life: That life goes on, regardless.” Everything in the world may have changed, but we are still here for you, the song promises. “Like an echo in the forest / the day will come back around / as if nothing happened.”
Of course, “Life Goes On” also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 100, the first song sung predominantly in Korean ever to hold the position on the chart. For both BTS and ARMY, the victory was even sweeter.
BTS is often described as a phenomenon, and both the members and their fans are regularly asked what it is that has made them so successful. It’s an impossible question to answer — though many have tried to reduce it to an exact science — but undoubtedly, BTS’s sincere connection with ARMY is a huge part of it. They speak about their fans not from the vantage point of idols on an impossibly high pedestal, but as human beings on a level playing field, working towards the same goals. The music on BE is a testament to that mutual support and unwavering connection, and they see the accolades it’s received as not solely belonging to BTS, but also to ARMY. “It’s proof of what our fans’ energy and passion can do when they support us,” Jimin said of their Grammy nomination in a video with Vanity Fair in December.
“We were nothing special, really,” Jungkook told Weverse Magazine the month prior. “But they keep on liking us and supporting us, and the best way we can repay them is to give them our all through our music and our performances.”
That attitude couldn’t be more evident in BE. When listened to from top to bottom, the album offers a short-but-sweet cycle of necessary support and comfort in all its varying forms: Reassurance, optimism, understanding, companionship, love, encouragement, security, and to close out, the blissful momentary escape of singing a catchy summer bop at the top of your lungs while performing an uncoordinated version of BTS’s smoothly synchronized choreography in your living room.
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to predict what might happen next. The Grammys are less than three weeks away, and with a nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group, BTS has a chance of winning for the first time. (“It’s just me,” Jimin giggled during that Vanity Fair interview. “But I feel like we can win.”) Vaccines are being distributed, and the most optimistic among us may finally be feeling a glimmer of hope that things will, eventually, get back to normal. There are, after all, several hundreds of thousands of Map of the Soul Tour tickets still sitting, out of commission, in Ticketmaster accounts all over the world. Both BTS and ARMY are waiting desperately for the day they can be used again.
“I think it might feel like going back home,” Jin mused, when asked about that day, around the time of BE's release. “I think that’s how I’ll feel: Like I’m back where I should be.”