Illustration of BTS for The VICE Guide to BTS
Illustration: Joel Benjamin

The Guide to Getting Into BTS, the Biggest Boy Band On Earth

Wondering where to start ahead of their forthcoming album 'BE' later this month? Let us help you.
JB
illustrated by Joel Benjamin
November 16, 2020, 9:00am

No one is doing it – or has done it – quite like BTS. In seven years, the South Korean boyband has become the biggest musical act on the planet, dominating the charts in their home country since 2016 and breaking through into the international market in 2017. BTS (or Bangtan Sonyeondan, meaning bulletproof boy scouts in English) were the first K-pop group to be nominated for, and win, a Billboard Music Award; the first to perform on an American award show; the first to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 chart with Love Yourself 轉 Tear, which was quickly followed by Love Yourself 結 Answer and Map of the Soul: Persona, making them the first band to have three Number 1 albums in a year since The Beatles. 

BTS have set new records, only to then break them themselves. This year the group obliterated YouTube and Spotify records with “Dynamite,” their first song to also reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart (more on that later). The septet – comprising Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V, Jungkook and their leader RM – have already cemented their place in music history, all before the age of 30. 

But BTS were not supposed to be a record-breaking, history-making success. When the group debuted in 2013, they were the underdogs of the K-pop industry, having been signed, assembled and trained by the then relatively small label, Big Hit, that had narrowly escaped bankruptcy in the late 2000s. RM was recruited first after Big Hit founder, Bang Si-Hyuk (better known by his nickname Hitman Bang) listened to the then 15-year-old’s hip-hop demo tape, having been told by producer Pdogg that “this is what the young kids are into.” BTS’ two other rappers, SUGA and j-hope, were also signed and the three members became the group’s “musical pillars,” as described by Bang. Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook were then recruited to give BTS more of a K-pop idol group structure, becoming the main vocalists. 

BTS’ origins as a hybrid hip-hop/K-pop group from a small label might have made them industry underdogs, but it’s now considered one of the reasons for their success. K-pop has a reputation of an intense studio culture, with thousands of teenagers auditioning to be selected as trainees who undergo years of rigorous music, dance and personality sculpting. Most won’t make it and the few who do debut as idols, are expected to be nothing less than perfect. Big Hit wanted to form a different kind of idol group, one that was more relatable to young people, that put the music first. Given relatively more freedom than their peers, BTS write and produce their own music. From the get go they’ve addressed subjects considered taboo for idols, singing and rapping about their mental health, societal issues and peer pressures. Listeners related to BTS’ candour and an early loyal fan base, combined with Big Hit’s guerrilla social media marketing, soon exploded into a global fan network called ARMY (an acronym for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth).

The group never had a “Gangnam Style” viral hit, instead focusing on whole albums – something rare in western contemporary pop, but much more common in K-pop. “Ever since BTS’ debut, they’ve never suddenly switched gears or changed pace. They were consistent,” explains Bang. This consistency – in prioritising albums, live performances and candid lyrics – has allowed BTS to gradually play with their sound, and new listeners to the group might be surprised at how diverse their discography is. While hip-hop has remained at the heart of the group’s musical sensibilities, you’ll also find EDM, moombahton, sentimental ballads, Latin-influenced tracks, effervescent pop and heavy trap beats, while their collaborators have ranged from Nicki Minaj and Steve Aoki to Ed Sheeran and Sia. 

Knowing where to start with BTS can be daunting as it requires some knowledge of how K-pop works. EPs and mini-albums are often repackaged into a final record with omissions and additions, also recorded in Japanese and, rather than album releases, K-pop discographies are broken into “eras,” often spanning across several records, defined by a specific theme, visual style and choreography.

This guide is just the tip of the BTS iceberg; we’re not even going to touch the alternative universe BTS has created with storylines connecting across music videos, short films, books, games, variety shows and a webtoon. But with their new album BE to be released on the 20th of November, there’s no better time than the present to get acquainted with the biggest band on the planet. In the words of the Bangtan Boys themselves, let’s get it… 

So you want to get into… emo hip-hop BTS?

“People keep askin’ baby / Why you love that h - i - p - h - o - p shit!” spits out RM with glee on “Hip Hop Phile,” the group’s ode to their favourite rappers – Jay Z, Nas, Eminem, Kanye, Kendrick, Gang Starr. These American influences are all over BTS’ early work; so much so that the band actually went to LA so they could be taught about hip-hop culture, from Coolio and Warren G, in their reality show American Hustle Life

In 2013, BTS debuted with 2 Cool 4 Skool, a hip-hop mini album with heavy bass, rousing choruses and a whole lot of eyeliner. The album lays the groundwork for the group’s sound over their first few albums (or School Trilogy era) – 90s hip-hop signed off with a contemporary anthemic emo flourish – as well as rebellious lyrics that have come to define the group. On their debut single, “No More Dream,” the members tell their teenage peers to follow their dreams and “rebel against hellish society” rather than fall prey to parental expectations. “What’s your dream?” RM demands on the pre-hook, “Is that your dream?” 

Lyrically, teenage horniness and peer pressure define this early era. The members lust after bad girls on “Boy In Luv” and problematic fave “War of Hormone” while they criticise unrealistic expectations on “Spine Breaker”: “The class system of the 21st century is divided into two / Those who have and those who haven’t.” BTS have always aligned with the underdog, and on the frantic, hip-thrusting “Silver Spoon (Baepsae)” they call out boomers’ criticisms of their generation: “Thanks to those that came before us I'm spread too thin.” 

These early energetic, youthful bangers still hold up – and, while the group has matured and expanded their musical sensibilities, you’ll always find an old-school hip-hop track on a BTS record. The 2017 single “MIC Drop” is an aggro diss track and on the freestyling “Respect”, RM and SUGA conversationally mull over the meaning of the word, while the angsty “Dionysus” and “Black Swan” are winks to the emo hip-hop that remains at the heart of BTS.

Playlist: “No More Dream” / “We Are Bulletproof Pt.2” / “N.O” / “Spine Breaker” / “War of Hormone” / “Boy In Luv” / “Silver Spoon (Baepsae)”  / “MIC Drop” / “Dionysus” / “Black Swan” / “Respect”

So you want to get into… EDM BTS?

BTS wiped off their eyeliner in 2015 as they started incorporating more pop and electronic sounds into their music. The Youth Trilogy era – composed of EPs, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life parts one and two, and a final repacked album, Young Forever – cemented a new maximalist sound for BTS, right as they were really starting to blow up in Korea and overseas. 

The sentimental, heavy synths of “I Need U” and squealing horns of “Dope” marked a more sonically mature direction for the group. Graduating from rebellious school kids, The Youth Trilogy dives into themes of doubt, loss and nostalgia as the seven members teeter on the precipice of adulthood. “Save Me,” which uses a tick-tock motif to imbue drama, is one of the band’s most satisfying songs, while listening to “Burning Up (Fire)” is a lot like sticking your head out a speeding car’s window.

BTS’ next era Wings is a continuation of their EDM-infused hip-hop, as the group begin leaning more heavily on catchy pop hooks, like on the brooding “Blood Sweat and Tears”. But it’s in the Love Yourself era, beginning in 2018, where you’ll find the group really embracing EDM. “So What” and “I’m Fine” are big fuck it Ibiza party anthems, while “DNA,” “IDOL” and the aforementioned “MIC Drop” remix are so energetic, they should come with a whiplash warning. It was at this time that BTS started appearing on every award and talk show in America and it’s most likely these frenzied electro-pop bangers that come to mind when you think of K-pop. 

Playlist: “I Need U” / “Dope” / “Save Me” / “Burning Up (Fire)” / “Blood Sweat Tears” / “I’m Fine” / “So What” / “DNA” / “IDOL” / “MIC Drop (Steve Aoki Remix)”

So you want to get into… ballad-belting vocal line BTS?

BTS is divided into two units: the vocal line (Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook), and the rap line (RM, SUGA and j-hope). As BTS expanded beyond hip-hop, the vocalists were given space to come into their own, often the emotional powerhouse behind tracks. On the breathy ballad, “Butterfly,” the singers fear a love will flutter away, while the yearning, textured “Spring Day” – often interpreted by fans as a dedication to the Sewol ferry disaster’s victims – has already become a boyband classic

BTS have always put an emphasis on teamwork, and their song structures – as perfectly choreographed as their dance moves – testify to this. On the emo rock ballad “FAKE LOVE” the vocalists jump off each other’s lines, building to a crescendo released by Jin’s vocals on the despairing chorus. Also on Love Yourself 轉 Tear is the “The Truth Untold,” a second, more subdued collaboration with Steve Aoki that sees the four singers nimbly weaving in and out of each other’s verses, while the sensual, jazzy opening number “Intro: Singularity” is one of V’s best vocal performances. On the repackaged Love Yourself 結 Answer, Jungkook’s falsetto tone gives “Euphoria” its romantic edge, while Jimin’s voice swoons over synths on his solo track “Serendipity”.

More recently, MOS: 7, sees the vocal line stretching themselves to perform chameleonic shifts in style. On the moody “Louder than bombs,” co-written by Troye Sivan, the vocal line’s high-pitched, straining choruses compliment the rappers’ distorted, deep tones, while the dreamy “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” offers an antidote to “days when you’re sad for no reason” as the vocal lines remind each other “you’re going to be happy.” The album’s climax comes with the cinematic “We Are Bulletproof: the Eternal,” a reference to “We Are Bulletproof Pt.2” from their debut record. Starting as seven bulletproof boys with “nothing but dreams,” they embrace that BTS no longer belongs to just them as Jungkook whisper sings, “We are not just seven with you.” 

Playlist: “Spring Day” / “Butterfly” / “FAKE LOVE” / “The Truth Untold” / “Intro: Singularity” / “Euphoria” / “Serendipity” / “Louder Than Bombs” / “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” / “We Are Bulletproof: the Eternal”

So you want to get into… fiery rap line BTS?

BTS caught a lot of shit when they debuted as a hip-hop K-pop group. In a now-infamous public encounter with the South Korean rapper B-Free in 2013, RM and SUGA were dismissed as idols playing dress up with hip-hop. “I hoped underground and [mainstream] could link,” rebuted SUGA. Through their work in BTS, as well as solo mixtapes, RM, SUGA and j-hope have proved themselves to be part of a new generation of K-pop idols to be taken seriously as rappers. Their Cypher series, spanning several early albums, are diss tracks to their critics, as well as showcases for the rappers’ technical prowess. “Whether you call me wack or fake. Whatever it is. I’m a new standard to K-pop,” is spat out over a trap beat on “Cypher Pt.3: Killer.” Let’s also take a moment to pour one out for “Ddaeng,” which features some of the rappers’ most creative wordplay over melodic East Asian instruments, and didn’t get an official release beyond Soundcloud.

The rap line’s tracks are also where you’ll find BTS at their most emotionally raw. Rapping over a swelling orchestra, SUGA delves into his past on “First Love”, while a foreboding piano opens “Outro: Tear”, written when the group were considering breaking up in 2018. The rappers take turns tearing through the grandiose beat, leaving each other bruised: “We used to talk about forever / Now we break each other without mercy.” 

The rap line have always anchored BTS’ records, but on MOS: 7 they are, in the words of Hitman Bang, “its pillars”. Drawing on Carl Jung’s theories of the self, each rapper samples their own work, looking back to BTS’ beginnings with seven years of hindsight. “One day, we woke up and we were like, “Where are we?” RM explained about why they sampled old songs. “When you don’t know where to go, I think the best way is to walk down the road you have been walking on.” Opening MOS: 7, RM’s “Intro : Persona” is an analysis of his public mask as he asks himself, “Have you already forgotten why you started this?,” while j-hope’s funky, 80s-inspired “Outro : Ego” closes the record with catharsis: “The seven years of anguish are finally being confessed / The pressures, all being eased.”

SUGA’s emo-rap track “Interlude : Shadow” is one of the darkest moments on the record as he weighs up whether the successes have been worth the losses. Floating high, buoyed by fame, he raps between gasps: “Nobody told me how lonely it is up here.” The three rappers come back together on “UGH!” – a barnstormer that recalls the fire of their Cyphers, but also takes aim at a “world taken over by rage” as a barrage of gunshots go off. 

Playlist: “BTS Cypher Pt.3: Killer” / “BTS Cypher 4” / “First Love” / “Outro: Tear” / “Intro : Persona” / “UGH!” / “Interlude: Shadow” / “Outro: Ego”

So you want to get into… shot of serotonin, pure pop BTS?

In 2017, BTS released Love Yourself 承 Her – a dreamy record about young men falling in love. Soft pastel styling and Skittle hair colours shepherded in the Love Yourself era, in which BTS embrace pop, often through a shimmering R&B lens. The disco-inspired “Trivia 轉: Seesaw” is a surprising pop turn from SUGA, while “Pied Piper” is a playful roast of fans who are ignoring real life for BTS. “Now stop watching and study for your test,” RM chides over gorgeous synths. Self-acceptance and self-love were adopted as a mantra for BTS, with “love yourself” becoming the name of their UNICEF campaign and the crux of their UN speech

The majority of BTS’ pop songs are dedications to their fans. On Love Yourself 轉 Tear, the tropical beat driven “Paradise” and falsetto steered “Magic Shop,” are about creating a home for ARMY, while Map of the Soul: Persona’s sugary, sensitive “Boy With Luv” is a winking reference to the much angstier “Boy In Luv” from the School Trilogy era. Similarly charismatic is “HOME”, a catchy R&B track about how fans have become a refuge for the group.

On MOS: 7, Jimin moves into sultry Latin-pop with “Filter,” while Jin’s solo track is the bouncy, foot-tapping “Moon”. Both are sophisticated odes to fans with a sharp introspective edge: Jin is a lonely satellite orbiting ARMY with a “sea all black”, while Jimin asks, “Which me do you want? / To change your world, I’m your filter.” 

Then there’s their latest single “Dynamite”, an English-language summer bop that finally got BTS their much coveted top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Ironically, the track is perhaps the least BTS-esque song the band has ever released. Unlike their discography, neither BTS or Big Hit had much of a hand in the making of “Dynamite”, and its nonsensical, vaguely Americana lyrics – “Shoes on, get up in the morn, cup of milk, let’s rock and roll” – make that clear. “Dynamite” is joyous retro pop but, most importantly for the US radio stations that have previously refused to play BTS’ Korean-language music, it’s “radio-friendly.” It’s bittersweet that “Dynamite” is the group’s biggest break into mainstream radio play (hey, that’s xenophobia for you) but the song acts as a Trojan horse for new listeners who, if they’re willing to dig a little deeper, will find a sprawling smorgasbord of hits.

Playlist: “Pied Piper” / “Paradise” / “Trivia 轉: Seesaw” / “Magic Shop” / “HOME” / “Boy With Luv (feat. Halsey)” / “Filter” / “Moon” / “Dynamite”

@johnnys_panic

BE will be released on the 20th November by Big Hit Entertainment. Song lyric translations come from Genius English Translations and doyoubangtan.