OA year ago today, the leader of the world’s biggest pop group, stood under a glare and told more than 50,000 fans about his fears. Kim Namjoon, better known by his stage name RM, had guided his BTS peers through the vagaries of early pandemic life – a canceled world tour, delayed music releases and life plans, illness. In an emotional speech during a concert in Los Angeles last December, the then 27-year-old South Korean rapper admitted he was worried about the future during that time. What if her fans left her? What if he lost his skills as a performer? But, RM said, those concerns have vanished. “I promise that…I’ll be even better when I’m 30, 35, 40,” he declared to a burst of cheer.
Some people might find that odd – an artist in his 20s agonizing over his longevity. However, since BTS debuted in 2013, RM has been keenly aware of the mark he wanted to make on the music world. Not only has he written a sizable chunk of the BTS discography, but he also released two solo mixtapes in 2015 rm and 2018 Mono– which define his style: cerebral, technically complex, introspective, defiant, wordplay-heavy. His lyrics deal with the nature of art, identity, fame and love. As the leader of the group and the only one who speaks fluent English, he is often at the forefront of their public appearances, whether in television interviews and awards ceremonies, or at the United Nations and White House.
So it’s fitting that his first official solo album is a backwards-looking record. RM was released today indigo, which he calls “the last archive of my twenties”. The 10-track project is a musically omnivorous, deeply collaborative work that still feels like the work of an auteur filmmaker – one who has spent years honing his own sound and thematic obsessions. at its core, indigo is a hip-hop effort, but RM infuse it with neo-soul, folk, R&B, electronic and rock. So instinctive is RM’s tendency to collaborate with others that eight tracks feature other artists (including Erykah Badu, Anderson .Paak, Kim Sawol and Tablo). Listening to this album is like witnessing someone carving their name on the top of a mountain to say it’s not righteous I was there, but also I’m glad you made it too.
WThen I spoke to RM On Zoom two weeks ago, he seemed nervous indigo‘s forthcoming release: “I just hope the time flies by faster,” he told me. Still, a calm, earth-toned aura emanated from my screen. His hair was naturally deep brown and he wore dark-rimmed glasses and a loose-fitting olive-green shirt. I was reminded that despite being a pop star, RM is drawn to slower, more contemplative forms of art and engagement. He’s an avid reader (and literary influencer), a lover of nature, and a museum-goer, all of which are clearly expressed indigo. For example, the album opener was inspired by Korean painter Yun Hyong-keun, and the second track playfully expands the metaphor of a “still life” to talk about stagnation and dynamism. For RM, indigo is a way of “speaking silence” – essentially expressing yourself truthfully, in a way that doesn’t cause chaos or confusion.
“As a star or as a famous boy band member … it’s really hard to be honest and open,” he told me. “People sometimes misunderstand you. Like ‘You said something really insensitive’ and I hate you’ … emphasizing silence is really hard because you have many platforms, like Instagram and Facebook and YouTube; People have minds of their own, but they can still be easily manipulated by algorithms, articles and other people.” In this environment, he said, knowing when to speak and when to be silent is even more valuable.
Which explains why he hesitated to say too much about the meaning of different songs. “Nowadays, I think the empty space is really important for the audience … to digest the music itself,” RM said. “That’s why I don’t want to reveal too many intentions.” For that reason, we didn’t talk about why his first words on indigo are “fuck the trendsetter”; We also didn’t delve into his exploration of intimacy on “Closer” and loneliness on “Lonely.” But I was asking about the beautiful lead single, “Wild Flower,” which features the powerful vocals of Cho You-jeen of rock band Cherry Filter. (“For me personally, she’s a #1 Korean rock star. She’s a legend.”) The song isn’t quite like anything RM has released before; an epic that whirls like a hurricane, it’s sincere, pleading and filled with hard-won acceptance. The lyrics provide a memorable contrast between fireworks and what he calls “flowerworks”: the former burn out brilliantly and quickly, while flowers can exist humbly and peacefully for much longer.
RM has pondered this particular metaphor and its intriguing contradictions for a long time – seven years to be precise. He noted that fireworks can attract millions of people who want to experience their beauty for a 30-minute show. (I immediately thought of the displays that ended many of BTS’ concerts.) The spectacle of the “flower works,” however, is simpler and more anonymous. “I’m thinking of a field with tons of wildflowers you don’t even know the names of. You just hold the flowers and throw them up in the sky and they come down so suddenly, maybe five seconds later,” he said, a hint of wonder in his voice. “I want to live my life like a wildflower.”
In a way, you could think of his career so far as a never-ending series of fireworks: multiple Hot 100 #1s, sold-out stadium shows, massive album sales, historic premieres, and a slew of Korean and American music awards. The day before we spoke, BTS received three Grammy nominations: two for their collaboration with Coldplay on the song “My Universe,” and a third for the music video for “Yet to Come,” which RM says is the group’s first Korean-language track to be nominated. When I asked him how he felt about the news, he replied so quietly I almost didn’t hear, “Never expected.” He paused, then added, “I think it’s thanks to Coldplay. ‘ That sounds like something a wildflower might say.
Llike much of RM’s past solo work, indigo is autobiographical without being too literal. He is aware that much of his youth was captured online in countless videos, photos and social media posts. This willingness to connect is part of what fans of BTS, known as ARMY, love about the group. But eventually RM had an epiphany from all this self-disclosure: “My whole life has been an exhibition,” he told me. “Unconsciously or maybe consciously I have been exhibiting my life for decades. So [I said], Okay, let’s turn this into a real exhibition.” He thinks the songs further indigo combine different facets of his life in recent years as well as his different personalities. “If you think of Piet Mondrian [work]all images are captioned composition‘Right?’ he said, referring to the Dutch painter’s abstract works. ‘At some point I just realized it [my identity] is a composition of its own… I want this album to be a composition of everything.”
This desire to create cohesion from many parts is reflected in it indigo‘s collaborations. RM said each featured artist added “own frequencies” and that many were “my stars in my youth” whose music he listened to when he was down. This album will likely serve the same purpose for many of his own listeners in the months to come. In October, BTS label Big Hit announced that the members are preparing to retire from their careers to fulfill their mandatory military service under South Korean law before hopefully reuniting as a group in 2025. indigo is expected to be RM’s last record until the end of his draft, and in many ways it feels like a farewell for now. But it also sounds like an artist taking a deep breath and sensing what new experiences and insights his career could bring in five, ten or 15 years. He already knows what it feels like to be under explosions of color and light. Now it’s time for falling petals.