Before Jimin was sure he could release a solo debut album, his fellow BTS members believed in him first.
It was last spring, and the group was in Las Vegas, carrying out the last shows on their “Permission to Dance on Stage” stadium tour. In between nights, he opened up to his brother-like band members over drinks about the self-doubt that had begun to accumulate during the pandemic. That’s when he received the encouragement he needed from the group, who will celebrate their 10-year anniversary this summer, and felt prepared enough to embark on his own project.
“I was thinking things like, ‘Why am I living like this? What am I doing right now?’” he tells Rolling Stone through an interpreter, speaking on an early spring morning from the HYBE office in Seoul. His bandmates assured him that everyone goes through these growing pains. They suggested that expressing himself through music could offer a way forward.
Now, the 27-year-old artist from Busan, South Korea is preparing his vision as a solo pop star with Face, a captivating six-track album. Across the project, which is full of various moods that veer from spiky and hard-hitting to velvety and sleek, Jimin portrays the conflicting feelings he’s had about himself and his journey as an artist. Though he wasn’t originally a singer when he joined Big Hit Entertainment at age 16, he’s grown to develop one of K-pop’s most unique voices: It’s sweet, with delicately sharp edges, and he contorts his vowels as if they were soft curls of smoke. Through these subtle inflections, he conveys bitter isolation on the melancholic R&B song “Alone,” but then quickly switches to explosive anger on “Set Me Free Pt. 2.” On that boisterous, horn-laden hip-hop track, he proclaims that he’s entering a new era where he “won’t hide anymore even if it hurts,” singing as if he’s gritting his teeth.
The project is a bold evolution from Jimin’s work in BTS, where he’s shown his penchant for making emotional R&B through tracks like 2016’s “Wings” and the sultry Latin-pop-inflected “Filter.” In 2018, he showed he could take on an acoustic singer-songwriter approach with his debut solo single “Promise” — which recently got an official release after living only on SoundCloud for years. For the upcoming Face singles, he also teases meticulously prepared performances, which have become a signature for the skilled dancer whose fluid, yet powerful style is informed by his background in modern dance and martial arts. (To see the full scope of his talent, fans can watch his viral contemporary dance to “I Need U” at the 2019 MMA awards, where he flips and spins effortlessly as if he were wind personified, or his scene-stealing performance in 2020’s “Black Swan.”) He’s come a long way since he was a teenager impersonating the sensual performance style of his role model, Big Bang’s Taeyang; this January, he experienced a full circle moment when he was featured on the K-pop veteran’s long-awaited solo track “Vibe.”
Jimin explores a mesmerizing mix of emotions on the album’s lead single “Like Crazy,” which will come in both English and Korean versions. He found inspiration in the 2011 Drake Doremus-directed drama of the same name. Struck by the film’s depiction of a passionate romance between a British woman and American man whose relationship can never stabilize because of visa issues and their respective careers, he tried to convey these ambiguous feelings through the song’s choreography. He’s a perfectionist to his core: When I tell him that I’m looking forward to these performances, his response is simply, “I’ll work hard.”
This album is called Face. What does the title mean to you?
In this album, I look back at myself. I heard that the word “face” has many different meanings. Of course, it has the meaning of the noun, face, but it also means, “to face, to [confront],” as a verb. So in order to stand at this new starting point and begin a new journey, I thought it would be necessary to look back at myself and face myself entirely.
When you looked back at yourself, did you discover something new?
I wouldn’t say that I felt something new. But when I look back at myself during the pandemic and the emotions that I felt then, I actually didn’t really realize the feelings I had back then. [I thought] I was fine. I was happy. I was just enjoying things. But looking back, I realized that those weren’t the only feelings [I had]. After realizing that, I just thought that I should overcome [these feelings]. I think I kind of learned how to become a grown-up. I realize that I felt various emotions during the pandemic.
When you look at the lyrics on this album, there are themes of loneliness, wrestling with yourself, and of finding freedom. What kind of thoughts and feelings did you have while writing these lyrics?
I’m actually not good at beating around the bush, or indirectly saying things, and that’s the same with my lyrics. I just wrote the emotions as they were, exactly how I felt two years ago, and the emotions that I felt in every situation [at that time]. So if you just listen to the music, you’ll understand the lyrics right away.
How did you want to express yourself musically or production-wise on this project?
Since for every song, the emotions are all different, I wanted to express those feelings the way they are through the [production]. In the first part [of the album], there’s anger. The main track [“Like Crazy”], it feels happy, but there’s also loneliness behind it. Also, the choreography for the main track and the pre-release single, “Set Me Free Pt. 2” are totally different.
“Interlude: Set Me Free” is a song by Suga, from his 2020 mixtape D-2 as Agust D. How is this song and your song “Set Me Free Pt. 2” connected?
I think it would be hard to say that they’re actually connected. But when I was working on this song, I just thought that the phrase “set me free” would be the perfect title for it. Then I realized that there’s a song with the same name on Suga’s mixtape already. When I listened to that song, I realized it’s also a song about the struggles of becoming more mature, becoming a grown-up. So I thought it would make sense for my song to become the “part two” to that song. If we do have a chance or opportunity, I think it would be nice for him to do a feature on my song. [Laughs]
The first song, “Face-Off,” starts out with a melody that sounds like carnival music. What is that supposed to represent?
It doesn’t actually have a specific meaning or significance. But when I worked on this song, the producers and I started fooling around with different pianos and instruments. When you listen to it, you realize this song is very intense, rebellious, and has a lot of anger. But starting it like that [with the carnival sound] would be a stark contrast to the rest of those vibes. So they said, ‘You know, if you start the song like this, it would be kind of paradoxical or ironic, and it could be pretty fun.”
With “Interlude: Dive,” there are sounds of water and then sounds of you talking on stage. What kind of story is that track telling?
Originally, the first track was “Face-Off,” which is really intense and rebellious, and the next track was the main track, “Like Crazy,” which has a feeling of dreamy intoxication. I thought it would be nice to have something in-between that would bridge those two tracks, so that’s how we came up with “Dive.” If you listen to the track, you might hear sounds of someone panting for air, or me running somewhere. I wanted to give this feeling that I was lost and wandering. So I tried a lot of different things [for that song]. I actually recorded myself running around using my phone, and it was a fun process.
For “Like Crazy,” you were inspired by the film Like Crazy. What did you like in particular about this movie, and how did it influence the song?
I was actually on YouTube, and I came across this video of a mashup between this song “In Return” by Breakbot and clips of this movie. I was like, “Oh what is this?” and that led me to watching the movie. I thought it would be very romantic and sweet, but it turned out that it’s actually a very realistic and stark depiction of a breakup. So when we were talking about the main track, this movie suddenly came to my mind, and I thought it would fit well with the kind of song [we wanted to make]. So I watched the film again, and I included different points of inspiration [into the song]. There are some interesting excerpts of dialogue at the beginning and at the end [of the track] that express exactly what I wanted to say.
Can you share what the “Like Crazy” choreography and performance is going to be like?
I tried to express the feelings of that movie… You know, the somewhat complex, somewhat lonely, somewhat happy emotions. I tried to express all these ambiguous and subtle emotions in a slightly sexy way, but I’m not sure how it’ll end up being received by people. [Laughs]
I know that you have a background in modern dance, as well as different martial arts like taekwondo and kendo. How do you think these different movement forms influence your dance style now?
Honestly, when I started to learn choreography, I thought my background in modern dance and different kinds of movement would be a hindrance to me. But when I was establishing my own way of expressing choreography after debuting, I think those things actually became hugely helpful. What I thought would be bad habits ended up having a positive impact. I could see dances with a different perspective than other people, and I could mix in my modern dance style or incorporate powerful acrobatics into the choreography. So I think those foundational forms actually built who I am now.
When you were preparing this album, how did the other members help you? Or how were you influenced by them during the process?
Actually, my members were the people who made it possible for me to start preparing this album. This all began at the [Permission to Dance on Stage] concerts in Las Vegas last year, and at the time, I was struggling with the emotions that ended up in [“Like Crazy”]… While we were talking over drinks, I told them, “I don’t know if I’m doing well. I don’t even know what I’m doing.” But the members said that it’s perfectly fine to feel that way, that it’s okay to feel lost sometimes. They suggested, “Why don’t you express these emotions through music?”
So the moment I returned to Korea from the United States, I met up with the producers and started working on music right away. I’m so thankful to my members for inspiring me to start working on this album. I don’t know how people are going to react to the music, but I actually was able to completely resolve and move on from all those feelings of being lost. I’m perfectly okay now, so I’m so very thankful to them.
What was it about the Las Vegas concerts that brought up all these emotions for you?
As you know, we couldn’t meet our fans in person during the pandemic. At that time, I didn’t feel like I had enough space or time to be able to reflect on myself. So I [lived] not really knowing what I was doing, or why I was working so hard up to that point and for what. Each day, I had all these different thoughts and emotions. But during the Las Vegas concerts, I had the chance to talk with my members about how they were also surviving during this time. Before, I thought that I was the only one who was feeling and acting weird, and that all my members were still working really hard and still looked really cool, that they were shining on their own. I thought I was the odd one out, so talking to them really helped me get back on my feet.
On a different subject, what was it like working with Taeyang on “Vibe?”
It was such a happy memory for me. As you know, he has been my role model since I was little. So the fact that I could meet him, listen to him sing right next to me, be able to closely observe him working on music, dance with him, film the music video, and perform together… All of it made me so happy.
When Taeyang appeared on Suga’s interview series, Suchwita, he said that you’re someone who works really hard. Hearing this, how do you view yourself?
I contacted him a lot during the entire process of recording and practicing “Vibe.” I actually took a lot of time recording my parts on my own, since it’s not a very easy song. I think everytime I made a new recording, I sent it over to him, like, “This is today’s version of the recording, could you listen to it please?” Then the next day, I would send a new recording and say, “I fixed these details, what do you think of today’s version?” After he saw me doing that, I think that maybe that’s why he said that and saw me in a positive way.
Can you describe the way that you practice while preparing to release a new album?
There’s something I always say to the producers I work with: “Practice is the answer.” If I have some time after I finish work in the evenings, I practice singing with the producers. I practice dancing. I keep trying to spend as much time practicing as I can. It’s just an infinite cycle of practicing.