As they prepare for their international stadium tour this summer, South Korean pop group BTS are undeniably one of the biggest pop acts in the world. When they announced “Map of the Soul: 7,” their fourth studio album, anticipation was immense. This effect was further amplified by the fact that it had been 10 months since the band’s previous release, 2019’s “Map of the Soul: Persona” EP, marking the longest dry spell for new BTS music since their 2013 debut. “7” is a bold, confident release, one of a band wholly aware of their success, and at times, struggling to grapple with it, that tackles an array of genres, not always to equal success, but always in exciting fashion.
The 20-track album opens with five songs which previously appeared on “Persona.” The opener, “Intro: Persona,” is a bright, guitar-inflected hip-hop song delivered with confidence by RM, the group’s leader and a skillful rapper. Following that is “Boy With Luv,” the lead single from last year’s “Persona,” a breezy, joyous pop track elevated by an injection of funk guitar and guest vocals from Halsey. Dialing down the energy a bit, the next song, “Make it Right,” is a hopeful, calm R&B song. Co-written with Ed Sheeran, “Make it Right” offers words of comfort to the listener in a light, airy affect.
“Jamais Vu,” performed by vocalists Jin and Jungkook along with rapper J-Hope, is an emotional mid-tempo number that, while pleasant, lacks the punch of the album’s previous tracks. Switching things up, “Dionysus,” the final song on “7” which first appeared on “Persona” is a blistering, energetic rap-rock party anthem which makes full use of BTS’s range of vocal types, from husky-voiced rap to soaring falsetto.
The first new song, “Interlude: Shadow” brings the album into darker territory as rapper Suga laments the dark side of the fame he once wished for over a soaring orchestral instrumental that morphs into an aggressive trap track in its final verse. “Black Swan,” the first single from “7,” combines these orchestral and trap influences in a melancholy song that expresses a sense of numbness and fear of losing creative passion. “Filter,” a solo song from vocalist Jimin, pairs his light vocals with Latin guitar to create a smooth yet uneasy atmosphere, at once seductive and insecure.
The next song, “My Time,” performed solo by vocalist Jungkook, boasts meaningful lyrics about his years spent working towards stardom, but is dragged down by a hazy, scattered-sounding chorus and a distracting, slang-misusing English hook. “Louder Than Bombs,” co-written with Troye Sivan, is another low point for the album, as emotional lyricism and vocal delivery fail to overcome a lumbering, empty-sounding instrumental.
The center of the album is “On,” its grandiose lead single. “On” embodies “7” as a whole, featuring its best and worst qualities. A marching band drumline, horn section, and organ emphasize the song’s sense of confidence and scale, but the heavy vocal processing seen in “Black Swan” and the hazy production techniques from“My Time” drag down its considerable punch, making “On” a powerful tune that fails to reach the heights of earlier BTS singles.
The next song brings things back to basics. A ferocious hip-hop track, “UGH!” sees rappers RM, Suga, and J-Hope taking on their haters with growling delivery, amplified by the song’s combination of heavy bass and skittering percussion alongside traditional East Asian instrumentals and orchestral elements. Following that, BTS’s vocalists, Jin, V, Jimin, and Jungkook, unite on “Zero O’Clock,” an uplifting pop ballad.
Continuing this section of the album’s focus on vocal-driven pop, the next song, “Inner Child,” is a solo from V, and one of the most powerful songs on the album, driven by its soaring production. The next track, “Friends,” a duet between V and Jimin, who co-wrote the song, also carries this grand sense of scale, an ode to the simple things in a friendship that sounds truly on top of the world.
“Moon,” a solo song by Jin, keeps the uplifting energy of “7” rolling in a light, breezy pop-rock tune that spins words of affection from cosmological metaphor. The next song, “Respect,” a duet featuring RM and Suga, brings the album back to hip-hop, albeit with a more cheerful, laid-back sound.
“We are Bulletproof: The Eternal,” the final song on the album performed by all of BTS, combines the grand pop balladry of previous tracks with bright EDM synthesizers to euphoric effect. Named in reference to their 2013 single “We are Bulletproof pt. 2,” which was a braggadocious message from a young, unknown group, “The Eternal” is reflective in tone, a sentimental, joyful ode to success centered in gratitude towards the band’s fans.
Following this is “Outro: Ego,” a bright, ebullient track performed with panache by J-Hope that serves as an uplifting coda to an often melancholy album. With that, the “7” experience is over, save for the album’s twentieth song, a version of “On” with an additional vocal feature from Sia inserted in the chorus.
As a whole, “Map of the Soul: 7” is a largely satisfying album but not without its flaws. The front-loading of five tracks from last year’s “Persona” feels unnecessary, and serves to make the album feel overstuffed. Certain stretches of the album, such as the spacy run from “My Time” to “On” or the pop-balladry which carries from “Zero O’Clock” to “Moon,” get monotonous, as multiple similar-sounding tracks follow one another.
Despite these quibbles, “7” is an admirably ambitious album with far more hits than misses. Its array of styles presents an image of a group that, rather than be content with their success, are continually striving and growing. With South Korea’s mandatory military service looming for the band’s older members, “7” may be read as an extravagant parting gift from BTS, at least for a while.