Photo: HYBE Label/YouTube
Throughout his nine years in BTS, J-Hope has projected an image of positivity. “I’m your hope, you’re my hope, I’m J-Hope,” he often says as he introduces himself, beaming and throwing hearts. But the high-energy rapper shattered all expectations with “After,” a searing rap-rock song that serves as the lead single from his forthcoming album, jack in the box. The project will make him the first BTS member to release an official solo debut, following the announcement last month that they
(supposedly) suspend group promotions. But on “More,” J-Hope refuses to rest on his laurels. Seemingly aware that this is his chance to make a personal statement on an unprecedented scale, he uses the single as a statement of his ever-burning ambition to conquer any style and hone his craft. “I’m still not enough,” he raps over a dusty hip-hop beat, employing deep growls before the song explodes with alternate guitar riffs. “Fame and money aren’t everything, I already know that / My work gives me breath, so I want more!” he shouts into the bridge in a distant, distorted voice.
With “More,” J-Hope offers a fresh take on a solo K-pop star – a risk-taker who bends current pop trends to his own style and willingly defies the unspoken rule that a hit song requires viral dance challenge. His first hit, debuting at No. 82 on the Hot 100, builds on the breakthroughs he made on his 2019 Korean-English-Spanish single, “Chicken Noodle Soup,” featuring Becky G, which made him the first BTS soloist to land on this very chart. It also portends the splash he will make in international markets, as he is set to become the first Korean artist to headline a major American music festival at this year’s Lollapalooza. Becoming a household name worldwide as a Korean soloist was really only done by Psy, who took the world by storm with his avuncular dance antics on “Gangnam Style.” A decade later, J-Hope, a 28-year-old esthete, former street dancer and hip-hop fanatic from Gwangju, Jeolla-do, will likely open a new chapter for upcoming Korean solo musicians.
Whereas jack in the box will be an introduction to many, seasoned fans already know that born artist Jung Hoseok has contributed over 100 songs since 2012. Although he’s well known for the house-inspired tracks on his 2018 mixtape, world of hope, and his self-penned verses to numbers from BTS’s rap line (also comprised of RM and Suga), J-Hope quietly proved that the real persona is more nuanced than his overtly happy reputation suggests. For those looking to get into his catalog, here is a non-exhaustive list of eight of his must-have titles, in no particular order.
This single from world of hope throbs with a sunny house groove, as J-Hope candidly reveals his worries as a K-pop star and dreams of an imaginary neverland where he can follow through on all his desires to fall in love, make party like crazy and cry in peace. “My personality is half and half,” he opens, suggesting there is a darkness beneath his luminous facade. He then sings about briefly escaping reality. “Everyone must have been caught like a fish / In a net of desire that results from the lust for life.” The sense of confinement stands in stark comparison to his confident, free-spirited attitude on “More,” when he effortlessly raps, “I’m a fish that’s met water,” an idiom that means “I’m in my element.” .
J-Hope was already a locally acclaimed teenage street dancer on a dance crew called Neuron He when he became a Big Hit Entertainment trainee in 2010. He brought both steely precision and boundless joy to his performances on stage, making him the unofficial dance captain of BTS. On this ecstatic dance-pop song, J-Hope sings about the feeling of dancing with someone and matching their moves.
J-Hope was such a big fan of Harlem’s Webstar and Bianca Bonnie song “Chicken Noodle Soup” that he reportedly paid $1.7 million to recreate the 2006 track with Mexican American hitmaker Becky G. It was an investment That Paid Off: The 2019 version was an instant hit, with its updated jangly trap beat and trilingual verses helping it chart in over 20 countries. (At the time of publication, the clip had over 355 million views on YouTube.) Since he references his dance team debut throughout the song, J-Hope called on one of his first mentors, Bangstar, to create new movements alongside the Sienna choreographers. Lalau and Son Sungdeuk.
A real tearjerker reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Hey Mama,” this heartfelt hip-hop song built on a playful saxophone riff is J-Hope’s ode to the woman who “created my breath that allowed me to feel the world,” reflecting on how her mother worked two jobs to support her dance lessons. He explains how his selflessness became the root of his drive to succeed, before getting into the chorus: “Hey Mama / Now you can lean on me, I’m always by your side.”
Another one world of hope cut that balances J-Hope’s internal landscape of light and dark, “POP (Piece of Piece)” offers an explanation of why he wants to act as a beacon of hope for his listeners. On the piano track, he nods to South Korea’s youth unemployment crisis (at the time of the song’s release, the rate for 15- to 29-year-olds was approaching 10%). And he raps that he wanted to tackle the problem directly – “Daily wages put our blood and sweat to shame” – before telling his fellow youths that the problem is not their fault. “I’m going to help them because I was like them,” he raps, “because I was someone who had a passion.”
Although officially billed as a BTS song, J-Hope is the only performer of this exuberant electronic dance track that closes the group’s 2020 year. Soul Card: 7, a concept recording where the members explored Jungian psychology principles of personality, shadow and ego. Another of his uptempo introspective tracks, “Outro: Ego” features J-Hope ruminating on his past as he wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t pursued the life of an idol. As the chorus erupts with a lively horn riff, he resolves to release his cares and follow fate as he races towards the shining road ahead of him.
“Intro: Boy Meets Evil” opens the band wings album and sets up the project’s themes of greed, temptation and immature love. Co-written by RM, J-Hope and their longtime producer, Pdogg, the dark hip-hop track is built on a jazzy sample that transitions into undulating dubstep. J-Hope’s ferocious rap depicts a series of chilling vignettes: bloodshed, references to hell and the mocking stares of strangers. He sounds intentionally haggard when he sings “I’m out of breath”, which also perhaps ties into later themes on “More”, where J-Hope says to himself “inhale, inhale, exhale, exhale / I’m living sense.”
While there are over a dozen songs that feature J-Hope’s ever-evolving flows, the third installment in BTS’ Cypher series is a fan favorite that sees the three rappers bring playful disses and punch lines. J-Hope covers the punchy track’s midsection, which combines gunshot sounds with traditional Korean music, snapping shots of “hip-hop losers” and unleashing a series of onomatopoeic rhymes. (For those looking for more BTS rap-line gold, “UGH!” and “Ddaeng” are two starting points.)
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jungkook appeared in “Trivia 起: Just Dance”. The piece has since been updated.