Even at a length of seven songs and 26 minutes, the new BTS album, Map of the Soul: Persona, was always going to be too big to fail.
The K-pop group is an international phenomenon with a growing fan base in the United States. Map of the Soul: Persona, the follow-up to last year’s Billboard 200-topping Love Yourself: Answer, received a high-profile rollout, with a landmark performance on Saturday Night Live on Apr. 13, preceded by a stadium tour announcement, multiple social media teasers that stirred up the group’s fanatical online community, and an official music video for “Boy With Luv,” their new collaboration with Halsey.
Speaking of which, the American pop star’s entrance into BTS’s world — along with Ed Sheeran co-writing new song “Make It Right” — continues a trend of making the group more available to English-speaking audiences, one that began with past team-ups alongside Nicki Minaj, Steve Aoki and Desiigner. With the momentum that BTS possessed going into the release of Map of the Soul: Persona, which has spent the past few days setting YouTube records and striding toward the top of the Billboard 200, the album could have been creatively lackluster and still been a landmark achievement for a K-pop collection in America.
Yet one of the reasons why BTS has become such a commercial force is its ability to continue challenging itself. The group’s socially conscious lyrics, commenting on South Korean cultural and economic expectation, are far more provocative than those of their K-pop peers. Their music has also remained progressive in its influences: instead of delivering straightforward pop hooks as their presence becomes greater within the U.S. music industry, BTS has drawn from arena rock, contemporary hip-hop, dashes of new wave and turn-of-the-century bubblegum to concoct a distinct sound that works for the modern mainstream.
As the beginning of a new era with the Love Yourself series wrapped up, the seven songs on Map of the Soul: Persona find the group’s seven members nodding to their past while also taking impressive sonic risks, pushing their aesthetic to its limits without abandoning their center. “Home” calls back to their 2013 single “No More Dream” but excavates new feelings of disaffection and loneliness in the midst of staggering success; elsewhere, the Sheeran-penned “Make It Right” leans into the Top 40-friendly R&B-pop that the British songwriter has spun into his own stadium status, and while the song never quite congeals, the silky new shade sounds pretty beguiling on BTS.
Yet it’s the album’s last track, “Dionysus,” that best underscores the ambition of this group. Simply put, it’s the most outlandish song BTS has ever released — and, as this album’s longest song and final word, may be a harbinger of more wild experiments to come.
Named after the Greek god of wine associated with debauchery and excess, “Dionysus” sounds like a party song, but really focuses on the group’s desire to continue making music on their own terms, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it meditations on stardom, legacy and artistic integrity (“Drink it up, the pain of creation,” the pre-chorus begins). The central metaphor here — musical ambition is a buzz that BTS will never stop chasing — is tricky to pull off, and it takes a pretty hard scan of the bilingual lyrics to pick up the nuances. On the other hand, “Dionysus” could have just been an unsubtle party song, with the cries of “Drink, drink, drink!” carrying no deeper directives. A line like, “What does it matter if I’m an idol or an artist?” during Suga’s rap verse is a fairly prodding moment of self-reflection, especially when delivered by a member of a massive group that’s been vocal about making music that matters. Make no mistake, there’s nothing wrong with dumb-fun party music. But BTS is not LMFAO, and the shots they sing about downing on “Dionysus” have more meaning than… well, “Shots.”
Even more wide-reaching than the song’s lyrical concept is its composition, which boasts multi-part hooks, clipped verses, a trap breakdown and a breakneck final chorus with double-time drums in case you were starting to get bored. “Dionysus” is a pile-up of several sounds, beginning with RM spitting over gaudy rap-rock production, then moving into tribal chants and chest-pumping synth-pop before Suga’s unhinged verse, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Migos project. Although it’s only four minutes and change, “Dionysus” plays out like a multi-song suite, with all seven members contributing to the rapid shifts in approach.
Is “Dionysus” seamless? Absolutely not — there are at least two sections in the track that sound like they were stitched in needlessly. However, a generous view of the song is that it’s one of the more original big-budget K-pop tracks in recent memory, and certainly a standout in BTS’s discography when it comes to imagination. Although there are purer moments of pop bliss on Map of the Soul: Persona, “Dionysus” contains an inventive spirit that powers through some of the clumsier production decisions, and ultimately makes it the most memorable of the set’s new songs.
Zooming out a bit, “Dionysus” could prove to be a turning point in BTS’s musical output, if they want it to be. The group has already conquered K-pop from a commercial standpoint — there are millions of screaming fans and multiple chart achievements that can speak to their dominance. Creatively, however, BTS wants to dig even deeper, by experimenting with songwriting and structure in ways that could be groundbreaking for the genre. If BTS uses “Dionysus” as a springboard into their next project, expect it to be even more daring than Map of the Soul: Persona, just as Map of the Soul: Persona took more risks than Love Yourself: Answer. BTS has never rested on its laurels during the group’s rise to superstardom, and judging by “Dionysus,” they’re not going to stop disrupting popular music anytime soon.