“Savage”, “straightforward”, and “wise”, BTS‘s Suga tells it like it is. BTS are known for their rich lyrics that tackle a diverse range of topics. If leader RM relies on intricate wordplay and beautiful imagery, Suga keeps things simple, often referring directly to his own experiences in his lyrics. In fact, a study of his lyrics reveals much of his own story.
Suga’s love for music is the first message to come across from his lyrics, most specifically from “First Love“, a title he dedicates to a piano that occupies a corner of his childhood home. The song talks of his brief break-up with the piano as young boy, and how right it felt, when he found his way back to it.
I awkwardly caressed you again for a moment,
Even though I was gone for a long time,
You received me again, without any repulsion.
Without you, I am nothing.
But how did the piano-loving rapper come to be an idol? The story continues in his 2016 mixtape, Agust D, which dwells extensively on his journey to stardom, and the sacrifices that come with it. In “724128”, Suga recounts his audition with Big Hit Entertainment, why he came to Seoul, and his life as a trainee.
I tried to do well making music in Daegu,
being the principal of a music academy or something,
those kinds of thoughts hit me.
At any rate, I only live life once,
I’d better try to be number one.
The number one I couldn’t achieve through study,
it seemed I’d earn it through music.
Around me, ten to one said,
This moron is suffering from bullshit disease again.
We all know how that decision worked out. From boys with a small company yearning for success in their cover of J. Cole‘s “Born Sinner”, to global superstars today, BTS’s journey is a true rags-to-riches story.
Still I’m nothing different from a rural Daegu rapper,
But I wrote the word “pro” on top of “amateur”.
Suga makes it clear it hasn’t been easy. Endless practices, an accident during his trainee days, his deteriorating mental health — Suga’s lyrics probably reveal more than is considered “appropriate”. But he conveys them with a disarming sincerity. Together with his emotive rap, Suga’s music is intimate and raw. He takes you inside his own head, and while you are there with him, you feel what he feels. Not everyone wants to be this close to an artist — some prefer distance — but the experience of such art can be healing, when it touches the right nerve.
The true masterpiece of the mixtape is “The Last”. The song is unique not because it addresses an artist’s struggle with depression, but because Suga provides specific instances from his life — such as his parents’ visit with him to the psychiatrist or the day of a concert when he hid in the bathroom — to convey how very real it is. The song is designed to shock.
It was around 18 when my social phobia began,
Yeah that’s right, around that time
my mental state became polluted,
Sometimes I’m afraid of myself,
Thanks to my self-hatred,
And the depression that came to play again,
Min Yoongi is already dead (I killed him).
Outside the K-pop fandoms, idols are often (wrongly) looked down upon as manufactured, factory-produced performers, and not considered “authentic” artists. For Suga, the conflict arises out of his inability to reconcile his ideal of himself as a rapper with his reality as an idol. He is chained by his overwhelming greed for success. The song is divided into two parts, with a “bridge” connecting the two.
If my misfortune is your happiness,
then I’ll be unhappy.
If the target of your loathing is me,
then I’ll go up on the guillotine.
A guttural scream in the background is followed by a break in the lyrics. He accepts his fate as an idol and Min Yoon-gi, the person and the rapper, walks up to the guillotine. In return, Suga, who has tasted “sweetness and bitterness and even shit”, sees his dreams come true before his very eyes.
The things I only imagined are becoming reality,
My childhood dream is in front of my eyes.
The taste of performing in front of only two people,
Now Tokyo Dome is in front of my nose.
However, three years have passed since the release of Agust D, and perhaps things have changed since then. In a Vlive pursuant to the release of Love Yourself: Answer in 2018, Suga stated that it was his idea to include choreography in the performance of his solo song “Seesaw”, as he is, after all, an idol — indicating that he may have made peace with his identity as an idol.
With BTS’s massive success reflected in the lyrics of their many arrogant diss tracks, one would think Suga has it all — “big house, big cars and big rings” as he says he wants, in BTS’s 2013 debut song “No More Dream“. His lyrics certainly suggest as much. In “Cypher pt. 4” he boasts,
Payday, paycheck, rolex on my wrist,
Click clack to the bang,
Click clack to the pow,
I’m so high, how dare you covet,
Even if you run up to it,
It’s too high for you to reach.
In “Agust D”, the title track off the mixtape, Suga goes so far as to say that his tongue — in other words, his rap — will “send you to Hong Kong”, slang for giving the listener an orgasm. The lyrics of this one aren’t pretty. I am not even sure what they mean:
A bum or a wack and I fack,
And I carve history on this ground,
Rappers so beat I always get to fat dick ’em.
But in a surprising display of vulnerability, Suga has continued to express his worries in his lyrics. In “Sea”, a hidden track on 2017’s Love Yourself: Her, he raps:
The desert that I was once afraid of became the sea,
by our blood, sweat and tears.
But among all the happiness, what are these fears?
We know all too well this place was originally a desert.
The world thinks we own the whole world,
Big house, big cars, big rings,
If I own everything I want, it feels empty,
Unfamiliar feeling, that person with everything.
It’s impossible to miss the reference to the 2013 debut song.
Ever-wise, Suga acknowledges in songs like “Ddaeng” and “Never Mind” that far from being discouraged, haters only pushed him to succeed. He also thanks those who stood by his side, most notably his older brother whom he thanked in a “Skit” on the mixtape. Noting that he has had to give up many things he enjoys, and wear a mask at all times (“Outro: Her”), Suga is clear about the price of success.
The moral of the story that Suga tells through his lyrics is incredibly compelling: if you work hard, really hard, and persevere no matter what hardship comes your way, your dreams are within your grasp. Suga stresses on this expressly in multiple songs such as “Never Mind” and “Give It To Me”. In the latter, he says,
You ask me how I made it,
and I really got nothin’ to say.
At least I slept less and moved more than all of you,
it got me this far.
I don’t know the secret to success yet,
but I do think I know about how to fail.
Suga’s story, as told through his own words, is a seductive one: It dares you to dream, to take that crucial step outside your comfort zone. It dares you to follow his example to see if you too, can achieve as much as he has. Hardship certainly lies along the path but “Go ahead”, he says in “So What”,
Nine out of ten worries are only swamps in your head.
Unsurprisingly, all this focus on oneself, one’s own pain and following one’s dreams is a little selfish. It is striking how much of Suga’s lyricism revolves around himself — the all-consuming, egotistic, “I”. These lyrics are not about what he hopes to do for others, not even for his family, unlike some of the other rare, similar songs by other artists, such as Mino‘s “Fear” or Ovan‘s “Happiness“. It is self-centered and not entirely admirable.
Instead, it is brutally honest. Suga’s focus on himself, his mental health, his greed, his own lust for success — openly displayed for the world to see — is a mirror held up to the listener. Deeply cathartic, it can resonate with, and draw out similar emotions in the listener, thus leaving them free of that weight, if only for a short while.
It is the rare artist that can connect with fans in this manner, and Suga’s brutal honestly allows him to do so.
This is not to say that all of Suga’s lyrics revolve around his own story, but they certainly tend towards the meaningful. Lee Sora‘s “Song Request” (prod. Tablo) is a conversation between a woman and the radio. While going through a hard time, she seeks comfort in the radio, or perhaps in music, as she asks the DJ to play a song that will make her cry. The device responds gently, through Suga’s voice:
Yes, to someone I’m spring, to another winter,
I’m the end to someone and start to another,
For someone I’m happiness, for someone I’m sadness,
A lullaby to someone and noise to another,
I’ll be with you at your birth and your end,
Remember we’re always together anywhere,
I’ll always console your life,
So just lean on me and rest sometimes.
Who hasn’t had that moment where they heard a song, and it took them them back to a particular moment, smell, sound, or feeling? Music has the power to move us, it can take a bright day and make it sad, or a sad day, and make it happy. Suga’s poetic lines are an ode to the power of music.
Additionally, Suga adds some variation to his rap, elements that make it a little different in each song. Some experiments are more successful than others (I’m looking at you, “Boy With Luv”), but it is fun to anticipate the variation each time. Fans also enjoy looking for the whispered “suga” that precedes his lines.
All this and more, makes Min Yoon-gi one of the more intriguing lyricists in the music industry — a story-teller in guise of a musician and rapper. His personality shines through his lyrics, whether it is his vulnerable side or his bold, aggressive confidence. Suga’s lyrics are deceptive in their simplicity; and his image as a cute idol, the fandom’s “lil’ meow meow“, a little misleading.
Despite choosing the path of an idol commercial success, Suga has retained a uniqueness in his lyricism, a flavor that only he can bring to music. And it, in turn, has brought comfort to many. Even if he chooses to stop telling his story through his lyrics in the future, the songs already released will probably continue to offer comfort for a long time to come.
(Vlive, YouTube     ; Images via BigHit Entertainment, Naver X Dispatch, Twitter; Lyrics via BigHit Entertainment, Super Sound Bugs and fan translators ashleygold25, Hamtaro Gasa, Jaeguchi and Jeonilysm)