RM’s second mixtape, Mono, dropped on 23 October 2018 almost two and a half years after the self-titled RM, which was released on 20 March 2015. Mono was accompanied by a music video for the final track “Forever Rain” with lyric videos released for “Seoul” and “Moonchild” on 23 and 24 October respectively. It followed J-Hope’s earlier Hope World in breaking records for a Korean solo artist, entering the Billboard 100 at 26 and topping iTunes charts globally in 90 countries to date including the US and UK. This is even more impressive considering that, as with BTS’s rapline’s previous mixtapes, Mono was available for free via DropBox, Google, MediaFire and SoundCloud. Mono consists of seven tracks “Tokyo”, “Seoul” (produced by Honne), “Moonchild”, “Badbye” (with eAeon), “UhGood”, “Everythinggoes” (with Nell), and “Forever Rain”. While the mixtape originates in the 1970s as a ‘literal’ mix of songs from DJs with a predetermined flow, in the 1980s it became a compilation of songs instead. According to Skinny Friedman (2013) contemporary mixtapes are more like “street albums” differentiating from official releases in that they don’t need to go through ‘standard record label vetting and distribution’. Significantly Mono is not advertised as a mixtape but rather promoted as a playlist instead emphasizing thematic flow and development of the seven tracks and their interconnectedness.
Mono is also different from Namjoon’s first solo outing, RM, not only in conception but also in execution. None of the tracks use samples from preexisting songs as did the ones on RM. Instead, Namjoon collaborates with independent artists and producers to construct lyrically and sonically complex tracks. On the front cover of Mono, mixtape is handwritten in the top righthand corner. In the bottom righthand corner. playlist is written under the name of the artist, RM, and before the title, Mono. In addition, while mixtape is crossed out there is a line under playlist, signaling Namjoon’s musical journey from RM to Mono through emphasis on the pastness of the former. Just as the meaning of the songs on the album are generated through contrast, collision and collusion, the use of black writing on a white background here and the juxtaposition between the neatly written mixtape and the hastily scrawled playlist foregrounds identity as transitional, a process of transformation and becoming, rather than a fixed place of being. Indeed, while the cover of the RM bears Namjoon’s image and imprint, there is nothing here to anchor the meaning of Mono but blank white space and on it identity yet to be written.
Interiority and Introspection
The tracks on Mono are sparse exercises in interiority and introspection, marked by the ambient noise, lyrical wordplay, figurative language and a propensity towards fatalism. In direct opposition to what could be said to be the mainstream swaggering rap of RM, Mono is marked by an absence of the machismo, stereotypical gendered language and associated imagery which functions to reaffirm phallic masculinity in rap and hip hop. One approach to the haunting lyricism, boundary violation (pushing the boundaries of rap), pathos and inherent melancholy of Mono is through the framework of the Gothic. In Namjoon’s VLive where he talks about the artistic processes behind his second solo album, he discusses it as a cathartic exercise detailing his personal transformation from monochromatic to colour which marks his epistemological journey from despair to hope. This can be seen, and indeed he discusses this in some detail, in his fashion choices from BTS’s early period to their current one. Yet one gets the impression that despite the colourful exteriority of his current image, the monochromatic self has not totally been vanquished as is made evident in the seven tracks on Mono. Black and white imagery saturates the lyrics and corresponding music video of “Forever Rain” which is the last track on the playlist. In opposition to this are the lyric videos for “Seoul” and “Moonchild”, the second and third tracks, which utilize colour, in some places saturated, to accompany the lyrics. We could, if we wanted, listen to the tracks in descending rather than ascending order, which would then offer us an aural and visual landscape that moves from black and white to colour and mirror his personal journey. As it stands, “Forever Rain” suggests the continuation rather than the cathartic release of inner conflict and self-doubt. There is a melancholy which runs throughout the playlist, a deep sadness expressed through repeated melodic refrains and lyrics creating a continuum of despair in which self-love is still a battle which must be fought daily.
The playlist starts with “Tokyo” and in the early hours of the morning, loneliness and the absence of human company leads to introspection about the purpose of life and the meaning of existence. “Tokyo” introduces the key themes that define the narrative trajectory and musical flow of Mono: a profound mediation on the nature of existence, within and through space and time, as signaled by the omnipresence of death which marks the abject limit of the subject. In addition, the split between self and other which is a necessary precondition of subjectivity (our existence is dependent on the existence of the other, or in other words there can be no ‘me’ without ‘you’) is absent. Instead, the lyrics shift between grammatical pronouns, the singular ‘I’ and the multiple ‘You’. The opening verse ends with ‘Do I miss myself / Do I miss your face’ followed by four repetitions of ‘I don’t know’. This ontological uncertainty and the precariousness of the subject is developed in the second verse which starts ‘Life is a word that sometimes you cannot say / And ash is a thing that someday we all should be’. The word ‘ash’ is repeated throughout the playlist and as a signifier of death marks the limits of both thought and representation. The second verse ends with the lines ‘Why do love and hate sound the same to me’. This is both a philosophical and linguistic question which is repeated throughout the playlist foregrounding Namjoon’s intricate use of wordplay to add complexity and depth to his work. Meaning is made through language by the contrast between binaries, Life/Death, Good/ Evil, Self/Other, Love/Hate, and the corresponding process of signification aligned to cultural mythology. In the early hours of the morning, dislocated temporally and spatially from home, the boundaries between such divisions become blurred and the clarity of language collapses into confusion. This existential crisis is reminiscent of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s contention that ‘Life Begins on the Other Side of Despair’, affirming the individual’s choice to live within the contingency of life.
The lyrics ‘Why do love and hate sound the same to me’ also form a bridge into the next track “Seoul” which marks the movement from an unfamiliar space (Tokyo) to a familiar one (Seoul). It is now the early hours of the morning at which time the city is beginning to wake up from its nighttime slumber. Namjoon uses a series of juxtapositions and contrasts to stress the way in which home and nation function as powerful markers of identity, constraining and containing the subject’s becoming through discourses of belonging. Here, ‘Seoul’, ‘Soul’, ‘So’ are heterographic homophones (words that sound the same but have a different meaning). These three words not only function as puns but also stylistically draw our attention to language and the arbitrary construction of meaning through contradiction and contrast. Nationhood as an ‘imaginary construction’ through which the national self is defined is rendered complex by the processes of globalization which threaten to obliterate difference for sameness. Yet at the same time, the desire to escape the more problematic aspects of nationalism is made possible through the global flow of cultures and people across geographical and imaginary boundaries.
“Moonchild”, the third track, repeats the existentialist refrain of “Seoul” anticipating the future self as expressed in the last track “Forever Rain”. Sunlight is replaced and displaced by moonlight as the night draws in. Within the darkness, the subject is able to escape the masks of conformality and normality that have to be worn during daylight hours. Alluding to the Cartesian construction of consciousness ‘I think, therefore I am’ through lyrical wordplay, Namjoon points out that ‘not thinking is still thinking’ and there is no escape from the painful suffering which gives birth to the subject. In an intertextual reference to BTS’s Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ and the wider storyworlds that constitute the BTS Universe, Namjoon demonstrates his extraordinary linguistic ability using English homographs (words that are spelt the same but mean different things depending on context) within the slippage between tear (to cry) and tear (to rip). This is expressed through the lyrics ‘it’s okay to shed the tears / But don’t you tear yourself’. The doubled use of tear here emphasizes suffering, the outward tear a visible sign of the inner tear, or the ripping asunder of the self through the pain of existential awareness. Namjoon foregrounds this existentialism through the following lyrics: ‘Actually this is our destiny, you know / smiling in endless pain, you know’.
The following song, “Badbye”, is the shortest track on Mono at 1:48 and is an exercise in restraint that communicates meaning through repetition. The lyrics “kill me, kill me, kill me softly” provide a transition into “UhGood” where Namjoon mediates on the impossibility of living up to our and others’ expectations. The tears shed in “Seoul” and “Moonchild” become representative of the despair at the gap between our ideal self and our real self; this gap is the very foundation of existence according to philosophical and psychological theories of the construction of the subject including those of Sartre and Lacan. While in previous tracks it seems like Namjoon is speaking to an “other”, it becomes clear that he is actually talking about the splitting of the self between subject and the object and perhaps the impossibility of embracing authenticity. The path of self-acceptance that the “Love Yourself” series explores is still in the distance, like the mirage referred to in “Sea” (one of the two hidden tracks on Love Yourself 承 ‘Her‘ physical album) in which the transformation of the sea into the desert is always a matter of inner perception and exterior reception.
“Everythinggoes”, the penultimate track, counters this by reminding us that everything will pass, including feelings of worthlessness and despair, just as spring becomes summer. Lyrically sparse with ‘It will pass (Everything goes)’ overlaying Namjoon’s rap towards the end, “Everythinggoes” captures the ethereality of life and the contingency of the self, Here Namjoon seems to be alluding in part to the pain of growing up in the media spotlight in which the smallest mistakes become magnified and pain amplified as a result. Yet, it is only through making such mistakes and learning from them that any of us can become better adults. This is a deliberate intertextual reference to is George Harrison’s album All Things Must Pass (1970) which is often cited as the first triple album and was Harrison’s first solo project after the disbanding of The Beatles. Further it could be interpreted as Namjoon’s homage to the late Beatle, whose 1970 album is widely viewed as a game changer. Jayson Greene, contributing editor of Pitchfork writes that ‘George Harrison did what no other Beatle did on All Things Must Pass. He changed the terms of what an album could be’ (2016). Neither is it a coincidence that Harrison’s album utilized Eastern philosophy, eschewing Western materialism for a more contemplative, introspective interrogation of the self as defined and confined by the outside world, and spirituality as an alternative to the narcissistic ego. With “Everythinggoes” specifically and Mono more generally, Namjoon is delimiting the difference between his two roles as an underground rapper and the pivotal member of BTS through this implicit reference to Harrison’s attempt to redefine his identity outside of The Beatles. The difference here though is that Namjoon’s roles as rapper and idol are seen as complementary rather than contradictory; whereas many songs on ‘All things must pass’ including the title track were composed but rejected by the other members during his years with the Beatles, Namjoon’s solo material is not separate to or separated from that of BTS.
“Forever Rain”, the final track, and lead single, offers a circular movement through patterns of repetition. The music video begins with a single raindrop, which is juxtaposed with the ticking of a clock representing the passage of time. The refrain of ‘ashy world’ relates back to the ‘ash is the thing that we all shall someday be’ lament of “Tokyo”, just as rain and water imagery signify identity in flux moving beyond simple binaries and replacing the singular mask with multiple ones instead. The plaintive refrain, ‘slow rap, slow rain, everything’, reflects on the unremitting passage of time articulating the desire to create perfect moments through which the past can be immortalized. The umbrella necessitated by the downpour of rain is seen as allowing the subject to stand and breathe, a moment of stillness within the speed of the city and the temporality that defines the self: ‘Cuz the umbrella would cover the sad face / Cuz in the rain people are busy minding themselves / Gonna breathe a little slower /Cuz my life and my rap, they’re usually too fast.’ The catharsis that Namjoon talks about in his VLive seems strangely absent here. Instead sadness and loneliness are the dominant metaphors for contemporary life and the subject’s place within it, especially one who lives their life in the public eye. “Forever Rain” provides a comma rather than a full stop to the journey of the self, which can only be defined through and by the presence of death and the absence to which we will all someday return.
The Ethereal Gothic: Between being and nothingness
In “Gothicism and English Goth Music: Notes on the Repertoire”, Charles Mueller argues that the Goth movement in English music can be understood, at least in part, by reference to the newly emerging Goth subculture. He writes that the Gothic movement brought ‘a new sense of energy and immediacy to the punk style, attacking and mocking masculine structures of power, and appropriating signifiers from Gothic art, literature, and film to create a subversive effect’ (2012, p. 75). In his extensive survey of gothic themes, Mueller points out that the lack of resolution and restoration of order in Gothic music refuses the reinforcement of normativity that is key to the classic gothic form. Drawing on the work of Fred Botting, one of the foremost authorities on all things Gothic, Mueller defines the Gothic as ‘a style dominated by social alienation, self-loathing, disturbed psychological states, the grotesqueness of everyday life, melancholy, and a fascination with morbidity’ (Mueller, 2012, p. 75). He suggests that through the use of “camp”, Goth music emphasized feminist concerns and mocked masculine power (Mueller, 2012, p. 78).
Whether KPOP can be categorized as inherently a gothic genre (or mode) or not, there is a transgression of borders and emphasis on the performativity of identity through which gender and sexuality norms are subverted (despite or perhaps because of the suppression of non-heteronormative identities in Korea more generally) that certainly works within the codes and conventions of the Gothic. However Mono is minimalist and understated, and as such does not fit into such a conception of KPOP as Gothic as a result of its inherent campiness (I feel that by insisting KPOP is camp, does not acknowledge the diversity of the genre and the different ways in which musicality and creativity is expressed within the industry). Mono’s engagement with the banality of life and existential angst is closer to ethereal gothic in eschewing the underlying tendency of camp which is found in immediate post punk Gothic music for existentialist despair and fatalism. Christopher Partridge in “Death, the Gothic, and popular music: Some reflections on why popular music matters” writes that ‘th[e] obsession with mortal vulnerability, which is central to the Gothic imagination, is comparable to the youthful treatment of mortality in popular music’ (Partridge, 2016, p. 129). Later in the article, he expands on this by referring to Gothic popular music in terms of ‘a memento mori’ which ‘coerces us, as listeners, in gentle and brutal ways, to reflect on the passing of time and on the inevitability of personal extinction …’ (2016, p. 131). Key to Partridge’s concept of Gothic popular music is the presence of the uncanny (Freud 1919) which disrupts binary distinctions especially those between the familiar and unfamiliar and is expressed through the Gothic’s preconception with the space between being and nothingness.
The seven tracks in Mono form an extended meditation on the banality of life, and the existential pain of the subject. While in its introspection Namjoon is reflecting on life as an Idol who is always in the public spotlight and whose slightest infraction may be rendered unforgivable and end their careers as a result of the prescriptive nature of the KPOP industry, Mono also is an affective experience for the listener forcing us to lift up our own masks and face the abjection beneath. As Isabella van Elferen, a world-renowned expert in Gothic music, points out: ‘Gothic forces its readers, viewers, and listeners to identify the ghosts that haunt them…’ (2012, p. 15). Listening to it reminded me of the pain of the past, the constant feeling of not being good enough (not being pretty enough, not being bright enough) when I was young and the bleak nights of my adolescence as both marginal and marginalised. I thought about my early career as a secretary where the knowledge that time would pass was my only coping mechanism. As much as I know it is trite to say that things will get better and that life, however challenging, is a gift to be embraced, that is my experience. I just wish I had known this when I was young. Ghosts after all are of our own making, they are remnants of the imperfection of our past as well as signifying the possibilities of our future which are not yet written and therein lies their promise, like Donna Haraway’s “Hopeful Monsters” (1985). Mono is, in the final analysis, a many splendoured thing and deserves its place on year end best album lists.
- Botting, F. (2005). Gothic. London: Routledge.
- Haraway, D. J. (1985). A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s (pp. 173-204). San Francisco, CA: Center for Social Research and Education.
- Friedman, S (2013) The Real Difference between an Album and a Mixtape. Noisy. [Online] Available at: https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/rmx446/the-real-difference-between-a-mixtape-and-an-album (accessed 4/12/18)
- Greene, J. (2016) George Harrison – All Things Must Pass. Pitchfork. [Online] Available at: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/22037-all-things-must-pass/ (accessed 4/12/18)
- Mueller, C. (2012). Gothicism and English Goth music: notes on the repertoire. Gothic Studies, 14(2), 74-88.
- Partridge, C. (2016). Death, the Gothic, and popular music: Some reflections on why popular music matters. Temenos-Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, 52(1), 127-150.
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- Van Elferen, I. (2012). Gothic music: The sounds of the uncanny. University of Wales Press.