J-Hope Talks Balancing Solo Career With BTS and How His Hip-Hop Album Reveals a ‘Darker Side of Me’

·12 min read

If we were going to borrow the terminology of one pop-culture juggernaut, “Star Wars,” for another, BTS, we might call this phase of the career of one of the group’s members “BTS, Episode II: A New J-Hope.” At least, J-Hope himself considers this the beginning of a second chapter in the ensemble’s career as well as a fresh start for his own, as today he releases “Jack in the Box,” the first of in a series of solo albums that each member of BTS is expected to be putting out in the months to come.

It makes sense that the artist known offstage as Jeong Hoseok would be the first band member to release a full solo project during what is being characterized as a refueling between group endeavors. Since he’s known primarily as a rapper, there will necessarily be fewer comparisons drawn between his solo material and the last couple of years of BTS pop earworms like “Dynamite” and “Butter.” But in another sense, there’s risk involved in coming right out with something that bears quite so little similarity to anything that would have recently been described as a BTS signature sound, even if a different side of hip-hop has been a constant flavor in the group’s eight-year discography. The potential reward is certainly worth that risk — the payoff of planting a more significant flag in the ground for South Korean solo rappers with as impressive and credible a hip-hop album as “Jack in the Box” turns out to be.

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A few days before the release of “Jack in the Box” (and just before we’d had a chance to sample the album beyond its first single, “More”), Variety spoke with J-Hope via Zoom — and via a translator — about how he hoped to show off a different side of himself with the new record, which he described as one that “definitely reveals a little darker side of me” than anything he’s produced with BTS to date. And, after the announcement of the solo projects nearly set off a minor global panic about the group’s future, he set the record further straight about just how little worry the world should have about that, in his view.

With all the group members now known to be making solo albums, you’re the first out of the gate with one. Can that be taken as any indication that you were the most eager of all, to be ready to go kind of so soon after that announcement?

Actually, the order didn’t really matter to us. Even when I worked on BTS group projects all along, I have always thought hard and long about what type of music I can show to the world as J-Hope; I actually consistently thought about that. And the timing worked out really well, so I just happened to be the first one to go solo among my team members. But at the same time, because I’m the first one to release a solo album. I do feel the weight on my shoulders. And I do want to start off successfully for all of our team members as well. I was a little bit worried, and I don’t want to risk or undermine our reputation as a team with BTS. However, overall, I’m very confident and content with the album. I really poured everything into this album and conveyed the messages that I wanted to convey. So no matter what the feedback or the reaction is like, I have no regrets, and I’m willing to take any type of feedback as well. I’m open-minded to that.

After putting out a mixtape, “Hope World,” so many years ago, you had the song “Chicken Noodle Soup” with Becky G out in 2019 as your most recent solo activity. Have you been working on stuff ever since then, or was that a one-off in hour mind, and it’s really just a recent flurry of activity where you worked on this album?

The theme of “Jack in the Box” is a theme that has been running in my head for a long time. I thought about this theme for a long time because it has to do with my stage name, J-Hope. So I always wanted to reflect the story about my stage name in my music. But it is true that after the pandemic started, I definitely focused more on producing my solo album. During the pandemic, I realized that life goes on despite all these challenges, and I should not do nothing. I actually got to have a little bit more individual time, “me” time, so I definitely decided to be a little more productive despite the pandemic going on. So that’s when I started focusing on producing my individual music along with BTS music. And in the past I released “Hope World” and “Chicken Noodle Soup,” and during those times I definitely planned the right timing for these pieces, because [I thought], “This is the right time that I highlight my dance moves, that I showcase my dance performance.” This album called “Jack in the Box” is the moment that I want to highlight my artistry in music. So I’ve I’ve thought a lot about this theme — this has been my long-term plan.

“More,” the first single was a real change of pace, and something it would have been hard to do within the context of BTS, with rap verses and then a rock band coming in in the chorus, as seen in the video. Is that is one style out of many on the album, or a real indication of where the rest of the album goes?

There is definitely a clear reason why I chose “More” as the  first track to be released. I wanted to express a little bit of a darker side of me, as J-Hope, as an individual. This song is very powerful, and actually the feeling that you might have got when you first listened to this song is probably definitely reflected on all the other tracks in the album. I’m not saying that rap sound is the main theme or the focal point of my album. However, the overall flow or style is kind of consistent throughout all the tracks. You’ll probably understand better once you hear the full tracks after the album is released in a few days. This album is full of this type of particular style, and it definitely reveals a little darker side of me, a different aspect of myself. But I ask for your great support once it’s released.

What can you say about the song “Arson,” which will be the second song to have a video? The photos being released from the video show you looking pristine in all white, but then singed from what looks like an automotive explosion of some kind.

If you look at the names on the track list, there are many songs with very interesting titles, such as “Equal Sign” and “There Are No Bad People in the World” [aka “STOP (세상에 나쁜 사람은 없다)”] and especially “Arson.” The title imagery definitely fits the visual concept that I chose for this song. This is a song about J-Hope’s own ignition of my own passion. I ignited a passion for myself, to pursue my career, to pursue my music. But looking back, it kind of went out of control, and the whole world around me is on fire. I have released a lot of songs and music, and I have gotten to receive love and support from all around the world. So now, the fire or the ignition of the passion is not easy to put out anymore. So I wanted to visually express and convey that message through this song titled “Arson.” And this song is also about how now I’m at a crossroads — a point of choosing between whether I want to put out this fire that I started, or do I want to continue and make it flame even more? I believe personally that this song “Arson” is even more powerful than “More” in terms of the style and the visual concept as well as the impression it will make. I’m very excited about what I will see in terms of reactions and feedback once this song is released.

Do you feel like you have kind of secret influences, or influences that people are not well known to people, that you’re really getting to exercise with this album, musically?

You’ll probably understand this better when the album is released and you listen to all of the tracks. There are no featured guests in my album; all the tracks are filled with my voice only. Because I wanted to convey my own narrative, my own story as an individual, I thought that featured guests are not necessary in this album production, and I believed that filling all these songs with my own voice only would make this album very authentic. So, when you ask me what kind of influences I’ve got, I think the influence that I’ve had when working on the album was my inner self — my identity as an individual. The inner self, and my thoughts while working as part of BTS and of the history of my life, have been the influences.

And if you ask musical influences that I had when working on the album, because my career first started based on street dance, I believe that the music that I used to dance to definitely laid the foundation for my music. So you will hear a lot of old-school hip-hop as the basis of the music style in this album.

You have a performance coming up as a headliner at the Lollapalooza festival at the end of July. Can you offer a preview of what your performance style will be like? Because since you have been so associated with dance in the past, people might think that, without the group members to accompany you, you might still have a set of dancers with you, and it’ll be highly choreographed. But in the “More” video, there are no dancers in that, and so that kind of suggests that maybe you might be going in a different direction with your onstage performance style as well. Can you describe what your live performances will be like as a solo artist?

Actually with the album “Jack in the Box,” I decided that I want to highlight the craft and artistry in the music by producing this album, releasing this album. So I’m not relying on my usual skill [of dancing]. I can say that I picked up a different, new weapon that I want to use — a different skill that I want to show to people. So this album might leave a very new impression of myself on the audience and listeners. And even when performing at Lollapalooza, I think my intention with producing this album will be reflected in my live performances as well. So I’m preparing many different things, so that the solo performance won’t be too loose. So I’ll be filling this performance with many different aspects and things. It will be great if you can really see it yourself. And I think once you listen to the whole album, you’ll better understand why I chose to perform at Lollapalooza, and why I decided to take on this huge challenge of performing at a festival as a solo performer.

There was some concern among fans, naturally, when the solo projects were announced, that even though there were assurances that BTS would go on, it could spell a longer split. But then on July 7 it was announced that, even amid this flurry of solo activity, BTS will be doing a concert in October in Busan to boost the idea of South Korea hosting the 2030 World Expo. Do you think that concert announcement set people’s minds about any worries they had about the future of BTS? 

When we talked about the temporary break, or focusing on solo projects, we really just were trying to be honest with how we feel and what we want to pursue going forward. I was a little surprised that people took it in a different way than what how we expected them to receive or understand that news. I think there was a little bit of loss in translation as we conveyed that message. And definitely we’re not on hiatus. The team is going to remain active.

We just learned a lot and we grew together as a team over the last decade, and I believe that was the Chapter One for BTS. So for BTS to sustain longer and to even leap forward, we thought that Chapter Two was definitely needed. So although we grew together and we worked together as a team for the last 10 years, now perhaps it is our time to grow and to pursue what we wanted to do as individuals and focus more on personal growth as individuals. So we would like to embrace and experience many different things as we work on solo projects.

But that does not mean we are putting a stop on BTS group projects, of course. So we expect that after gaining all these experiences and having individual projects, we will have a greater synergistic effect as a team, and we believe that that is the sustainable and healthy way for us to grow as a team. So I think we are on the verge of starting the Chapter Two for BTS — and going forward, we will definitely be working on group projects as well as solo projects. As you mentioned, that there will be a concert in October, and this event will be very meaningful to us as well. So I just hope that there’s no misunderstanding about where we are going and what kind of directions we’re taking as a team.

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