February 2020 seems like an unfathomable lifetime ago. But it’s only been nine months — nine months — since K-pop megastars BTS last released a new album in the U.S.
These were perhaps the most anxious, gargling-bad-news-hourly stretch of nine months in recent history. The world that greeted the release of BTS’ fifth studio album “Be” on Friday is a smoldering wreck compared to what life felt like in February for the Army faithful, when the pandemic had barely crossed shores and “Map of the Soul: 7” debuted at No. 1 around the globe.
But for the most devoted fandom in all of pop music, this album — often slower, more reflective and refined than its last — is still a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
“Be” marks the coronation of the South Korean group as not just a commercial juggernaut for the already-devoted, but as a driving force in the widest reaches of American pop culture.
Not even the world’s biggest band (“Map of the Soul: 7” trails only Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” for the year’s bestselling album) has made it through the pandemic unscathed. The trim, eight-song “Be” is a product of a frantic pop world left with tours obliterated by COVID-19. But BTS, one of the biggest live draws on the planet, had much more time on its hands in the studio without a worldwide stadium tour. That meant more original songwriting, production work and visual concepts from the band members.
That independence and intimacy in their songwriting was always a point of pride for BTS in the hierarchical, micromanaged K-pop industry, but now with “Be” it’s proof they can beat the U.S. at its own chart game.
“Dynamite,” the breakout single on “Be,” has already topped the Billboard Hot 100 with its fizzy, throwback disco vibes (and notably English-language lyrics). “Stay” and “Telepathy” are right in line with it, heavy on the post-EDM sizzle and funk bass driving hits like Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart.”
But new songs like “Life Goes On” and “Dis-ease” — each driven by slow-rolling retro hip-hop beats — acknowledge the grind of the COVID-19 world while trying to keep fans resolved that better days are ahead.