Music Box: Reflection
Even if you are not a BTS expert or fan, the name ‘j-hope’ makes you immediately think of sunshine and laughter, positivity and love. And that is exactly what the rapper and dancer j-hope represented for the group. Both on and off stage, he takes on a beaming personality, always with a smile on his face. Nomen est omen, right?
But even though that was true most of the time, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day ‘j-hope’ is ultimately a persona, and the individual who stands behind the veil – Jung Hoseok – is just as multifaceted and complex as any other human being. And in Jack In The Box, Jung Hoseok is the one put on the frontline.
In June 2022, BTS released an anthology album and announced the group would be going on hiatus for the time being, with the members focusing on individual projects. j-hope wasted no time, and released the full-length album Jack In The Box on July 15th.
Whereas Hope World (the artist’s first solo body of work) was a playful and beaming release, Jack In The Box feels like its darker and gloomier sibling. It feels like the opposite of the saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ – this record feels more like the cloud behind the silver lining. And that is precisely why this is such a brilliant album.
The main element that makes Jack In The Box so impressive is the carefully crafted and wonderfully executed narrative that the record embodies in all its facets. From the album visuals and music videos, the themes of fame-induced anxiety and self-destruction appear crystal clear to any viewer.
But the brilliance of the record comes from the fact that these messages are not only visible, but also palpable from the track list. The album opens with Intro, an English narration by a female voice of the story of Pandora’s box, which lets listeners know of the importance of harbouring hope even in the darkness.
The record then continues with four songs until it meets a new halt in the centrepiece Music Box : Reflection, an eerie instrumental that combines heavy breathing, an ominous music box melody and scratchy beats.
This interlude serves as a turning point for the narrative, as the following tracks seem to shift from a message-focused approach to a more introspective viewpoint. Almost as if through the interlude, the box of Jack In The Box gets opened and listeners get to peep at what’s inside.
Opening the box – tracks 1 to 5
The first song after the intro is Pandora’s Box, which intertwines an unsettling piano melody with heavy beats that are reminiscent of old school hip hop. The track touches upon the pressure of fame and the mentally-taxing strive to maintain a persona, themes that are explored further in the rest of the album, such as the next song MORE.
MORE was actually released prior to the record, hence just like many others, I had already listened to it. Admittedly, I was slightly on the fence about this song at first, since it was such an expected and blunt 180 for j-hope sound-wise.
The track is blatantly inspired by emo rock, with its heavy guitar chugs and the cathartic shouting vocal delivery in the chorus. It feels extremely different from the energetic and upbeat sound we have grown used to from the artist. But once you hear it with the rest of the album, it is undeniable that MORE is the perfect representation of the narrative weaved within the record. It’s melancholic, brutally honest and liberating, just like Jack In The Box in its entirety.
Additionally, the muffled rendering of the opening and closing beats in the song makes it so the sounds appear to be coming from inside a closed box, and they become louder and clearer once the box is opened.
But as the beats become muffled again in the ending, it tells me that the box has been closed once again. This interesting production choice is not only a treat to the ears, but is a clear reference to the album’s box-persona allegorical meaning.
We see the old-school hip hop influence once again in the fourth track STOP, where j-hope reflects on the ills and flaws of humanity over the repetitive drum and bass snapping beat. “The acts of humans who are even worse than animals disgust me / In harsher words, even I doubt whether they’re really humans”, he raps with an attitude-filled cadence and earnest tone.
This theme is somewhat explored further in the following track = (Equal Sign), a 90s-inspired hip hop track where j-hope asks listeners to treat others with kindness. The lingering hope within the lyrics combined with the almost psychedelic feel of the production makes this song appear more reminiscent of the artist’s previous album, thus signifying that the “old j-hope” is still present in the record.
Alas, the only flaw of = (Equal Sign) is in its length, which is regretfully quite limited. As both the song’s meaning and musical style are so memorable, it would have been nice for the track to be explored further, for it’s a shame that such a heartfelt message of hope is gone so soon.
Peering inside the box – tracks 6 to 10
The first track after the interlude is What If…, a Dem Jointz-signed gem which samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya. In the lyrical inner monologue, j-hope reflects upon the dichotomy between his public persona and his real self, and speculates about what life would have been like if he lacked hope, dream, passion, and vision.
This introspective approach continues in the next song, Safety Zone, where he ponders “Where is the ray of light for relief in the dark? […] Where’s my safe zone?”. Here, he appears to touch upon the burdens of fame and the exhaustion that comes from maintaining a public image in a pretty direct way, with lines that read “Dedicating my entire twenties living up to this immeasurable life […] My life is becoming my enemy, it’s getting lonesome”. This R&B track is much more mellow and sentimental than the rest of the record, so much so that it is the closest thing to a ballad in Jack In The Box. And the gentle vocal delivery and open-hearted nature of the lyrics only reinforce that.
Finally, Future lightens the mood with echoes of a children’s choir one last time, before the record culminates in its last and most haunting track, Arson.
Arson is the album’s most explosive and jarring song, which is precisely what makes it a great finale. The track begins with a simple production, using his growling baritone delivery of “Let’s burn, burn, burn, burn, burn / It’s done, done, done, done” almost like an instrument.
As the song progresses, j-hope rap flow moves from eerily smooth to menacingly urgent, a change that contributes to the anxiety-inducing feel of the lyrics, where he dissects the relationship between his work and personal life.
The candidness of his words combined with the rawness of his voice makes Arson the perfect way to end such a fiery and compelling record, marking the finish line to the exploration of “j-hope”.
Closing the box – final thoughts
Going into this album, I was not sure about what to expect. For years, we had grown accustomed to seeing j-hope as happy and sunshine-like, so when I first listened to MORE, all of my convictions about what this record was going to sound like flew out the window. But even if I was prepared to be surprised, j-hope surprised me even more, and pleasantly so.
Simply put, Jack In The Box is a great record. It can be fun and upbeat when you solely consider the music, but it’s devastating and melancholic once you take a look at the lyrics. Yes, it can be argued that some tracks tend to blend with one another due to the sonical familiarity, but this is offset by the clever track list.
As previously mentioned, the track list is one of the real zingers of the album, and greatly contributes to the perfect concept execution. Jack In The Box narrates j-hope’s hardships with fame and identity via the metaphor of the opening of Pandora’s box and how it unleashed evil upon the world – and the track list offers you a seamless map as you navigate through the record.
But despite the dismal premise, the album manages to be a breath of fresh air, for fans and probably for j-hope as well. Fans get to hear a new sound from the artist and see a new side of his artistry, and at the same time its cathartic approach makes it feel like this record was a chance for j-hope to let out something he had been holding in for quite a while. It’s almost like this album was his chance to finally get out of the box.
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Verdict - 9/10