Article. Kang Myungseok
Photo Credit. BIGHIT MUSIC
In the music video for “Outro: Ego,” j-hope’s solo song off BTS’ album MAP OF THE SOUL: 7, the singer is bedridden as doctors check his vital signs. The same happens in the music video for “MORE,” the first single off his solo album Jack In The Box, released on the 15th, where he adopts a persona named Jack. j-hope’s vitals are restored through love and joy in the “Outro: Ego” video, and the monitor reappears in the “MORE” music video, but on Jack’s opposite side this time. Where the monitor once was is an x-ray image of Jack’s skeleton.

In “Outro: Ego,” j-hope’s efforts, captured in the line, “every day ask me, guess it, whip it, repeat,” are reinforced by the line, “I don’t care, it’s all / Choices by my fate.” It’s that strength that allows him a life where “the way is shinin’.” Conversely, in “MORE,” he’s still “self-learning for 11 years” for his art that “I crash and fall to make” because he’s still after performing in a “stadium with ma fans” and winning “all the trophies.” While “Outro: Ego” focuses on the present and the shimmering path to the future, “MORE” looks at his desire to succeed even more. Between the releases of the two songs was the pandemic. In a V LIVE j-hope held on the 16th titled “Check out what’s in Jack In The Box,” he revealed that he made “MORE” in 2020 after the pandemic started. He also worked on BTS’ album BE during the pandemic as well, and on his track “Dis-ease” he speaks to the anxiety and push to “fight tooth and nail for results daily when there was no work to do after the pandemic first started. If the “stadium with ma fans” and “all the trophies” mentioned in “MORE” are seen as achievements, then these could be seen as an obsessive drive caused by anxiety rather than ambition. It isn’t easy to see a bright future ahead when pandemic-induced anxiety sets in. The j-hope heard in “Outro: Ego” wants to use the past to ensure the present is satisfying and leads to a glimmering future, but the life that the j-hope in “MORE” experienced during the pandemic cast the future in uncertainty. All he can do is push himself to get something more. “MORE” is a reconstruction of j-hope’s past, present and future from an entirely different perspective from “Outro: Ego,” which reflects on j-hope’s life and paints a picture of an artist who has found enormous success through his “whip”-like efforts. But nothing about life is so certain in “MORE.”
The song before “MORE,” “Pandora’s Box,” dives into the genesis of j-hope’s name. The “hope” portion was borrowed from “Pandora’s history,” meaning “a frame that’s meant to be the hope of BTS.” By contrast, “MORE” links the genesis of  “hope” with a dark personal story that takes place during the pandemic. In that sense, the Jack in Jack In The Box is open to interpretation. Jack could be an unknown being who emerges from Pandora’s box in place of hope, but he only appears once j-hope opens the box in the “MORE” video. In other words, he comes about as a result of “hope” opening it. This suggests an interesting contradiction: Can “hope” remove “hope” from Pandora’s box? And, if j-hope himself is  “hope,” then what is his own hope?

In “Dis-ease,” j-hope turns to “a sip of coffee” as a way to get through the anxiety that accompanies the pandemic. His positivity allows him to swallow down any distress in a single gulp. The opening of the “Outro: Ego” video is a flash of images of BTS ranging from their debut and up to the video’s release. It’s a solo song for j-hope but it also belongs to all of BTS; j-hope and his song are a vehicle through which to demonstrate remarkable history of success. However, while functioning as the group’s hope, j-hope has no box in which he can find his own source of hope to relieve his anxiety. When he sings solo, he becomes Jack, not  hope, and explores the part of himself that was hidden under his “hope” name. j-hope groups his album’s songs into three chapters, each raising its own questions. While the set of “Intro,” “Pandora’s Box” and “MORE” takes a look back into the past beginning with the origins of j-hope’s name and reconstructs it from Jack’s perspective, “STOP” and “= (Equal Sign)” run with the idea that “I’ll enlighten myself first / It’s just distinction not discrimination” in terms of the world he sees and the people in it. The instrumental “Music Box: Reflection” comes next in the tracklist, serving as a turning point in the album, followed by “What If…,” which challenges the listener to ask themselves if they should be so critical: “to love yourself and get some hope? Even though you lose everything and hit bottom, can you really say that?” By rethinking the way he approaches his origins, he gains an interest in the world and others around him, which in turn leads to an examination of the dilemma that arises in the relationship between himself and the rest of the world. Looking at the lyrics of the next song, “Safety Zone,” provides some insight into what j-hope set out to say with the album: “Where can I find a stump to sit and quietly reflect on what’s happened?” Judging by these lyrics, Jack In The Box seems as though it acts as a mental “stump” or safe zone from which j-hope can conduct personal reflection. He lifts his inner Jack out of the box—his “Safety Zone”—and takes a look at himself. Jack may come across as j-hope’s dark side for the spooky mood he exudes, but he actually appears to be a guide who helps j-hope toward self-reflection.

The process of accepting his life as it is while observing it and discovering his deepest concerns leads him to a breakthrough. He goes on to admit knowing, with “bruised” pride, that “nothing is forever” in the next track, “Future.” j-hope knows that the future “can’t be determined / The closer it is the scarier it gets / And it’s harder to deal with alone”; he doesn’t deny reality or try to escape it. Instead, he chooses to be “the most suitable, the most like me” and tries to fight for himself and “as myself.” He knows he can’t be the “salmon swimming against the current.” But that’s why he would rather have a future that “looks necessary to me and finds hope through courage and faith.” Listeners will likely discern the reason j-hope went with childlike backing vocals and a children’s chorus in the song: The children whose futures stretch beyond his will be impacted by him regardless of his choices. While he mulls over the strength he has found from being a member of BTS in “What If…” and the weakness he has found from the same in “Safety Zone,” in “Future,” he accepts his responsibility. And hope is the inner strength that props up that sense of responsibility. At this point, the “hope” in j-hope is more than simply a word—one that symbolizes j-hope and his role in BTS—and is now also the compass that guides j-hope through life and a fundamental part of his identity gained through continuous self-reflection. Just as hope never left Pandora’s box, j-hope has left a trail of hope throughout his lifetime of experience and contemplation. In the Jack In The Box intro, hope is the mythical property that remains in Pandora’s box; after listening to the full album, hope becomes faith in the real world and therefore a sense of motivation.

“Music Box: Reflection” is a mix of an actual music box and samples of j-hope breathing. His breathing first fluctuates prominently side to side before receding into the background. While we typically associate the sound of a music box with slowly lulling children to sleep, here it sounds more like the prelude to a nightmare. Assuming that it’s Jack making those breathing noises, that would make him a monster. But once the interlude ends, the songs “What If…,” “Safety Zone” and “Future” progressively lighten up the mood with less weighty beats. Still, even in “Future,” the brightest of those tracks, j-hope’s rapping continues to sound distant and somewhat subdued. Given that Jack In The Box is an exploration of j-hope’s issues and worries and his path to acceptance of his anxieties surrounding the future, even a song that carries a message of hope can’t be entirely optimistic and upbeat. The cover art for the album, created by contemporary artist KAWS, intuitively captures what it is that j-hope’s music embodies. At first glance, the characters in KAWS’ works appear playful because of their bright colors and the ways they are posed, but they elicit complex emotions. The same goes for the cover of Jack In The Box, where j-hope sits on brightly colored hands in a black and white checkerboard suit. The overall sense of color and pop art are similar to the cover of his mixtape Hope World, but the emotion KAWS’ cover conveys isn’t nearly so bright and positive. j-hope uses different elements of self-expression to show his core identity to be dark, complex and ultimately true to himself.

j-hope’s creation of Jack is one of the most phenomenal parts of Jack In The Box. The album uses the intense character of Jack as a powerful symbol of the complicated process of self-exploration found throughout. But the more you listen to the album, the more it becomes clear just how important Jack’s role is. As a character who can take the beautiful sound of a music box and warp it into a scene of darkness and fear, Jack seems to symbolize j-hope’s darker side. With a dark side added to the innate hopeful side of j-hope, the artist is now capable of expressing himself through a wider spectrum of emotions as in “= (Equal Sign)” or “Future,” even though he still presents his thoughts through upbeat songs with positive messages like before. Jack is both a symbol of Jack In The Box and a prominent recurring figure throughout, like a rabbit in a maze that helps listeners follow the hidden complexities of the album.

By following the “Jack” rabbit, j-hope creates something entirely removed from his past work. A beat close to old-school hip hop weaves its way through the songs and lays the foundation for the entire album, while the bass sounds more like it was created through an effects plugin than live playing and contributes an ominous atmosphere that fills the listener’s entire surroundings if listened aloud on speakers. The sound effects that play in front of, behind and to the sides of the listener help to immerse them in the soundscape constructed to tell a story belonging to Jack, j-hope and Jeong Hoseok all at once. Jack In The Box, then, is like a movie that comes wrapped up in an old-school hip hop album. j-hope’s thoughts come through not only his raps but through the soundscape itself, making him both a rapper and a storyteller or actor. The way the album changes subtly and logically across the tracks is a clear reflection of that world. The bass in both “Pandora’s Box” and “MORE” is so deep that it seems to sit on your chest when listening at loud enough a volume, while the distortion in the background of “Pandora’s Box” becomes a key guitar motif in “MORE.” The deeper tones begin to disappear as the songs become brighter and move toward j-hope’s message, reflecting his philosophy and how he sees the world. j-hope revealed that “What If…” samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” He made this album using the music he listened to as a trainee as the bones and filled it out with exquisite sound design and hi-fi vocals. Just 11 years ago, j-hope was a trainee improving his rap skills by listening to old-school hip hop. Now he’s become a global superstar who has achieved his goal of reflecting on his past and present life using the same sound.

Only seven people in the world can call themselves a member of BTS, and j-hope can count himself among them. But he neither revels in nor rejects this fact. Instead, he goes about his unusual everyday life, fulfilling what he must, even though it would be hard for others to relate to him. He dives into what kind of person he is and thinks about what he will do in the world, all the while aware that what he can do is affected by his unique position in it. He also worked with KAWS to top off an album whose sound he had already worked so diligently toward. As such, his rapping inevitably harkens back to the tastes and influences he’s had throughout his life, including Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Seo Taiji and Boys’ “1996, When They Conquered the World” and the Buddhist ideal that everything relies on the mind (the lyrics “greed, envy, anger, jealousy” from “Pandora’s Box” match both the rhythm and the flow of a line from that Seo Taiji and Boys’ song [“war, drugs, murder, terror”]; BTS were guests at the concert for the 25th anniversary of the debut of the group’s leader). j-hope created a character that encompasses all these things in one concept and released merchandise based on that character! j-hope took everything that made him who he is today and made it into Jack In The Box, and packaged it in a way that only a member of BTS could. The album also represents the first attempt to answer a question that it and all the members of BTS will and do face: What can—and what should—the members of BTS do in their solo work? In j-hope’s case, he chose art.
Let’s take one last look at the “Outro: Ego” music video. In the video, j-hope starts out bedridden, but makes a full recovery and hopes into a red car. He drives the car toward the seemingly endless “shinin’ way.” But this never happens in the “MORE” video. There, j-hope checks his vitals, but never leaves the building throughout. The car appears later in the video for “Arson,” the last track off Jack In The Box. j-hope walks among a line of burned-out cars. Behind him is a house—specifically, a large painting of one—in flames. In the “Outro: Ego” video, j-hope walks forward against a background made from a collage of photos. “Arson” repeats this walking idea, but this time in a true three-dimensional space, where everything is up in flames and broken. He wears the same white outfit from “MORE,” but here the fire has caused them to be somewhere between white and black. The deep sound effects that gradually taper off as the album progresses toward “Future” return to once again press down on the soundscape and the clear, knifelike drumbeat adds tension. j-hope doesn’t rap as intensely in Jack In The Box as he does in  songs until he arrives at “Arson,” where he states, “Let’s burn … It’s done.” His “motivation behind my thoughtless ambition” has all burned up and now says his “part of the job [is] done,” adding, “Leaving when there’s still / Applause, that’s the style.” It’s quite the unexpected turn away from the endless shining path of “Outro: Ego.” j-hope falls back onto the ground at the end of the “Arson,” and the video ends there. However, Jack In The Box is only whole once this video ends. Beginning with The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series,  history as a group has been just like in the “Outro: Ego” video: They rose up and overcame every obstacle on their endless path to unbelievable success. But by going solo, j-hope seems to have put an end to that path in “Arson.” Throughout Jack In The Box, j-hope’s self-reflection points to hope for the future, but he eventually confesses that, once your heart’s been burned, no great human act will help to restore it. The road has come to an end, but the human dilemma of endless questions, reflection and the search for answers continues on. The artists didn’t come into his success with an inflated ego; he reflected on his current situation and turned it into an album. Making art based in self-reflection is likely a long-standing desire for both j-hope and BTS. It’s a desire for all artists—one that, like the hope that remains in Pandora’s box, won’t disappear even after everything else has burned to the ground.