Since the release of the studio album BE in November 2020, BTS has released three English language singles: “Dynamite”, “Butter” and “Permission to Dance”. Proof is their first substantive album in nearly two years. Marketed as an anthology album, Proof is perhaps best understood as a ‘memory-box’, combining mementos from the past with promises of the future, documenting BTS’ journey from debut to global stardom.
The physical album is made up of three CDs and there are three new songs: “Yet To Come”, “Run BTS” and “For Youth”: one on each CD. The first CD contains all their singles starting from “NO” (2013) and finishes with their new single “Yet To Come”. The second CD begins with “Run BTS” and is comprised of unit and solo songs chosen by the members themselves. CD3 is for fans and the songs on it are not available on the streaming album. On the final CD, are demo versions of some of BTS’ most memorable songs along with an unreleased song “Young Love”, the studio version of “Tony Montana” (which appeared on Suga’s first solo mixtape Agust D) and “Quotation Mark”, a short skit by RM and Jungkook. The final song, and the conclusion of the anthology, is “For Youth” a song dedicated to BTS army which opens with fans singing “Forever Young” from their Wembley Stadium concert (2nd June 2019)). This inclusion of fan voices on the song symbolises the importance of the bond between artist and fan and BTS’ recognition of the fans’ centrality in their success.
One of the things that is constantly referred to in terms of K-pop is the industrial side of the music business. K-pop songs are often composed at Songwriting camps, with artists having little participation in the process. From the start, BTS have always been part of the song writing process, with HYBE (then Big Hit) recognising that authenticity and intimacy is best communicated by artists who write and compose their own music. Proof is a literal demonstration of this. Out of 34 tracks, there are only two in which group members have not participated in the composition of: “Dynamite” and “Permission to Dance”.
While many expected a new studio album or at the least an EP, BTS’ decision to release an anthology instead is clearly a deliberate one on behalf of the members. This is because there is enough material on the album to have released an EP by adding the unreleased “Young Love” and the skit “Quotation Mark” to the three new songs (EPs can have as little as one song and an instrumental on them). In addition, there is “Born Singer” which was only available on YouTube and SoundCloud before its inclusion on Proof. Taking this into consideration, the anthology seems to have been motivated by creative rather than financial reasons. In the promotional materials, BTS have explained that the album represents the closure of one chapter of their musical journey and opens the way for the next.
Over the three CDs, the album charts BTS’ coming of age, as both people and K-pop idols, from youthful rebellion to adult reflection, charting their path from hopeful rookies to global superstars. While “NO” comments on the struggles of teenagers against an oppressive authority in South Korea (and elsewhere), “Yet to Come” is a mediation on those struggles as well a realisation that our present contains both our past and futures selves: “Somewhere deep inside your heart / There still lives a young boy /My-y-y-y moment is yet to come / Yet to come” (2021). The lyrics stress their love for music which remains fundamentally unchanged since their rookie years through the repetition of the line “we ain’t about that” when talking about their successes. In addition, it also foregrounds the significance and importance of black music in BTS’ musical journey through a repetition with difference of a line from Kanye West’ single “Touch the Sky”: here “Uh, we gonna touch the sky, ‘fore the day we die”. In West’s song it is: ‘Fore the day you die, you gonna touch the sky (2005). “Touch the Sky” is from West’s second studio album Late Registration and is a reflection on his nearly fatal car crash. The lines may also be a reference to Rick Ross’s “Live Fast, Die Young” track featuring Kanye West (2010), so that in writing the lyrics RM is referring to West’s song, which itself is a reference back to that of Rick Ross. However we look at it, this referencing to and engagement with black culture is integral to BTS’ body of work.
The second new song, “BTS Run” also acknowledges the impact of hip-hop and R&B on K-pop, by returning to BTS’ early sound, remembering that they were introduced as a hip-hop act when they first debuted. “Born Singer” (2013) which is included on Proof is a reworking of J. Coles’ “Born Sinner” from his sophomore album of the same name. While “Born Sinner” works within a quasi-religious framework, “Born Singer” relates BTS’ desire to be known as singers rather than just idols, perhaps foregrounding the fact that singing is not necessarily the key factor in becoming a successful K-pop idol. The song begins with the following lines: “I’m a born singer, just a bit late to confess, I swear / There’s a mirage right here always far from me”. We can compare this to “Born Sinner”: “I’m a born sinner / but I’ll die better than that, I swear” and the outro: “This music shit is a gift”. In both cases, passion for music and the potential of music for transformation, spiritual, societal or subjective, is the central theme. This passion for music can be found in the songs throughout Proof, as well as in the second new song “Run BTS”.
“Run BTS” is a document of their early days as trainees, living in one small flat, not knowing whether they would debut or not, emotions shifting between despair and hope, as they ran towards an unknown future. It needs to be noted that the song takes it title from Run BTS, a reality variety show, which was launched in 2015, and consists of 156 episodes across 3 seasons. BTS’ songs are often playful in their use and abuse of language. RM’s playfulness with words, and fluency in English, clearly shows itself in “Run BTS”. Like the show, the song is a memorialisation of the past, not only in terms of the theme, but also in the multiple references to previous songs. This can clearly be seen in the bridge: “Memories crumble like dried flower petals /At the tip of my fingers, under my feet / Right behind your back / I’m chasing butterflies, so lost in dreams / I follow your traces / Show me the way, please stop me / Let me breathe.” While a new fan might not pick up some of these references, BTS Army will. Here there are direct references to “Butterfly” and “Lost” and indirect ones to “The Truth Untold” and “Sea” as well as picking up the substantive narrative from the HYYH or “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” series (2015-2016).
This linguistic play can also be seen on “Quotation Mark” and is a clear demonstration of RM’s ability to play with language, through an understanding of the vagaries of translation, as well as again representing BTS’ hip hop roots. This is the first unit song by RM and Jungkook. Rather than being straightforward, “Quotation Mark” uses language to obscure rather than reveal meaning. On the surface, it is a song to a lover, but it is actually about the deceptive nature of love and language. Grammatical terms are used throughout to emphasis language as a shifting marker of meaning: “Emphasize like an exclamation mark, not a question of doubt, but a word of sincerity / Courage is a double quote, I want it, ha ha”. In this one sentence, we have two direct references to punctuation and one indirect. If this song is a confession, what is it a confession of and to whom is the confession made? This playfulness and poetic use of language is one of BTS’ authorial features and marks them out from other idols in the industry. Multilingualism allows this playfulness as the writer understands how it will translate in other languages. It also makes BTS’ songs still retain their meaning and poetic nature through translation, despite its vagaries.
Alongside the new tracks, the demos on CD3 are a revelation. We do not often get to see the progression of a song from demo through to polished release. We might get a snippet on YouTube in a compilation video, but rarely do we get a glimpse into the story of a song from beginning through to fruition. In addition, we also see what the songs could have been if they had taken a different route. JHope’s “DNA” and V’s “Spring Day” are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, evoking an uncanniness. Stripped back, Jin’s “Epiphany” is possibly more beautiful than the final version while Jungkook’s acapella version of “Still With You” shows what an accomplished and emotional singer he has grown to be.
For BTS, as for all of us, the last few years have been a hiatus : a comma in our life stories, which seemed like a full stop at times. It has given the group time to reflect on their lives as musicians and on where they want their careers to develop in the future, as individual artists and as a group. The album is reflective of that process. It also shows their diversity: “Yet To Come” is a melodramatic ballad, “Run BTS” is a fast-paced hip-hop song, while “For Youth” is a combination of both and a promise of things to come. The acknowledgement in these songs of the indebtedness to black culture, is also central. Too often K-pop and K Hip-hop reduces rap to the surface whereby swag becomes a meaningless signifier of “coolness” rather than an expression of defiance in the face of oppression by people growing up in a segregated US in which the colour of their skin was constitutive of their identity as inferior as well as a mechanism of criminalisation. In addition, the understanding that life is not a race to the finish with death as the ultimate limit but rather something to be enjoyed through being alive in the present is an important message. Many East Asian cultures and some Western ones fetishise youth, thereby pathologising adulthood and in the process implying that one’s beauty and therefore one’s value depreciate with age. Proof offers an alternative message that our “best is yet to come” irrespective of age. Given that for a substantial number of people youth is not a golden time in their lives, this is an important message of hope and healing.
There is something in this anthology for everybody: for fans who too often have lamented the shifts in BTS’ style over the years, including those who have critiqued BTS’ English crossover songs, for fans who only know BTS through those crossover songs, and also for anyone who is interested in why the band has been so successful. It is a diary, an intimate reflection on the process of growing up as a musician in the idol K-pop industry, charting both the struggles and the successes. It is in the final analysis a love letter, something to be cherished, a memory box for the future, cementing in place their legacy. And at the same time, a promise “that the best is yet to come”.
Written by Dr. Colette Balmain
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts, and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.
Loved this review – thanks for all the details…