On Their Pointedly Chill New Album, BTS Are Mostly Content To Just BE
True to its name, “Dynamite” blew up big-time for BTS. The K-pop superstars are undeniably the world’s most popular pop group, but they’d never had a US #1 single before “Dynamite” debuted atop the Hot 100 at the end of August. That’s partially because they’ve never catered so directly to the American market; previously the Bangtan Boys have sprinkled bits of English into their lyrics while mostly sticking to their native Korean (if anything, they’ve more directly targeted Japanese listeners with several all-Japanese releases) whereas here they stuck with the words from songwriters David Stewart and Jessica Agombar’s original demo. But beyond its all-English lyrics, “Dynamite” popped off because it’s a very good pop song — one of those tracks so irrepressibly fun and catchy that you can’t help bobbing your head and singing along even if it strikes you as a bit corny.
“Dynamite” is by no means the most explosive BTS song ever. The boy band came rocketing out of Seoul with a wild genre-hopping approach that often saw their songs morphing between hip-hop, EDM, and all manner of high-powered pop sounds in between, as exemplified by 2017’s Love Yourself: Her and its signature hit “DNA.” They’ve since streamlined their sound a bit from song to song. This year’s Map Of The Soul: 7 was still aggressively energetic and versatile, but less eager to inundate listeners with multiple styles at once. That album’s hit Halsey collab “Boy With Luv” explored an effervescent disco-funk sound that matched their impassioned group sing-alongs and rap verses with slapping bass and a crisp backbeat.
“Boy With Luv” now feels like a direct precursor to “Dynamite,” which plunges even deeper into the kind of bright 1970s nostalgia that fueled Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” another instant wedding staple that debuted at #1. Just about everything on the track is optimized for maximum pleasure — blaring brass, lush keyboard chords, palm-muted guitar that becomes part of a vibrant rhythm section. Plus its video is a brilliant spotlight for the group’s charisma, agile dance moves, and immaculate androgynous styling (the David Bowie poster on Jungkook’s wall in the beginning is probably no coincidence). It suggested BTS were ready for a take-no-prisoners American radio offensive and maybe were planning one of the most contagiously fun pop albums of 2020.
Instead, the group’s new album is maybe the least urgent release in their catalog, and it returns to mostly Korean lyrics rather than overtly pander to Western audiences with English. Churning through seven songs and a skit in under 30 minutes, BE takes the stated goal of “Dynamite” — a soothing sound for a pandemic-racked year — to surprising extremes. It’s far from a set of ballads, but it gets off to an understated start, with a trio of midtempo numbers. After an egregiously long skit, the second half is punchier yet somehow bleeds into the background more readily. Not until “Dynamite” comes along to close out the album does BE jolt to life with the usual BTS energy.
The softer side of BTS has always stood out less than their more hyperactive tracks, but in BE‘s case the slowed-down material is front-loaded for good reason. “Life Goes On” blends acoustic strums, electronic beats, and digitally altered vocals to warm, woozy effect. “Fly To My Room” similarly pairs a gospel-inflected pop-R&B chord progression out of an old Mariah Carey record with trap drum programming and Auto-Tuned moans a la Bad Bunny; it could just as easily be Ariana Grande or Kehlani emoting over those organ swells. “Blue & Grey,” the only true slow jam here, is like Linkin Park and Sigur Rós teaming up to write a Boyz II Men song, with the requisite spoken-word and rapping segments interspersed with eerie whale-call vocals and chilly, cinematic minor chords. All three of these songs bored me at first but won me over with repeated exposure as the compositional and production details revealed themselves.
Where BE loses me every time is the skit, a three-minute intermission on a 28-minute album. Maybe it’s more fun to hear the boys celebrate their #1 hit and banter about their success if you speak Korean, but I’m guessing it still stalls out the momentum either way. Not that the undistinguished and unmemorable party jam “Telepathy” is any less of a roadblock. The hip-hop exercise “Dis-ease” similarly goes nowhere, and the would-be arena-killing anthem “Stay” comes off like Usher and Ne-Yo’s worst EDM crossover bids. This stuff feels like filler to justify calling BE an album rather than an EP, when it could have been half as long and ended up twice as satisfying. It seems even on a relatively scaled-down release like this one, BTS remain maximalists at heart.
AC/DC have their third #1 album with Power Up. As Billboard reports, the album moved 117,000 equivalent album units and sold 111,000 copies in its first week, the biggest debut of 2020 for a rock album and the best first-week sales total since Tool’s Fear Inoculum in September 2019. It was just enough to fend off two other contenders that might have easily debuted at #1 in a less crowded release week: Future and Lil Uzi Vert’s Pluto x Baby Pluto enters at #2 with 105,000 units, almost all of them via streaming, while Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over starts off with 103,000 units and 75,000 in sales. This is the first week since late February (when Justin Bieber, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and Tame Impala dropped) that three releases have cleared 100,000 units in the same week.
After former chart-toppers from Ariana Grande, Pop Smoke, Luke Combs, and Juice WRLD comes a new #8 peak for Queen’s Greatest Hits, in the top 10 for the first time ever thanks to a vinyl sale at Walmart. (No, really!) The comp was originally released in 1981 and peaked at #11 upon being reissued in 1992 in the wake of Freddie Mercury’s death and the “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in Wayne’s World. Rounding out the top 10 are the Kid Laroi and a new mixtape from YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Until I Return, which streamed its way to 31,000 units and a #10 debut — his fourth top-10 release of 2020.
Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” remains #1 for a fifth nonconsecutive week. As Billboard points out, “Mood” was played more times in one week on pop radio stations than any song since the inception of the Radio Songs chart in 1992, surpassing a record set by Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” in 2017. That airwave saturation surely helped it fend off Billie Eilish, whose “Therefore I Am” climbs from #94 to #2 in its first full week on the Hot 100, making it her fourth top-10 hit following last year’s “Bad Guy” and “Everything I Wanted” and this year’s “My Future.” It’s the fourth-largest one-week leap in Hot 100 history.
Also, this factoid is mortifying and I am ancient:
This is the first time in history that the top 2 positions on the #Hot100 are occupied by artists born in the 2000s.@24kGoldn ("Mood") was born in 2000 and @billieeilish ("Therefore I Am") was born in 2001.
— billboard charts (@billboardcharts) November 23, 2020
After Ariana Grande’s “Positions” (#3), Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” (#4), Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” (#5), and Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy” (#6) comes the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #7. The song spends its 40th week in the top 10, breaking a tie with Post Malone’s “Circles” to become the longest-tenured top-10 single in Hot 100 history. The rest of the top 10: Internet Money’s “Lemonade” at #8, Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez’s “Dakiti” at #9, and Pop Smoke’s “For The Night,” featuring Lil Baby and DaBaby, at #10.
Miley Cyrus – “Prisoner” (Feat. Dua Lipa)
Miley’s pivot into ’80s rawk intersects with Dua’s pivot into disco and both are still working wonders for me.
Shawn Mendes – “Monster” (Feat. Justin Bieber)
It’s hard to express how much this pales in comparison to the above superstar team-up. So forgettable I started forgetting it while it was still playing.
Ava Max – “My Head & My Heart”
Ava Max dropped her album two months ago and she’s already moved on to new singles. Given the quality of this one, it’s understandable. “My Head & My Heart” is a disco-house banger that grabs you and doesn’t let go. I’d want to release it as soon as possible too.
Sam Smith – “The Lighthouse Keeper”
Sam Smith’s album was even more recent, but their new one is a Christmas single, so the quick turnaround makes sense.
Sia – “Hey Boy”
Haven’t heard Sia sounding this inventive and untamed for a while. I dig it.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Halsey added New York Times best-selling author to her list of accomplishments when I Would Leave Me If I Could: A Collection of Poetry debuted at #2 on the hardcover fiction list. [Twitter]
- Billie Eilish broke down “Everything I Wanted” on the Song Exploder podcast. [Song Exploder]
- Ariana Grande becomes a fembot in her “34+35” music video. [YouTube]
- Demi Lovato, Charli XCX, and Chief Keef are among the artists lip-syncing in Bhad Bhabie’s new video for “Do It Like Me.” [YouTube]
- Ozuna has a new song in the Tom And Jerry movie. [Instagram]
- Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez, Dolly Parton, and Dua Lipa will be honored at Billboard’s 2020 Women In Music Event 12/20. [Billboard]
- Dua Lipa is also a new brand ambassador for Puma. [Twitter]
- Nicki Minaj has a six-part docuseries coming to HBO Max. [Deadline]
- Megan Thee Stallion released a Fashion Nova collection. [Fashion Nova]
- Bad Bunny did “Bichiyal” and “Si veo a tu mamá” at the Latin Grammys. [YouTube]
- Julia Michaels did “Lie Like This” on Fallon. [YouTube]
- G-Eazy and blackbear did “Hate The Way” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
- SAINt JHN made his TV debut with “Sucks To Be You” on Fallon. [YouTube]
- Lorde interviewed Cazzie Davis for Interview. [Interview]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Damn I guess this means there won’t be many new hit country songs written pic.twitter.com/TQU9fAng3Q
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) November 19, 2020