Art doesn’t come from someone who takes the shortcut. Only by taking the longest and most strenuous path can art send forth its fragrance. Truth is only realized and expressed through suffering.Yun Hyong Keun
Strictly speaking, Indigo is not Namjoon’s first solo album, as prior to this he had released two free mixtapes, RM (2015) and Mono (2018), available through streaming and digital download. More precisely, it is his first official solo album. While RM was Namjoon as a teenager, finding his way in life and the music industry, Mono showed a more introspective, less heavy-handed, and more meditative young man. Indigo shares much with Mono in that it is a poetic reflection on the duplicity of identity as a performer, the struggles, the alienation and the loss of normalcy. That being said, Indigo is perhaps more hopeful, less troubled and there are rays of sunshine dissipating the downpour of emotions that lay at the heart of Mono.
Of the ten tracks on the album, eight have featured artists: “Yun” (Erykah Badu), “Still Life” (Anderson .Paak), “All Day” (Tablo of Epic High), “Forg_tful” (Kim Sa-wol), “Closer” (Paul Blanco and Mahalia), “Hectic” (Colde), the single “Wild Flower” (Youjeen of Cherry Heart) and “No.2” (Park Ji-yoon). This leaves “Change Pt.2” and “Lonely” as the only solos and these two tracks are significantly in the middle of the tracklist. Namjoon has worked with Tablo, Anderson .Paak and Colde before, the rest are new collaborators, all of whom bring something rich and meaningful to the layered tracks on Indigo. The genres that the featured artists span include rap and hip-hop, R&B, neo-Soul, rock, folk and dance: each track sees Namjoon experimenting with a different one. All of the ten tracks are written or co-written by Namjoon demonstrating the breadth and intricacy of his artistry.
The first track, “Yun” starts with a quote from Yun Hyong Keun (1928-2007) one of Korea’s most fêted artists of the Dansaekhwa art movement which drew its inspiration from nature and which was inspired by another important Korean artist, Kim Jeong-hui, epigraphist, calligrapher and scholar. The Dansaekhwa art movement was the opposite of Western minimalism, insisting on materiality and embodiment in nature. Yun Hyong Keun is noted for his monochromatic paintings which offer continuity with Korea’s sumuk-hwa (ink-wash paintings) which attempted to capture vitality through tactility, symbolizing growth and concomitant transformation. Given BTS’ connect project of 2018, it comes as no surprise that Namjoon would draw on Korea’s creative and cultural history in his solo debut. It could be said that the inspiration for Mono is sumuk-hwa painting as water is the dominant metaphor as an expression of the ephemeral nature of existence in the playlist.
The shift to Indigo can be best understood as a shift from black and white of ink wash paintings to color, albeit shades of blue, and a shift from one art movement to another. While calligraphy is about perfection through the precision of the brush stroke, Yun’s work was about the imprecise, the act of creating as an eternal becoming: a philosophy wherein the work of art seeks to engage the viewer in a dialogue about life, humanity and the uncertainty of being. It is significant, therefore, that the first words spoken on Indigo are not Namjoon’s but rather Yun’s (through a recording of his voice): “I’m saying that the truth is the one you should hold onto until the day you die / it’s the human essence to seek truth, goodness, and beauty / It’s the sincerity in truth, the moral goodness, and the beauty / But in my opinion, you have it all when you have the truth”. The first track scaffolds the ensuing songs, providing a framework of interpretation, in which the purpose of Indigo is to hold onto the truth of being, despite the arduous years as a trainee separated from the family, and then as a member of BTS, arguably the biggest group in the world, and the recent choice of the members to take a break and focus on solo work, and not forgetting personal and national commitments. The hurt from the past is evident here as Namjoon speaks of “dancing with no-one watching me”. Erykah Badu’s distinctive voice, often categorised as falling within neo-soul, is utilised as an instrument of experience; she started out as a dancer and rapper before finding her true expression within soul music. Her lyrics drawn from an experience frame and provide a mirror through which Namjoon attempts to understand himself and his place in the music industry: the rhyming of sadness with madness in Badu’s verse touches on the struggle of an artist in a culture of disposable music.
For the second track “Still Life”, Namjoon calls on the service of Anderson .Paak, noted R&B musician and drummer, who he previously collaborated with as a member of BTS. Again the song draws on an analogy with painting as it mediates on the contradictory nature of the still life which provides a document that something was once alive or existed. Namjoon uses his lyricism to play on the words: still life becomes ‘still / life’ or still alive: “a still object that keeps on moving / My flower keeps on blooming”. The lyrics talk about wanting to escape from the frame, from the weight of expectations, to find a place to “calmly live”. The third track “All Day” sees Namjoon team up with Tablo of Epik High, who went through similar experiences to Namjoon (and arguably worse ones) when the group first debuted. The song stresses the need to find one’s original self within a society wherein the copy and the simulacra predominate: “Artificial intelligence needs to get lost, fuck the algorithm / I need to get lost in meditation, fuck all the rhythm / Giving me no time to think is my biorhythm / When will I get to write my own poem”. K-POP with its rigid rules and expectations make it very difficult for idols to express themselves freely, especially if through that expression they would challenge these rules and expectations. Here Namjoon’s struggle for self-determination as an artist mirrors that of Tablo, and both their verses make reference to the other with Tablo’s verse a promise of liberation: “Burn it up, what are you afraid of / Get yo ass off the bench, start warmin’ up / We gotta fight when they say “Behave!” / We got dynamite in our DNA”. Later Namjoon responds: “Whatever the world says, we fly high up” – a reference to Epik High’s track ‘fly high’ as well as a self-reflexive nod to his role as Namjoon in BTS and co-composer of the recent BTS’ single “The Best is Yet to Come” which intertextually references Kanye West’s ‘Touch the Sky”. In both these cases, the word ‘fly’ functions as a metaphor for liberation from societal restraints as well as for overcoming traumatic events.
The fourth track “Forg_tful” brings together Namjoon with Kim Sa-wol, a folk singer, who debuted just a year after BTS. Written when he was 26 in 2016, just as BTS was about to explode into mega-stardom, the song highlights the traumatic feelings of the time, when BTS’ success was met with hate not only from fans of other groups, but a substantial section of the media at home and abroad. The pace of this song is slower and more meditative, contrasting with the angst of the lyrics. Namjoon’s voice is more soulful and less angry, the only accompaniment is a guitar and whistling is used to transition to Kim Sa-wol’s verse which helps to maintain the soulful vibe. The lyrics engage with Namjoon’s well-known forgetfulness, here used as a metaphor for the importance of forgetting in order to move on in life and not remain locked in the past: “Right we all just forget, and move on”, each of us finding our own way to “numb” ourselves”.
The fifth track “Closer” is a collaboration with Paul Blanco and Mahalia. A love song, of love found then lost, it continues with the slower pace of “Forg_tful”, the layering of the voices, adding depth and passion. There is a direct reference to Adele in the lyrics: “keep me rollin’ in the deep, yeah”. Adele’s “Rollin in the Deep” from her second album was her international breakthrough and saw her propelled to global stardom. This purposeful recycling of lyrics from Adele’s break-up song foregrounds the universality of heartache. It stresses the humanity that Namjoon is seeking to find in order to be an artist. The post-break-up songs that follow “Change Pt.2” and “Lonely”, the only solo tracks, express Namjoon’s loneliness and desire to change, and draw a line under the past. While “Change Pt.2” might seem to be the sequel to Namjoon’s single with Wale from 2017, it is in fact a reference to Chapter Two of BTS, wherein the members are able to work on solo projects as well as fulfilling South Korea’s mandatory military duty. In this track, Namjoon seems to be riffing off “everythinggoes”: one of the songs of Mono in which he finds comfort in life’s continual transformations: “Things change, people change / Everything changes”. The “great grief” he alludes to in the Outro is never specified, beyond the need to move on from it and not look back in anger. Following this is “Lonely” which begins: “I’m fuckin’ lonely / I’m alone on this island / So fuckin’ lonely / Somebody call me” and ends with “Somebody love me”. The angst and anger are clear here, the disconnection that the life of an idol can lead to, a series of hotel rooms in foreign countries, far away from home and family.
Track 8 sees Namjoon reunite with Colde for “Hectic”, a song about the fast pace of modern life, of being surrounded by people with “nothing to talk about”, an “awkward smile on [his] face”. Later on in the song, he mediates on “The feeling of dying for another day”, which can be translated as choosing to live for another day, reminiscent of Sartre’s existentialism. Despite Namjoon’s insistence in interviews that Indigo is ultimately a hopeful album, the lyrics: “I who doesn’t want to get lost anymore / Please save me”, suggest the opposite.
Track 9 is the lead single “Wild Flower” with Youjeen, a rock singer and part of the group Cherry Filter. With the exception of the collaboration with Erykah Badu, this is for me, the most interesting combination. Youjeen gives the chorus the gravitas that it requires, in a way that reminds me of Evanescence’s hit “Bring Me to Life”, and the contrast between the vocals of Amy Lee and the rap of Paul McCoy. In both cases, this contrast produces something which is much more than the sum of its parts. The title of the song is wordplay contrasting “wild flowers” (flowers of nature) with “fireworks” (flowers of flame). The song begins: “Flower field that’s where I am at”. The later “I wished to be a flower of fire” is the opposite to the beginning, and comes across as a lament. The different inflexions and tonal changes from Namjoon mimic this doubling, rising to a crescendo in the chorus: “Gonna scatter across that sky / Light a flower, flowerwork / Flower, flowerwork / Gonna shine across that sky / Light a flower, flowerwork /Flower, flowerwork”. This shifting between the earth (nature) and fire (passion) foregrounds the struggle that is an every day for Namjoon in an industry that much of the time stifles creativity and originality. The reference to death in the Outro seem to be both a promise and a threat.
For the final track, “No.2”, Namjoon teams up with Park Ji-yoon. Park Ji-yoon is perhaps most well-known for her album Coming of Age Ceremony which was released under JYP. The title track and music video were criticised at the time for being too provocative. In 2016, Park Jimin and Jeon Jungkook, performed a dance cover of the track for the annual Festa to celebrate their own coming of age (20 is the coming of age in South Korea). Again Namjoon brings in someone who shares his experiences of the K-POP industry, in order to focus on the promise of the future: “No lookin’ back, no / No lookin’ back / Now you’ll be protecting yourself’.
Indigo is an accomplished piece of work from a relatively young artist, bearing in mind that Namjoon has been in the music industry since 2008. Despite his protestations about the album as being one of hope, the sadness outweighs the happiness: repeated references to death, to isolation, to loneliness; and the need to forget in order to move forward are telling of indelible trauma that 10 years in the K-POP industry have left on Namjoon’s psyche. It can only be hoped that time heals these scars and that the past no longer becomes an albatross weighing him down. While diversity and inclusivity tend to be addressed in contemporary society with little more than lip service, Namjoon demonstrates the way in which it should be done, through the variety of artists that he collaborates with on the album alongside the range of producers, whose experiences are not negated but held up to the light in order to reclaim a common humanity that is productive rather than reductive. There is little doubt that Namjoon is an artist to be reckoned with and while many of the best albums are drawn in pain, it is to be hoped that life becomes lighter for him as he enters his 30s.
Written by Dr Colette Balmain
MVs © BIGHIT MUSIC
*Big thank you to https://doolsetbangtan.wordpress.com/indigo/ for the translation of the lyrics.
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 / K-music and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.