BTS’ Suga Keeps Shattering Expectations — and Social Norms

The Daegu native is an acclaimed emcee, a hotly pursued producer, and an activist pushing for social change.
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Min Yoon-gi’s “The Last” begins with the line: “On the other side of the famous rapper stands my weak self.” He continues: “Sometimes I’m afraid of myself too, because of the self-disgust and depression.” 

Yoon-gi, better known by his stage name Suga and for his membership in the world-famous South Korean group BTS, released “The Last” in 2016 when suicide rates were the number one cause of death for young people in South Korea. Though the country has seen economic growth since World War II, as well as technological advancements and renowned entertainment, beneath its hailed qualities, lays an urgent mental health crisis. Young people are battling depression and anxiety due to a multitude of pressures, including increased unemployment for young college graduates as the South Korean economy begins to slow.

For the uninitiated, Korean celebrities are generally not encouraged to speak up about mental health, given the taboo nature of the subject. Suga knew a conversation was necessary, though, so he started one.

In addition to being a groundbreaking record, “The Last” is also a standout selection from Suga’s debut mixtape, Agust D, a project showcasing his talent for technically challenging rapping, storytelling, and signature unbridled energy. The record shocked legions of devotees upon release, not only for the dark feelings and experiences Suga shares but also for its confrontational approach to themes of depression. “The doctor asked me if I--” Suga says, alluding to suicidality, before being cut off by a censoring beep. He responds to the beep: “I said, without question, I have been like that before.

“There was shock as a fan about the confession being that raw and about Yoon-gi letting us in his head,” Twitter user and fan @blaqbfly tells me. Bfly, an artist and music enthusiast who has amassed a large following on Twitter, in part, from stanning Yoon-gi and his bandmates, has an admitted Suga “bias.” “It’s Yoon-gi laying out the facts, being quite graphic about the darkest parts and saying, 'You make the decision to help yourself in the end.'”

Mental health is one of several subjects Suga tackles on Agust D, which finds the 26-year-old taking on the alternate name in distinction from his presence with BTS. Every song feels like a message of rebellion. Especially the title track, which features an abrasive horn sample, pounding drum programming, and some of the most aggressive and technically difficult Korean rapping you’ll hear. In case you thought shit was sweet with Suga, it’s not.

You wasted rappers should be grateful that I’m an idol,” he raps.

These lyrical moments feel like refutations of onlookers who disregard Suga’s legitimacy as a hip-hop artist because he’s a part of BTS. To the unenlightened, they appear as an Asian *NSYNC, a cash cow for the boy crazy, a nonsubstantive trend. But this is the hype, not the reality. Not if Suga can help it, at least. “My size is different to fit in the K-pop category,” he warns us.

From an early age, Suga devoted himself to the pursuit of a music career. This can be seen in a song like “First Love,” wherein he details falling in love with his first piano. Still, the chase often found him empty-handed. A popular behind-the-scenes clip features Suga discussing his monetary struggles: “When I was 17, 18,” he begins, “if I ate two-dollar jjajangmyun, I had no money to take a bus. Even if I sold a song, I didn’t get paid.”

On “724148,” Suga details his encounter with the 2010 auditions held by Big Hit Entertainment to form what would become BTS. “It’s the rapping competition organized by Bang Sihyuk,” he recalls. If Suga was going to lift himself out of his less-than-optimal situation, he would somehow have to stand out. So, in proper Yoon-gi fashion, he broke the norm, adding additional production to one of the instrumentals sent out for auditioners to use. “The beat they gave us to rap on, I changed the entire thing,” he remembers.

Since releasing Agust D, Suga has continued his development both as a young man and as an artist. He continues to produce on a large scale, with an oeuvre including the song “Eternal Sunshine” with influential rap group Epik High. More recently, Suga produced “We Don’t Talk Together” for Korean R&B singer Heize. The record won Korea’s Sunday music show, Inkigayo, and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard World Digital Song Sales Chart. The song, which features Suga’s production and writing, flows between musical styles, from trap to traditional R&B, with lush instrumentation purveying a sweet saudade. The track certified Yoon-gi’s name as a hit record producer; specifically, a “musical genius” being sought after by numerous artists and industry professionals.

Popular discourse about BTS often seems to omit mention of Suga. It’s not that Suga is a peripheral member of the group, or any less beloved than his six bandmates, or any less influential in the mix, musically. But he’s quiet. The capital-S Spotlight often goes to RM, the group’s translator and head cowboy in charge; Jungkook, the group’s unflappable golden maknae; or Jimin, the enrapturing beau with the heart of a proud mom. In “BTS: The Review,” K-Pop scholar Youngdae Kim describes Suga, in contrast, as “BTS’ hidden talent and musical backbone.”

Suga appears okay with playing the background, though; he’s gained a reputation as the group’s most reserved (and snappish) member. When he shows up on a track, it’s often to provide a moment of thoughtful, rapid-fire aggression, such as his four-bar effort on “Fake Love.” On last summer’s compilation album, Love Yourself: Answer, he contributed a solo track (“Seesaw”), displaying a knack for somber melodies over dancey pop instrumentation not unlike newer records by RM. Shockingly, Suga sings, saunters, and dances nimbly—a reminder that, yes, Min Yoon-gi, the aggressive rapper who doesn't fit in the "idol" category, is also a pop star and proud of it. Much like his production work, “Seesaw” is a reminder that the 26-year-old still has plenty of dimensions left to show in his personality and musicality.

Despite his musical focus and his reservation, much of the worship Suga receives from stans and casual fans alike comes from what he does outside of music. Suga is the most outspoken member of BTS on social and political issues. He’s commented publicly about body image, urging fans not to skip meals and condemning “mass media” for “making ‘thin’ and ‘skinny’ the absolute standard of beauty.” He’s clapped at politicians and mandatory Korean military service. He’s spoken in support of Muslim women, LGBTQ+ communities and, famously, shared a unique philosophical message about how “it’s okay not to have a dream… if you’re happy, that’s all that matters.”

Suga sees his music as a platform through which he and his bandmates can change the world. He once remarked during a press conference for Love Yourself: Her that “it isn’t a BTS album if there isn’t a track criticizing society.” This ethos is part of what makes BTS so unique; they strive to uplift the minds and spirits of their audience.

Among the group’s socially-minded works is “Satoori Rap,” an old chestnut released before BTS’ debut featuring the rap line embracing unity between regions of Korea and celebrating their unique parlances. Suga, a devout celebrator of his hometown, Daegu, spits in a “Gyeongsang dialect,” which is shared by bandmates Jimin, V, and Jungkook. This fondness for embracing South Korea's different cultures is both a reminder that Koreans are not a monolith and an example of how hip-hop’s fascination with representing regionality permeates not only in the United States but in every nation.

Despite the importance of Suga’s messages outside of music, what he’s communicating within his material is making a considerable difference. A fan comment on “The Last” on YouTube illustrates the weight of his work: “I was about to become one of the teens in the suicide rate, but after listening to artists that I loved, I decided to stay.”

Though “The Last” is arguably his best work, it is but one of many examples of Suga rebelling against expectations. “The Last” defied expectations of mental health and K-pop idols; Agust D defied expectations of how K-Pop artists should rap; “Seesaw” defied expectations of what he can do musically.

Suga is likely the purest rap archetype that BTS, and idol music, in general, has to offer. He has no interest in taking center stage in the world’s biggest pop group. His DNA matches more with defiant emcees like Tech N9ne and Verbal Jint. His life’s love, the piano, doesn’t make for great choreography. Hip-hop, though it is the most significant cultural movement and most popular genre in the world, is still not pop.”

Defiance is Suga’s bread-and-butter, and BTS is made better for it. Defying expectations allowed Suga to reach the music. Defying expectations for what a rapper can and should sound and look like landed him in BTS. Defying expectations of K-pop idols has made him one of Korea’s best emcees and one of its best producers.

The world has always expected certain things of Suga. But Suga doesn’t give a shit.

Editor’s Note: We updated this article, removing a description of BTS member Jimin that some readers found offensive. We apologize to our readers.

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