In an interview for Rolling Stone India (2020), BTS member SUGA said: “I want to be like the ’90s folk musicians whom I’ve been listening to. I’m not trying to limit myself to a specific genre. I simply want to be able to sing while playing guitar when I get older.”
There’s nothing too special in seeing a musician say something like this. However, SUGA‘s words are quite interesting once you know that he is not a singer-songwriter type of act. He is – not only, but mainly – a rapper and music producer in BTS, a pop act known for complex choreographies, electronic and hip-hop-oriented songs. The type of music and performance that SUGA seems to be aiming for sounds a bit more universal, ageless, and timeless than the type his group have been known for so far.
Being and singing in Korean, yet amassing fans from all parts of the world, SUGA and BTS have overcome geographic and cultural barriers. If “universal” songwriting can move people regardless of country or language spoken, then BTS’s music already is universal. Are they also aiming for music that will stand the test of time? That might not have been the seven artists’ main intention in BE (2020) – but if it were, they have succeeded.
It is hard to describe timeless, universal songwriting – these adjectives suggest dissociation with features that can be attributed to modern or local/niche trends, but how to identify those? What is inherent of a specific place or moment, and what isn’t? And what does it say about a time or place when the music that comes from it is influenced by “past” or “foreign” trends?
“Timelessness, too, can be determined by a moment. (…) if an artist creates a sensational cultural moment, even when the moment passes, they’ve immortalized themselves,” says music writer Donna-Claire Chesman. And that definition surely applies to BTS. The feelings aroused by their local underdog-turned-global superstar story and strong connection with their fans will impregnate their music. Then, it is unlikely that BTS’s songbook will lose its charm in the future.
But when it comes to songwriting, it’s also true that a big part of the septet’s music is influenced by contemporary trends or suggests performances that are a better fit for the young men they are. BE is the album in which BTS’s sound crosses over to cement the type of legacy they’re building – one that started in youth and is very proudly Korean, but that makes sense for any age or place.
Many songwriters say that what distinguishes a timelessly good song is if it still sounds good even without production. Maybe that is the type of music SUGA is aspiring to make – melody and lyrics that work even if they are accompanied by nothing but an acoustic guitar. A lot of the music BTS released before BE is already structured like that: “Let Me Know”, “Butterfly”, “Spring Day”, “Fake Love”, “Zero O’Clock”, to name a few songs. But with BE, they take the concept of timelessness to a whole new level: the album thrives in a configuration for timeless pop music that embraces rap in its structure.
Nowadays, it makes little to no sense to separate artists in pop hip-hop; and that, when such a thing is done, it’s based on race stereotypes (because, truth is: culturally and commercially, hip-hop is pop). However, when it comes to songwriting, the differences are apparent, and they matter. As blurred as the lines can become, and as much as both can benefit from each other, singing is not rapping. Songwriting-wise, BTS is a hybrid act: a pop group and a hip-hop group; a vocal group and a rap group. These aren’t moods or concepts: both are part of their sonic identity and appear in nearly every one of their songs.
While BE songs like “Life Goes On”, “Fly to My Room”, and “Telepathy” could have been released by Michael Jackson in the 1990s, Elton John, and Kool & The Gang in the 1970s, respectively, there’s a welcome outlier component in all of them. It is the flavor of BTS’s rappers: RM, SUGA, and j-hope. The three men also sing in the album, but it’s their rapping that adds a unique flavor to BE‘s mostly pop-shaped melodies.
It’s the case of “Blue & Grey”, a ballad with lullaby-sounded melodies but melancholic lyrics, the type of song that would work very well without a rap. Yet SUGA’s rap is easily one of the best parts of the track. His deep voice and beat-matching flow change add a confessional tone that perfectly fits the song’s vibe.
It’s also the case of “Dis-ease”, a groovy track that sounds like Stevie Wonder colliding with Marcelo D2 when he collaborates with samba musicians. BTS always balance rap and vocals nicely, and if you’re familiar with past tracks such as “134340” or “Pied Piper”, you will not be surprised that they’d release a song like “Dis-ease” – but surely you’ll be surprised at how they did it. It’s hard to find heroes in this song – all vocalists and rappers excel in it. But it’s j-hope’s scratching rap, RM’s confident and lyrically savvy verse, and SUGA’s stomping delivery that makes it a challenge to reduce “Dis-ease” to “just” a funky R&B track. Perhaps the best word to define it is Brazilian Portuguese: malemolência – the type of swing that you find in old school Rio de Janeiro samba and gafieira.
However, even if rap is the distinguishing element in BTS’s musical approach, a massive part of BE‘s creative triumphs is credited to their vocalists. Member V’s introspective musicianship birthed the beautiful “Blue & Grey”, originally written by and for him to sing alone (which ended up benefitting from featuring the six members too, primarily due to Jin’s vocals and SUGA’s raps). Jimin’s outstanding toplining skills gave life to the bridge of “Dis-ease”, the cherry on top of a song that is, itself, a cherry on top of the album. Jungkook and Jin worked together to create the upbeat, adorably written “Stay”. It’s perhaps the only song that leaves room for imagination to figure how dated it’s bound to sound in the future due to the contemporaneous-suggestive electronic beats. However, the track works just fine as a transition to the 1970s disco reminiscent “Dynamite”, which might already be a good sign.
It can’t be ignored that BE was born out of BTS’s creative response to the feelings of isolation and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That such timeless songwriting would grow out of a situation where the members (as well as the entire world) were stuck and felt like “the year was stolen” (like they sing in “Life Goes On”) is an interesting parallel. Ultimately, good and timeless music is about feeling. That is why some songs from 60 years ago can move audiences even today, and some from last year already sound old fashioned.
Analytically, a songwriter, music fan, or music critic can try to narrow down some patterns to find the perfect equation for a timeless and universal song. A “timeless” melody can be described as an easy one to sing along to, with little variation in notes, like the chorus of “Telepathy”. A “universal” harmony is one that suits a variety of genres and styles, like “Dynamite’s” chords, suitable for American disco as much as Brazilian axé.
But instinctively, the art of making, or recognizing, timeless music consists more of the type of self-developed feeling of a person old enough in age to have been listening to music for many years and young enough at heart to be able to embrace and enjoy new music, new artists, new directions in music.
This writer is old enough to remember a time when speaking of a Korean group having a song with Korean lyrics topping the US Billboard chart (like BTS did with “Life Goes On”) was nearly impossible to imagine, but not old enough to have experienced the golden era of Elton John and other icons mentioned in this review. Yet this writer dares to say BE will still sound fresh in ten, 20, 50 years.