Min Yoon-gi’s alternative rap persona Agust D (as separate from Suga) dropped his second mixtape, appropriately titled D-2, on 22nd May 2020. Earlier the same week, Big Hit started a mysterious countdown showing a barely distinguishable shadowy figure against a black background with the timer at the centre, starting from D-7. On D-2, the mixtape of the same name was released and the figure was revealed to be Min Yoon-gi on the set of the music video for the lead single, Daechwita, a Korean historical drama (Sageuk), full of intrigue, starring Min Yoon-gi, spitting fire, in dual roles as King and Commoner.
There are 10 songs on the mixtape, four of which are collaborations: Moonlight, Daechwita, What Do You Think, Strange (Feat. RM), 28 (Feat. NiiHWA), Burn It (Feat. Max), People, Honsool, Interlude: Set Me Free and Dear My Friend (Feat. Kim Jong-wan of NELL). D-2 is self-produced, as mixtapes always are, with Min Yoongi in charge of all creative decisions including those for the music video which accompanies Daechwita. The mixtape is a free download which was uploaded across a number of platforms, including Google and SoundCloud, and is also available to purchase from a variety of sites notably iTunes and Amazon Music.
Photo © Big Hit Entertainment
Four years on from his first solo endeavour, Min Yoon-gi seems to have been percolating nicely and while on the surface this iteration of Agust D seems less angst-ridden than his predecessor, his passion for music is undiminished as is his ability to communicate this across language barriers. In 2016, BTS were on the cusp of their breakthrough into the global spotlight. In his first mixtape, Min Yoon-gi raps of his desire for stardom and success in an unflinching series of tracks that explore and expound on the drive for fame. These tracks are largely introspective articulating the internalisation of pain and impact on self-worth caused by having to deal with negativity from the media as well as hate from fans of other K-pop groups when they debuted. This is in addition to having to conform to the strict regime of continual comebacks and performances, both official and unofficial, necessary to succeed in the entertainment industry in South Korea. However, BTS’ success, both critically and commercially, happened after the release of Agust D. Now, Min Yoon-gi is now at the top of the world looking down rather than at the bottom looking up.
In D-2, Min Yoon-gi’s “tongue technology” has expanded from focussing just on the self to wrap itself around larger existentialist questions about the nature of being and the flow of time which seem strangely emblematic of cultural moments in which we find ourselves. This might be because the mixtape was finished during the current COVD-19 pandemic with Daechwita and Interlude: Set Me Free composed during this period of global uncertainty. It seems serendipitous therefore that the release of the mixtape was delayed from last year because of overlapping schedules. Daechwita was one of the beats put forward for “UGH” on Map of the Soul: 7 but luckily was not chosen as there is no doubt that it is one of the highlights of what is an outstanding album from an exceptional artist and for me one of the best releases of 2020 so far.
Min Yoon-gi finds himself in a contemplative mood on D-2, looking back on the young man he was in 2016 and the one in the present, and mediating on how to move forward when you have what you desired and what fuelled your existence. This is a reflection tinged with regret and sadness, punctured by moments of anger and rebellion, and an awareness that the past is just that and we have no choice but to move forward into the future, however frightening and uncertain that might be. It is no surprise given Min Yoon-gi’s range of work in his other persona as Suga from BTS, and especially his production work with other artists, that D-2 is a diverse album with influences from emo and confessional rap, Korean trap and traditional Korean music. The beats range from fast and furious to soft and melancholic and Min Yoon-gi changes up his flow and tone not just across songs, but within individual tracks themselves. There is a synergy across the tracks, as well as a progression from Moonlight to Dear My Friend marked by a movement from introspection to extrospection and back.
Photo © Big Hit Entertainment
D-2 begins with Min Yoon-gi in a reflective mood. Moonlight can be best thought of as a frame narrative in that it introduces the mixtape’s main themes while at the same time self-reflexively addressing the creative process itself. Moonlight puts words to Min Yoon-gi’s self-doubts as he wrestles with the “imposter-syndrome” that many of us have when “making’ it in professions against the odds: “Sometimes I feel like I’m a genius / Sometimes I feel like I have no talent.” He talks of feelings of “emptiness”, “anger”, “doubt” in the face of his global success with BTS and the weightiness of the expectations that are placed on the group, and himself, these days. He mourns the loss of youth and youthful dreams, while the moonlight remains unchanging, he does not. The melodic chorus provides a contrast to the melancholic rap through the juxtaposition of binary opposites: speed / stasis, sadness / serenity, self-hatred / self-love. The use of such contrasts is further developed in the lead single, and second track, Daechwita, one of the two outright “flex” tracks on D-2.
It could be argued that Daechwita is the ultimate flex track with its allusion to the advantages of wealth and its trappings that come with global success and its indirect criticism of other rappers. While conventionally such diss tracks name names (e.g. the recent beef between Stormzy and Wiley, the new and old guard of grime), Min Yoon-gi choses to create a “trap” (Min Yoon-gi on the making of D-2) by keeping his verse non-specific: “Shut up, yeah, mmm you calling me a pup, yeah. I was born a tiger, I’m not a weak pill-popper like you. Pathetic fucks putting on a talent show. Not going to lie, what a shitshow.”
Here the words create a virtual image in which other rappers can see their reflections; the image is only realised through the process of identification of self with the lyrics. This places the onus on the “other” rather than the self. This, of course, also allows deniability and therefore any beefs arising from this can only ever be one-sided. And while these words might seem harsh, it is important to note that “idol” rappers are viewed as manufactured by the underground rap community in South Korea who cling to authenticity through the adoption of African American “swag”, “slang”, immersion in drug culture and frequent appearances on rap talent shows such as Show Me The Money. Daechwita takes its name from Korean military music typically played during the ceremonial walk of the King (Raisa Bruner, Time, 20 May 2020). It is music used to announce the entrance of royalty and here Min Yoon-gi is playing with the fact that the term “King” and ‘Queens” are used as monikers for celebrities who are seen to be at the top of their game. In the music video, the use of lyrical contrast is visualised through the appearance of two Min Yoon-gi’s, one who is a King and another who is a Commoner, and the corresponding delivery of their verses. The fire spitting verses of the “King” become transformed into the more composed and softer – but no less commanding – verses of the “Commoner”. Here, as elsewhere on the mixtape, the flex is conditional, underpinned by an awareness that one’s reign is likely to be fleeting as those who see themselves as heirs to the throne battle it out for primacy. There is also the sense of loss which undermines the flex, when Min Yoon-gi talks about wanting to look “down” at the ground rather than “up” where there is “nowhere higher”.
The next track What Do You Think continues with bragging rights, using repetition to unify the melody as well as to emphasise the meaning of the words themselves: the line “What do you think? What do you think? is repeated 15 times, 3 times to begin with and then with 6 times in the other two choruses. The concluding line of the song is “No matter what you think, I’m sorry, but shit, I have no fucking interest.”
Photo © Big Hit Entertainment
On Strange which features RM, Min Yoon-gi turns away from ruminating on the self to engage with societal issues embedding an understanding that the self is never constituted by itself but rather it is constructed through and by its historical and cultural context. Here the day-to-day battle against the idol system is amplified and projected onto the day-to-day lives of ordinary people trying to survive in a ruthless, dog eat dog, capitalist world. Perhaps the most impactful lyrics are in the first verse when Min Yoon-gi raps: “With dreams as its collateral, capitalism injects the morphine called ‘hope’ / Wealth breeds wealth and tests greed”. Despite translation, these words lose none of their impact. In a later verse, RM talks about “polarization” in relation to the contrast between the rich and the poor, both of whom “claim they are fine” when perhaps nothing is further from the truth. Neo-liberal capitalism is the macrocosm of which the idol system is the microcosm. In other words, K-pop as an industry is representative of the larger profit-driven, poverty causing, capitalist system which for most of us constitutes the word in which we live. And the ironic truth repeated through D-2 is that money and fame don’t isolate you from the hardships of the world but rather they are translated into a different set of problems.
28 is a collaboration with NiiHWA, an independent artist who is signed to Vlue Vibe Records and returns to the confessional theme with Min Yoon-gi regretful in the face of the sacrifices that were made in order to achieve global success. Now 28 (Korean age), he is facing turning 30 and of course with it, the inevitability of enlistment. The rap is much softer than on the previous two tracks, more pensive and thoughtful, and the harmonising with NiiHWA on the chorus gives us another facet to his artistry. There is a degree of nihilism here which is associated with emo-rap: “Sometimes I would burst into tears for no reason. The life I’d hope for, the life I’d wanted, just that kind of life, I don’t care how it turns out anymore.”
Burn It features MAX (Max Schneider), who is a US singer-songwriter. The contrast here is between fire and ashes where metaphorically the fire of youth has been consumed and all that is left are ashes. The next two tracks, People and Honsool are internal monologues with a transition from the self in the crowd to the self in isolation articulating the divide between the public persona and the private self. On People Min Yoon-gi questions whether he is a “good” or “bad” person, and indeed whether this matters? He again utilises natural imagery as a way of expressing emotions, here a “gentle breeze”, like the moonlight in the track of the same name, stresses the inevitability of the passage of time, the permanence of nature against the impermanence of man. While rap, along with rock, is considered one of the most macho and hypermasculine genres, here Min Yoon-gi allows himself to be vulnerable exposing emotional masculinity as a counterpart to toxic masculinity. He asks the question: “What is wrong with living like that’? Hoosool dispenses for the man in the crowd to ask questions of the self in the mirror, the self that one is left with when all the shouting stops, the self that for many of us has been only company for the last few months. The distorted, slow voice at the beginning of track can be interpreted as mimicking aurally the elongation of time. The theme of this track is the return home at the end of the day and the confrontation with the authentic self that lies under the masks that are part of our public personas. The “flow of water” here replaces the “gentle breeze” from People again insisting on the materiality of the world which will continue to exist once the self has departed. He directly addresses the unremitting schedules of the entertainment industry, talking about it as “head breaking” with little time for self-reflection. The slow beat and thoughtful lyrics here help to provide almost a time-out: a space of reflection and contemplation for both the speaker and the listener.
Photo © Big Hit Entertainment
Interlude: Set Me Free is the second shortest track on the album (28 is 20 seconds shorter). For some reason, I was reminded of The Supremes 1966 song You Keep Me Hangin’ On and expected Min Yoon-gi to follow this with “why don’t cha babe”? I can only wonder whether this intertextual reference is intentional or not, although here it refers to one’s public rather than one’s private life. The track mainly consists of the title “Set me free’ repeated 11 times. The phrase itself acts more like a question rather than as a statement and can be interpreted as an existential meditation on the nature of the self and one’s place within the Universe.
The final track Dear My Friend is one of my favourite songs on the mixtape, and one of my favourite songs released this year. On this track, Min Yoon-gi teams up with Kim Jong-wan, the lead vocalist from Korean indie band, NELL. Kim Jong-wan’s distinctive emotive tone is the perfect foil for Min Yoon-gi’s powerful rap here. The most personal and confessional of all the tracks on the mixtape, Min Yoon-gi talks about a friend from his youth, who was imprisoned for drug use, and on their release returned to their old habit. He also seems to blame himself for not being able to stop the friend taking drugs asking; “No, had I stopped you that day / To this day would we / Still be friends? How would it be?”. In this track, hate and love provide the contrast, as the rapper remembers their friendship in the early days before drugs and prison. The contradictory emotions that are evoked by these memories torture Min Yoon-gi who wonders how life would have turned out for both if things had been different: “The you I used to know and the me you used to know is gone. I know it’s not just because of time that we changed. The me you knew is gone and the you I knew is gone. It’s not just because of time that we changed and I feel so empty.”
Min Yoon-gi is, for me, one of the best contemporary rappers. It seems far too prevalent to dismiss idol rappers, both in South Korea, and in the West where “authenticity” has become mapped out into a set of codes and conventions far removed from their racial and political origin. Min Yoon-gi doesn’t pretend to be the ‘Other”, utilising a set of signifiers that are emptied in the process of appropriation as it is too common in the rap scene these days. Instead he embraces his Koreanness by employing traditional instruments and sounds as well as linguistic wordplay without fetishizing and self-orientalising both it and himself. At the same time, his music is not limited to the national, but rather partakes and extends the global dimension of contemporary Korean music.
Min Yoon-gi’s artistry is beautiful and breath-taking and seems to know no bounds. D-2 is an exploration of the multiplicity of self which has specific resonance to uncertainty of the moment that we find ourselves living in. There is a pervasive sadness which undercuts the macho bravado associated with rap and a revealing of the self in all its emotionality and vulnerability on D-2 which sets the mixtape apart from the rest. This is an album by an artist who questions whether he deserves to be called a genius. The answer is in the affirmative.
Music Video © Big Hit Entertainment
Written by Dr Colette Balmain