While Jack In The Box is J-Hope’s first solo album, it is not his first outing without the other BTS’ members. On 2nd March 2018, the triple threat (rapper, dancer, vocalist) released his debut mixtape, Hope World, which peaked on the Billboard 200 at 38, despite being a free mixtape, available on SoundCloud as well as directly from Big Hit’s website. This followed RM’s first mixtape released on 20th March 2015, and Agust D’s (Suga’s) on 15th August 2016. However, none of these were readily available in South Korea and were promoted as informal side projects rather than formal individual ones. Moreover, while most of the songs on Hope World depicted J-Hope as being inherently vivacious and cheerful, with “Blue Side”, being the main exception, Jack In The Box is more personal, rawer, and perhaps, less hopeful. The album is made up of ten songs, including the pre-release single “More”, an instrumental, “Music Box: Reflection”, just over mid-way through, and the single “Arson” which is the last track. Only available via streaming services, the focus in Jack In The Box is on artistry and musicality, stripping back the shiny exterior of the idol, for an introspective journey into selfhood, and identity within and without BTS.
As the first two songs on Jack In The Box detail, Jung Hoseok’s stage name, J-Hope, was decided on pre-debut, in order to cement his place in the group as the happy, hope[ful] one. In concerts and on stage, J-Hope has come to introduce himself in the following manner: “I’m your hope, you’re my hope, I’m J-Hope”, referring to the symbiotic relationship between BTS and their fans, ARMY, thereby positioning himself as the shiny, bright member. In the spoken “Intro” to Jack In The Box, a female voice introduces us to the myth behind the man by recounting the story of Pandora, whose despair at the opening of the box (which had been forbidden by Zeus), is only assuaged by hope, described as “a small, bright, most beautiful creature” who “gave people the will to carry on living amidst the pain and strife”. In the subsequent track, “Pandora’s Box”, J-Hope describes the birth (burden) of his moniker, “They call me hope / Do you know why I am hope? / Pandora’s history, that’s my birth / The sincerity of the sacred heart given to man by great gods / The ray of light that is left in the Pandora box / Put it into a pure-hearted boy / Till the end, framed to become Bangtan’s hope”. This can be seen in his referring to his mixtape, Hope World, as something which was inevitable. The lyrics also reference the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher, 2008) alongside the story of the frog in the well”, from the Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of Taoism, which is also a well-known idiom in South Korea. While Benjamin Button, like Philip K Dick’s Counter-Clock World, deals with time going backwards, an old man becomes a child, a reversal of normality, the story of the frog in the well warns us against narrow-mindedness as in the failure to understand our place in the world around us. Cleverly J-Hope uses the chorus to make a transition from the luminous hope of Pandora’s box to Jack (the devil trapped in the box). Indeed, the Jack in the Box origin story is perhaps the opposite of that of hope. Jack in the Box in folklore tells of the incarceration of the devil who is fooled by a Catholic saint, John Schorne, when he promises his sole (soul) to the devil in exchange for wonderful magical powers. The song concludes: “Jack in the box / Pandora’s hand / The last hope / Jack in the box”. Like Schrödinger’s cat, it is impossible to know what is in the box, unless you open it.
The third track, and pre-release single, “More”, moves onto the process of creation, the artistic impulse, more goth-emo than idol rap, referencing the surrealistic work of the Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, whose paintings mapped the unconscious thoughts and dreams of the self-drawing on the work of Sigmund Freud. Indeed, the lyrics directly refer to the painter: “Drunk in the artistic painting, keep hypin’ up Dali”, while the music video pays homage to Dali’s most famous work “The Persistence of Memory”. By doing so, “More” formalises the thematic concern of the mechanics of subjectification, the acknowledgement of the vulnerability of the self to the other, a necessary process through which all subjects must go. If J-Hope wants ‘more’, it is a desire rooted in the understanding that fame is ephemeral but artistry is perpetual. The vibe itself is old skool hip-hop, the water imagery in the lyrics doubles for the flow of the rap itself. The tempo escalates as the song moves towards the crescendo of the chorus and the electric guitar kicks in. The lyrics in the second half of “More”, self-reflexively refer to the musical processes of the song itself: “snare drums”, “hit that” and “drive to the beat”, mimicking the rapper’s flow while at the same time mediating on inevitable criticism of one’s art or “feedback” as a necessary part of the art of artistic creation.
This is followed by “Stop”, the subtitle of which is ‘There are no bad people in the world”. The lyrics mediate on the nature of good and bad, in our deeply divided society. With voice-over sample provided by Tim Chantarangsu, “Stop” is perhaps the most ‘hopeful’ track on the album. J-Hope calls for a contextual understanding of why people behave in what seems to be an inhumane manner. The lyrics move from: “Actions of humans are worse than brutes / It is so dirty, so foul / I wonder if they call themselves human” to “Look at them again / Living environment, education, system / What is different from mine?” Unlike the previous three tracks, “Stop” is more didactic and represents a moving outwards from self, reaching towards the other, the marginalised, the unrecognised, the criminalised. The belief in the transformative power of love, or perhaps empathy, is asserted at the end: “Because small beginnings can make huge steps / The world is changing because there are no bad people”. There is a natural thematic progression from “Stop” to “Equal Sign” which again mediates on the importance of change, asking “Why is being different a sin? / Beyond age / Beyond gender”. While this can be understood as a commentary on the racism and xenophobia that BTS have faced throughout their careers, it is also an explicit critique of hate crimes committed because of perceived differences.
In the visualiser for the song, the symbols for man and woman flash up on the screen, before being combined into the sign for trans/intersex/nonbinary people. Since the 1970s, the combined male and female symbol has been used for members of the LGBTQ community whose identity does not fit into rigid gender binaries. The equal sign is also the logo of the Human Rights campaign, which has been in use since 1995 and is synonymous with the fight for equality. Further, the equal sign was used in 2013 on social media as a show of support for same-sex marriage. “Equal Sign” encapsulates BTS’ message of self-love as well as the humanity of all people while being much more explicit in its meaning through the combination of word and image, remembering that marginalised people in South Korea face societal discrimination on a day-to-day basis.
The sixth track “Music Box: Reflection”, performed by P Dogg, brings a third type of box into the mix, the music box, the first automatic device capable of playing a preprogrammed tune, which would later be largely replaced by the record player. Unlike many K-pop records, this is an instrumental with a purpose, and not something merely tacked onto the end of the album. This also marks a transitional point between the past, present, and future.
“What if” asks what the future-tense J-Hope would feel if all his achievements and accolades were to suddenly disappear (or perhaps be forgotten in the fullness of time). When you have everything, what about your dreams and hopes? J-Hope’s lyrics are self-reflective: “You have everything now / Money, glory, fortune, even followed by people you like / Can you still tell [people/yourself] to love [yourself/oneself] and have hope / If it means all of those things will be taken from you / And you’ll be at the bottom? (I wish)”. At the heart of “What If” is a song weighed down by sadness and loss where animals are the only constant companions whose fidelity is assured. Further “What If’ continues the homage and engagement with old skool hip-hop. It samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ (1995). One of the founders of the Wu-Tang Clan, the rapper’s irreverent and innovative style, somewhere between singing and rapping, and his politics of class and race, has influenced many with “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” having been sampled and referenced 92 times as of 2020. While ODB’s song continues to reverberate in contemporary popular culture, it is significant that the song itself sampled the work of another prolific and important African-American star, Richard Pryor. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” uses a phrase of Pryor’s from “Have Your Ass Home By 11:00 pm” (1974), a comedic story about a young man whose attempts to get laid are continually thwarted, partly because as one of the girls tells him “You can’t even sing”. It becomes the first line of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”: “Oh fuck, you can’t even sing”. The sampling of ODB’s infamous song in “What If” draws a circular connection between African American culture and South Korean popular music. As such, it acknowledges the centrality of black music in the popularity of contemporary K-pop and its importance in the development of the genre. It also draws a personal connection between J-Hope and ODB in terms of their rap styles, their ability to avoid the conventions of rap, and subvert the rules of flow including that of vocal pitch.
“Safety Zone” is the eighth song on the album and shows J-Hope at his most vulnerable. While fame might seem to be a multi-splendored thing, it comes at a heavy price, as evidenced here. The old skool hip-hop vibe is replaced by a smoother R&B groove. The song asks the whereabouts of a safe zone, a place of safety and familiarity, perhaps an escape from the humdrum and hubris of idol life, where friendships are fleeting, and trust fragile. Is it home? And where is home? If not friends, then is it family? What about familial and societal duties? What is the self, the I, the breathing, living person? This is followed by the thoughtful “Future” in which J-Hope tackles the notion of a future yet uncharted in comparison to the regime of his idol training and performances with BTS. Again he uses the word ‘flow’ in reference to ‘going with the flow’ as well as the flow of his rap. He also uses ‘rhythm’ as a lyrical device as a reference to cadence, ‘rhythm’ (in the lyrics with reference to positivity), and the rise and fall of vocals which J-Hope uses effectively throughout the album. While the future is uncertain, one thing that is certain is there is no stopping the temporal flow of time, or becoming Benjamin Button whose life reveals itself in reverse.
The final song “Arson” and the official single, uses the imagery of fire (something which has been used both throughout BTS’ career and within the individual works of the members). ‘Fire’ as a term in rap slang is ubiquitous and as an adjective refers to something which is dope or amazing, or is used in reference to a rapper who ‘spits fire’ in their delivery. In US rap, it has particular significance in terms of gun culture, but here, it is used in the former meaning. Arson also has a double meaning, on one hand, it refers to the crime, or setting things on fire metaphorically with the rap. Here, J-Hope utilises it in this dual sense, as a crime against [polite] society and as a self-reflexive reference to his rap. While the album begins with the ‘birth’ of J-Hope, as the sunshine member of BTS, it ends with his rebirth, in his own terms: If anyone asks me / “Right, I lit the flame” / Now I ask myself, choose what / Do I put out the fire, or burn even brighter, yah, yah, yah, yah / (Arson).”
Jack In The Box is an accomplished album from an accomplished rapper. It is an introspective look inside as change beckons and J-Hope begins his individual journey, which will be carried out in tandem, with that of BTS. Here, he deals with the expectations that come with adopting a certain role in an idol group, and the restrictions associated with it. To conclude using another box as a metaphor, Jack In The Box is like a Chinese box, a set of nested boxes. In the gothic, a Chinese box structure is used to refer to a frame narrative, in which a narrative inside a narrative, allows the voicing of different perspectives. Here, J-Hope’s different personas meet in a dialogue about the future, which is unknowable, except for the surety that it will be fire.
Jack In The Box has considerable appeal for a wider audience outside of BTS’ ARMY. In the album, J-Hope demonstrates that he is a multi-talented rapper whose flow and style offer a distinctive voice, bridging the gap between Korean popular music and Western rap with authenticity and sincerity. His is a voice that deserves to be heard.
Written by Dr Colette Balmain
*Music Videos © 2022 BigHit Entertainment
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