MOTS:7’s release came just before COVID-19 began to impact people globally; the trajectory for that album was thwarted by circumstance, a massive stadium tour reduced to a two-night virtual concert that nearly 1 million fans experienced. BTS have spent these last months doing scaled-back versions of their normal promotions and fan interactions. They filmed In the Soop, a reality show without any real plot beyond how to relax in the afternoon and what to cook for dinner. They’ve done a slew of pre-taped performances of “Dynamite,” making the rounds at the VMAs, America’s Got Talent, and more. Meanwhile, they’ve worked on new music with ideas of comfort, solace, and solidarity with fans in the back of their minds. “I felt hopeless. Everything fell apart. I could only look outside my window, I could only go to my room. Yesterday, I was singing and dancing with fans around the world, and now my world had shrunk to a room,” Jimin told the United Nations during BTS’s speech in September. Suga continued the thread, “The room itself was small, but my world and our world reached far and wide. In this world we had our instruments, our phones, and our fans.”
That’s the context for BE, an album shaped by the idea that BTS has taken more creative control than ever. While they’ve always played an active role in the songs they release, for BE they provided more input into the styling, concept imagery, cover art, and all the things that help make an album iconic beyond the actual music. Each member took on a management role, curating their area of expertise as they saw fit.
The way music is made has changed this year in ways we may not fully grasp for a while. As Taylor Swift said about recording her hit quarantine album folklore, all the rules are off the table. Why stick to the way you’ve always done something, when everything is so bleak? Why not take risks, since nothing matters? Why not try, since everything does?
BE is the result of that trying. MOTS:7 saw the group flex a lot of different muscles and lean into a lot of different aesthetics — Latin pop, melty trap, synth, emo rap. BE is what comes after the release of that pressure valve, and it’s a surprisingly weird little album. While the peppy, grin-inducing single “Dynamite” is the obvious tonal outlier in this collection, the rest of BE doesn’t fall into the trap of broodiness that one might expect from artists trying to catalogue 2020. “Stay,” originally intended to be part of Jungkook’s solo album, is pure dance music, a club banger for bleeding hearts. “Telepathy,” with its shimmering synth and jam band percussion, is a gasp of delight. An out of context lyric that rings true on a musical level: “If it’s too quick, it’s a little dangerous. If it’s too slow, it’s a little boring.”
Devastating ballads have their time and place, of course, but BTS know we’ve seen some shit this year. Let’s imagine we’re spending a day out on the blue ocean instead. Let’s splay out on a soft bed, relishing the safety of our own room. (“It seems joy, sadness, and all other emotions are simply accepted here,” Suga raps on “Fly to My Room.”) And when we do settle in for a long story, like on “Blue & Grey,” it’ll feel all the sweeter for the restraint. The song meanders carefully as the members put forth dreams for the future that apply even when we’re not going through a traumatic global event. “I just wanna be happier,” V sings on “Blue & Grey,” originally put forth as a KTH1 solo track. “Would this also be a great greed?”
Lead single “Life Goes On” introduces the environment for BE, and it’s the obvious COVID-19 track. “One day, the world stopped without any prior warning,” Jungkook begins, per DoYouBangtan’s translation. “Spring didn’t know to wait.” Musically, the song fits as a part two to MOTS:7 track “Zero O’Clock,” with its chill-pop ambience and comforting lyrics. But “Life Goes On” is less a promise than it is a fact. We can hibernate, we can play Sims all day, we can do whatever we want to pass this horrible time, but the time will still pass. There will still be things that hurt. We joke about repeating birthdays, of turning back the clock. The thought itself is a coping mechanism, even if it’s a fantasy. In one part of “Life Goes On,” Suga slips in an allusion to his solo song “People,” the musing, satisfied “mm mm mm” slowed down. If you’re an Agust D fan, the echo of “why so serious?” will ring in your head, a crucial moment of lighthearted introspection from the rapper. In other words: shit happens, and you’ll find the strength to deal with it when it does.