Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss BTS' Historic Debut Week For 'Map of the Soul: Persona'
Another album, another set of chart milestones for BTS. The world-conquering K-pop group moves 230,000 equivalent album units of their latest set Map of the Soul: Persona this week, marking both the fourth-best first week for any album so far in 2019, and the group's third No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in 11 months -- placing them in some pretty historic company.
It's not just the BB 200 where the group's chart impact is felt this week, either: They also score their highest-charting debut on the Billboard Hot 100 for their Halsey collab "Boy With Luv," whose No. 8 bow marks the all-time peak for any K-pop group on the listing. (The set also notches a No. 95 bow for "Make It Right," making them the first K-pop group with two simultaneous hits on the chart.)
Which of these chart accomplishments is the biggest of the bunch? And where does the group go from here? Five Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.
1. Which achievement from BTS' Map of the Soul: Persona debut week do you find the most impressive?
Eric Frankenberg: The quick succession of No. 1 albums stands out to me. Teen pop acts have always had quick turnover – One Direction released one album each year, same for Britney Spears at the beginning of her career, almost the same for BSB and *NSYNC. But three albums in under a year, with each one out-performing the previous release, is proof of how hard these guys are working and how rapidly American audiences are warming to BTS -- as well as to a load of other non-English-language acts.
Gab Ginsberg: Having the fourth-highest first-week numbers of the year impresses me the most, since the other accomplishments (while also great) are mainly just BTS breaking their own records. Being in the company of acclaimed American artists Ariana Grande, Backstreet Boys and Billie Eilish is no small feat. Also, 196,000 of that 230k sum is in pure album sales (with 173,000 in physical), a height that is increasingly harder to achieve in the streaming economy without tour or merch bundles.
Jason Lipshutz: Definitely the first-week numbers, considering that Map of the Soul: Persona was able to secure mind-boggling first-week streaming totals with only seven songs on its track list. A slew of shorter projects released in less than a year’s time can result in multiple No. 1 albums, but the fact that this debut number ranks among 2019’s best demonstrates that the hunger for new BTS music has grown instead of waned. Imagine if Map of the Soul: Persona had included a bloated track list, or even a standard length! BTS could potentially have been looking at the biggest bow of the young year.
Ross Scarano: Album sales. It’s not surprising at this point but the BTS ARMY shows up and shows out. With 196,000 album units sold, Map of the Soul: Persona put up the second-biggest album sales figure of the year. The group sold more albums than Billie Eilish -- hard to see that as anything but proof of the ARMY's commitment to the success of the group. There’s a sports analogy to be made here, in terms of diehard fandom, but I’ll leave it to someone else.
Andrew Unterberger: Yeah, it's gotta be the sales -- though let's not overlook the No. 8 Hot 100 debut for "Boy With Luv." Yes, having Halsey and her track record of major Hot 100 success certainly helps, but even her recent No. 1 hit "Without Me" only debuted at No. 18 on the chart.
2. While other BTS singles ("Fake Love," "Idol") have had impressive debuts on the Hot 100, they haven't managed to climb or really have extended runs in the chart's top tier. Will "Boy With Luv" be the first?
Eric Frankenberg: Yes. “Boy With Luv” is already trending toward becoming the group’s biggest radio hit stateside. The overall progress BTS has made in the US, the song’s hook, and Halsey’s involvement all play a part in what I think will be a “hit” in the traditional sense. But I’m also not sure how much it matters? Three No. 1 albums in under a year, sold-out stadium shows worldwide, and inclusion on the Time 100 seems like enough to convince anyone that BTS is among the most important acts in the world, despite not having any four-quadrant smashes to their name. At this rate, they’ll be on to their next Top 10 hit and No. 1 album in no time anyway.
Gab Ginsberg: Seems likely, thanks to a certain pop singer, who has already had a solo No. 1 hit in 2019 and twelve total entries on the Hot 100 throughout her career. Radio is one of the only American institutions that BTS has yet to crack, but they might finally get that break, especially since Halsey is essentially a magnet for it. Likewise, the collaboration queen has made one of her smartest moves yet by teaming with BTS, who have surely helped her gain new international attention.
Jason Lipshutz: It depends on whether or not Halsey’s presence on the song will help ingratiate it to U.S. radio. BTS obviously connects with fans through streaming platforms, digital and physical retail, but Top 40 is a format the boy band has yet to dominate, or even make a dent. Blame it on the language barrier, but the past two years of Spanish-English bilingual smashes have certainly extinguished that excuse to some degree. The good news for BTS is that Halsey has developed into one of the more reliable pop radio presences in all of music -- she already has two inescapable singles this year in “Without Me” and “Eastside” -- and “Boy With Luv” is a stronger radio offering than “Fake Love” or “Idol.” If the format accepts “Boy With Luv,” be prepared for a prolonged top 10 run on the Hot 100.
Ross Scarano: It could. For much of the year, the top ten of the Hot 100 has been static, meaning it’s a great time for this collab to break through. I don’t know that it's the strongest single in the group’s history; sometimes, the timing is just right.
Andrew Unterberger: I'll be a little less bullish here and say that while I could see the song lingering around the chart's top 40 for some time, I think No. 8 might be as high as it gets. As much of a sure thing as Halsey is on pop radio, programmers don't seem to have tired of "Without Me" or "Eastside" yet, and her presence on those songs is much more pronounced than it is on "Boy With Luv" anyway. I also just don't think the single is one of the group's most interesting, or really displays their strengths as much as the rest of Persona. But even if this isn't the hit that makes BTS unavoidable on U.S. airwaves, I could see it clearing the way for the one that eventually does.
3. If you had to choose a track on Map of the Soul: Persona besides "Boy With Luv" to help a non-fan get into BTS, which would you choose?
Eric Frankenberg: “Make it Right” was the most immediately catchy track on the album, but I’m most intrigued by “Dionysus.” While “Boy With Luv” thematically and musically fits within one’s expectations of traditional boy band music, “Dionysus” is weird. It crosses into stadium-rock territory, but in a much more… alternative?... way than the adult contemporary style of One Direction’s later albums. BTS has evolved from album to album and embraced a genre-agnostic spirit that is unique among their boy band brethren. Their willingness to experiment could surprise someone who hasn’t been paying close attention.
Gab Ginsberg: "Mikrokosmos" stands out to me as one of the more sweetly melodic cuts on Map of the Soul: Persona, but there’s also the upbeat “Home,” which serves up a great taste of the group’s rapping skills. Yes, I know that’s two. Honestly, carve out 26 minutes and just listen to the whole thing.
Jason Lipshutz: There are more impressive moments on the album than “Make It Right,” such as the ultra-ambitious closer “Dionysus” and the dynamic “Home,” but “Make It Right” is the answer to this question because Ed Sheeran co-wrote it, it sounds like Ed Sheeran co-wrote it, and a lot of people like Ed Sheeran. Seriously, the gentle rhythmic pop of the song sounds like it was lifted straight out of ÷, and that hook would appeal to someone who doesn’t even know how to spell K-pop. BTS has a strong global voice, but they can be chameleons when they want to be, and “Make It Right” showcases the group shapeshifting into the style of one of the pop’s most successful songwriters.
Ross Scarano: “Make It Right.” It’s a stand-out from the first listen, even if you aren’t familiar with its pedigree. The chorus -- sung partially in English -- wouldn’t be out of place on one of *NSYNC’s more R&B leaning tracks, and even the repeated horn-synth is catchy, delicious. Makes sense that Ed Sheeran has a writing credit. He brought the blue-eyed soul here.
Andrew Unterberger: Probably "Intro: Persona," actually, just because it's so unexpected to hear the group rapping over hard-hitting guitars and squeaking soul samples. It demonstrates perhaps the group's greatest overall attribute, and also the thing that ties them to most of the best boy bands in history: their confidence in leading the way with whatever musical styles they feel like rocking with.
4. It seems like just about everyone in the music industry now wants to get their own piece of BTS mania. If you could choose one current English-language artist for the group to collaborate with on their next album, who would it be?
Eric Frankenberg: I’d love to see BTS get in the studio (and beyond) with Grimes. She already dipped her toe in the K-pop pond with last year’s Loona collaboration and could lend BTS a hand in further pushing their hooky singles into bizarre sonic territory. She’s willing to do weird stuff with her voice (screaming, for instance) and her production incorporates many different styles, not unlike the versatility BTS has displayed. Imagining them inside the world of “Kill V Maim” or “Venus Fly” is exciting, if nothing else. Further, a Grimes-directed music video featuring their tight choreography and friendly charisma would be a dream.
Gab Ginsberg: Billie Eilish seems like a no-brainer, and the band said they’d love to work with her in a recent interview. But apart from that, I would love to see the group take a break from super familiar names -- past collaborators such as Halsey, The Chainsmokers, Steve Aoki and Nicki Minaj are all great, but now that BTS is so huge both at home and across border lines, they have the opportunity to lift up smaller talented artists, too. Kehlani (who RM has shouted-out) would be awesome, or rising pop singer Allie X, who has written for Troye Sivan (another BTS fave). That being said, I would live for a Demi Lovato collaboration. Please.
Jason Lipshutz: We need a BTS-Drake collaboration. Search your feelings -- you know it to be true. The biggest pop group on the planet paired with the biggest hip-hop artist of the decade, who’s proven the pristine collaborator, in and out of the English language, time and again? Even if the song is a mess, it’s a mess that everyone on this planet will need to hear. Jungkook, Jimin, Suga, V, RM, J-Hope, Jin, Aubrey: listen up, boys. Form like Voltron. Break the Internet.
Ross Scarano: There’s no real reason for this to happen, and not much historical precedent, but fuck it: Tyler, the Creator. His music has grown more and more ornate, more interested in combining voices (Rex Orange County, Anna of the North) and playing with sweet pop chords -- to say nothing of the subversive qualities of letting him toy with a boy band. If BTS wants to really stand out from the restrictive parameters of k-pop production -- in every sense of the word -- Tyler would blow everything up and open for them. What would the fans think?
Andrew Unterberger: Too on the nose to say BROCKHAMPTON? Whatever: There might not be a stage big enough to support a collaboration this literally and metaphorically massive, but let's get the combined 20 (!!!) members of the two groups together for a little East/West throwdown and just see what happens. You wanna be considered the best boy band in the world, you gotta play against the best.
5. Which of the three milestones happens first for BTS: a Grammy nomination (as performers), a U.S. festival headlining slot, or a Hot 100 No. 1 hit?
Eric Frankenberg: I think they’ll receive a major Grammy nomination and headline a U.S. festival at some point, but since most 2019 festival lineups have already been announced, I’ll say the Grammy nomination will come first. They presented at this year’s telecast and Halsey’s contribution to “Boy With Luv” to their latest hit could help bridge the gap for any voters hesitant to embrace Korean-language pop. They’re a rare act in today’s contemporary landscape that could make people who wouldn’t otherwise watch the Grammys, watch the Grammys. Plus, SNL often forecasts major Grammy breakthroughs (Adele says “hello”), and their recent appearance created enough buzz to get them over the edge come the December nominations announcement.
Gab Ginsberg: I do think “Boy With Luv” has a decent shot at No. 1, so I’ll go with that. But a headlining slot at Coachella or Governors Ball next year seems inevitable, too. BLACKPINK proved there's an appetite for K-pop at mainstream music festivals, and BTS would totally bring it.
Jason Lipshutz: My prediction is a Grammy nomination, but I do think all three could very well happen in the next 12 months. “Boy With Luv” could hit the top of the Hot 100 if it finds a radio audience, and don’t think that Coachella’s organizers weren’t paying attention to BLACKPINK's rapturous reception at this year’s festival and aren’t at least considering BTS at the top of next year’s lineup. But considering the strong quality of their output and their international success, it’s not hard to imagine the Recording Academy giving the boys a proper nomination, after bestowing their art director with a nod last year. While a Grammy nomination for a K-pop group would be groundbreaking, BTS has shattered barriers throughout their entire career — why stop now?
Ross Scarano: A headlining slot. At last year’s Billboard Music Awards, I had the pleasure of hearing the ARMY sing along to BTS during their show-stopping performance. They were louder than the group; their energy felt almost destabilizing, like I was at risk of being subsumed in the frenzy. I had no point of reference for it. Someone much older than me mentioned Beatlemania, which sounds preposterous, but maybe it isn’t. Just the mention of the group’s name had the fans redlining -- they nearly drowned out the voices of the presenters at times. True, they don’t have that chart-topping single yet, but all the same festival bookers should want this band on the lineup, and in a slot that’s commensurate with the force of its fandom.
Andrew Unterberger: The headlining slot. Think the Grammy and No. 1 are both still at least one more album away, and in the meantime there's just too many festivals for one of 'em not to bet on the ARMY putting their ticket sales over the top. It's time.