The world’s biggest boy band began as a hip-hop group.
BTS, a seven-piece pop outfit from South Korea, seamlessly blends its rap-loving origins with energetic pop music. Its frontman, Kim “RM” Nam-joon, is more “lead rapper” than “lead singer”; the name RM is an abbreviation of his original stage name, “Rap Monster," which he now says can ”symbolize many things;” most recently, he's said it stands for ”Real Me.” Since debuting, he’s helped shatter preconceptions of inauthenticity not only as a Korean pop idol but as an Asian rapper, an identity ridiculed in today’s hip-hop landscape.
RM’s success—and the success of his group—is a sign of the times. Along with BTS co-rappers Suga and J-Hope, he represents the boundaryless capabilities of hip-hop as the world’s most consumed (and essential) genre. Behind their leader (and his sexy brain), BTS has inspired one of the most formidable fan bases in music history while shattering pop music’s mise en place. The journey, as you might expect, has not always been glorious.
On YouTube, there’s an infamous video from 2013 in which group members RM and Suga are called out by fellow rapper B-Free, who questions BTS’s hip-hop bona fides as a burgeoning pop group. Their dancing and makeup was “like being a girl,” B-Free says. As Suga and RM explain their years of struggle in the underground as young, hungry emcees without a platform, their detractor dismisses their authenticity, adding, “You guys were people on the same path as us, but you couldn’t win over that temptation.”
Nam-joon began rapping as early as 2007 (when he was 13) and gained recognition as a part of the bubbling underground group DaeNamHyup before successfully auditioning for Big Hit Entertainment, where he’d become the first member of BTS in 2010. BTS eventually grew to prominence in the pop realm, but the Rap Monster refused to give in to the “sellout” brand and forget about hip-hop. His first solo mixtape, 2015’s RM, is a straightforward rap mixtape in the vein of Lil Wayne’s No Ceilings.
The biggest hit from the tape, "Do You," features Nam-joon expressing his discontent with self-help books, genre labels and, naturally, prevailing ideas of hip-hop authenticity over Pharrell and Major Lazer’s “Aerosol Can.” The English hook repeats the phrase “do you” as a call to respect one’s authentic self. Lyrics from this tape or numerous other verses from BTS cyphers (yes, they do cyphers) read almost like direct rebuttals to detractors like B-Free; to hip-hop heads dubious of a Korean pop idol’s veracity as a fellow head, much less as a legitimate rapper.
The group did not accept B-Free’s initial apology, so he retracted it. “I swear BTS got some retarded ass fans,” he tweeted. “When I see your oppas, I’mma bitch slap them so hard for all of y’all.” His 2014 hit single, “Hot Summer,” flaunts over six thousand likes—and over 10 thousand dislikes. A comeback single, 2018’s “City of Seoul,” bears over one thousand likes—and over 10 thousand dislikes. Among the top comments, from user “Namjoon’s BBG”: “City of Seoul? Nah fam, I only know Seoul by RM. STREAM MONO.”
Mono is the title of RM’s most recent solo project, an EP released last October to positive reviews. It’s a decidedly melodic, genreless effort by a polyvalent pop star who spent years establishing himself as a “traditional” hip-hop lyricist. It features fleshed out ideas of solitude, depression, and the search for meaning that were teased on tracks like “Adrift” on RM. Despite its poppier sensibilities, the EP continued to showcase RM’s knack for lyricism and thematic exploration.
RM often uses phonetics to tie additional meanings to Korean words; on “Moonchild,” he pronounces “isukhae” similarly to “it’s okay,” and plays with the two meanings of “tear” (crying and ripping apart). The lyrics and thematic elements present in his music have become the subject of feverish analysis, akin to a Lupe Fiasco or a Kendrick Lamar, especially by BTS fans who have built a connection with his thoughtful songwriting. RM has made good use of this connection, tackling themes like depression and anxiety, appealing to teens and young adults.
RM’s intellect, on and off the mic, is storied; in BTS, he’s branded as the “smart” one. A former top student in his academic days, RM learned English through watching the sitcom Friends. He now uses the language, with which he is by far the most fluent in the group, to become a primary communicator towards international audiences, including a moving speech at the United Nations.
“Because of his English, he’s one of the most accessible idols,” Dennis of kpopstups said on YouTube. “When it comes to straight hip-hop, he’s probably the single best (in my opinion, of course). I always like to refer to this song, which is, in my opinion, the best rapping any Korean idol has ever done. He raps really fast while changing up his flow and rhyme patterns every two to four bars.”
“As a technical matter, RM is a very good rapper,” says the venerable T.K. Park, a blogger from AskAKorean. “[He] strives for smoothness and naturality, but upon closer examination, his rap is finely curated and tightly woven.”
RM’s tightly woven lyricism is unsurprising considering his idols are rap legends. On BTS’ 2014 track “Hip-Hop Lover,” he rattles off a list of hip-hop heads’ most prestigious forefathers: JAY-Z, Nas, KRS-One, Gang Starr, and Black Star, to name a few. The first act he cites, however, is Epik High, a Seoul-based hip-hop group that helped shape the genre in Korea through the 2000s. Though U.S. audiences may still perceive Korean rappers as imitators of an American style, RM is different; he's a child of Korean hip-hop.
Writers like T.K. have been chronicling the culture for years, analyzing its development from a dance genre to an often awkward appropriation of Black American culture. Thanks to rappers like Verbal Jint, the genre’s popularity has ballooned over the years, but the question of authenticity about Korean hip-hop still looms large both at home and abroad.
In his 2015 article, “What’s Real in Korean Hip Hop? A Historical Perspective,” T.K. examines the progression of the genre:
“To hell with the snobs, I say. True authenticity requires no justification because it justifies itself. Today, Korea’s foremost rappers express their genuine selves through intricate rhyme and flow. Listen for yourself, and tell me it’s all a lie. I dare you.” —T.K.
The term “idol” has its own meaning in Korea, a reference to K-Pop groups that form under entertainment agencies, build massive followings and undergo a rigorous training regimen. The result is likely somewhat familiar to American readers: widely popular acts like BIGBANG with pristine production quality, crisp choreography, and legions of fans. While rap stylings often complement danceable pop music, its presence typically serves as an aesthetic element. It has hardly been an invocation of what American heads recognize as “real hip-hop.”
Before BTS began their career as a hip-hop group and marketed itself partially through featuring its own hip-hop stars, there were groups like 1TYM that branded themselves similarly. But as Bong-hyeon Kim points out in Youngdae Kim’s book BTS The Review: A Comprehensive Look at the Music of BTS, fans have long viewed the balancing act between being an idol group and being a legitimate hip-hop act as impossible; that idols could never be authentically hip-hop. “1TYM was chastised for the quality of their music,” Kim said. “People would say, ‘That’s not the authentic hip-hop that I know.’”
One can argue BTS has figured this balance out, but it took years. Their arrival as a hip-hop idol group—both rocking makeup and running cyphers—was met with intense disapproval. “They were specifically bashed in terms of authenticity and legitimacy,” Kim recalled. “Their smokey makeup and perfectly arranged choreography became the target of condemnation. People would question, ‘Why are men wearing makeup?’ or ‘Why would rappers dance?’... It made me realize how idols and hip-hop inherently conflict with one another.”
Kim’s commentary illustrates what B-Free implied when he told RM and Suga they could not “resist temptation.” The two rappers were young, struggling artists with a world of talent. Their decision to join an idol group, to wear a smokey eye and dance next to heartthrob vocalists, was depicted as selling out for money and fame. “I understand both sides,” RM reiterated in addressing the skepticism. It was 2013, and he was only 19, with a mountain of pressure to climb and questions to answer.
As a member of a pop group, RM was pressured by fans to become a legit rap star, a unique duality which his microphone skills alone could not help him accomplish. Even as BTS blew up as a seven-member act, rarely releasing straightforward hip-hop music after their initial success, RM used his time in the spotlight to remind listeners that not only could he really rap, but that he saw hip-hop as his raison d’etre. As a given, he writes his own verses, but RM also helps write other BTS lyrics, including lines on the neo-soul inspired “Singularity” performed by V at his personal recording studio, RKive.
“RM has an important place in Korean hip-hop history,” T.K. tells DJBooth. “There has been a constant tension between idol acts and hip-hop artists in Korea, where the hip-hop community would look askance at idol acts for being overproduced. But because RM established his identity as an artist through hip-hop, he was able to pull the two communities together and find legitimacy as both an idol and a rapper.”
A perfect example of RM’s synthesis is “Timeless,” a 2018 collaboration with Korean hip-hop legend Tiger JK (AKA Drunken Tiger), in which Namjoon pays homage to his OG. “Your whole life was a damn concert / Whether you like it or not you raised another monster,” he quips in English, directly tying his birth as an artist—a K-Pop idol and superstar—to Drunken Tiger’s influence as a certified Korean hip-hop legend. Tiger JK will tell you himself that RM defied his expectations as an idol and as an artist. The gap is bridged.
After years of controversy surrounding Korean artists’ appropriations of hip-hop and black culture, from the Keith Ape-OG Maco feud to numerous blackface scandals (content warning), that the most successful K-Pop group in history would not only respect hip-hop to such a degree but work to impact the genre for the better, is an extraordinary feat. Then again, if you know BTS, it makes sense. At the heart of their spectacle is, well, heart; they brand themselves with authenticity, not merely by offering big tent platitudes of self-love, but by attempting to remain as authentic to themselves as possible.
The group continually shares behind-the-scenes content, including a reality TV show in which they flew to America to grow as a hip-hop act through different obstacles. They share their lives and reflections through home footage and interviews in their “Comeback shows.” Their music often deals with mental health-related themes; their most recent three-part album series is entitled “Love Yourself.” Their biggest hits often reflect on self-love in ways that are potent, punchy, and ultimately, honest; this includes “IDOL,” a single that received the remix from Nicki Minaj. The song, one of their biggest mainstream successes to date, begins with RM’s incisive reflections on people’s perceptions of himself and his group:
“You can call me artist / You can call me idol / Anim eotteon dareun mwora haedo, I don’t care.”
[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly listed "Moonchild" as "Moonlight," and failed to mention that RM stands for "Real Me."]