The story of j-hope – BTS’ rapping, dancing star – demonstrates to us how hip-hop, in its many forms, still has the power to reach anyone anywhere.
Is j-hope the best dancer in the rap game right now? Probably. It’s a question suggestive of frivolity--it’s not like there are many who can compete, and after all, the only thing that matters is the music; why should one care if a rapper can dance?
Perhaps, in 2019’s direct-to-consumer music landscape, wherein the top rap artists heighten in their popularity through churning out memorable grooves and hooks with signature sonics, the value of an artist’s ability to perform visually is lost on us. Cultural moments are signified by iconography--iconic is the word, after all--and what’s an icon, at its most essential form, but an image? And what image can be imitated as often as a dance move?
For many rappers, visuals are communicated in clothes, jewelry, hairstyles. In a more directly artistic sense, they manifest in album covers and music videos. But wearing flashy clothes requires a lot of money to spend; artwork and music videos require that plus a concentrated artistic vision. In contrast, dance is universal; any able-bodied person can dance or approximate a dance. Additionally, dance doesn’t lie. You can Melodyne a vocal down to perfection in the studio, and you can punch in a technically difficult verse to sound effortless. But you can’t fake being able to dance; you either look awkward or you don’t.
And j-hope never looks awkward.
— 🙂 Teresa⁷ 🙃 🖤🦢🖤 (@Tear_esa) January 10, 2020
There’s a rich cultural significance to that non-awkwardness, being that “Hobi,” born Jung Ho-seok in Gwangju, South Korea, is from South Korea. In the mainstream, Asian rappers are not known for their graceful charisma--in fact, they are not known for much at all, perhaps due largely to that perception. A host of hip-hop’s biggest East Asian rap stars (diaspora included), many of whom found success in the late 2010s, have found their come-ups embroiled in controversy, with accusations of appropriation and general clownery abound.
Meanwhile, j-hope is a pop artist by trade, but a rapper by skillset. He is one seventh of the world’s most powerful pop group, South Korea’s Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS), wherein he makes up one-third of the group’s “rap line” alongside RM and Suga. At this point, K-pop has at least recognized the popularity of rap, with almost every major single from the industry featuring hip-hop colors somewhere in its midst.
But nobody does it quite like BTS. Their three-pronged rap faction writes their own lyrics, drawing greatly from American hip-hop’s traditions and consistently offering technically strong verses to the seven-member music group.
This can be attributed to BTS’ upbringing; they were created as a hip-hop group around leader RM and second member Suga. A creation of Bang Si-hyuk’s Big Hit Entertainment, the Bangtan Boys went through numerous lineup changes while in their training phase--a requisite for many in the K-pop/idol industry. Eventually, Bang rejiggered the group into a unique hybrid, one centered on hip-hop which still would be an idol act in the grouping of contemporaries like EXO and g.o.d. This change involved incorporating a “vocal line” alongside the group’s original rap line, which brought in singer/dancers Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook.
Somewhere in the midst of these additions, between the original two and the vocal-line four, is the addition of one Jung “j-hope” Ho-seok, who would make himself known with BTS as a rapper, producer, songwriter, and dancing dynamo; as an artist from across the world who uses hip-hop’s many forms to express himself as purely as possible.
As far as where Ho-seok came from, certain things are clearer than others. Detailed, reliable backstory is not so easy to find on the Gwangju native, but here’s what we do know: Jung Ho-seok went to an arts school in kindergarten, but never found visual arts to be his calling. “I probably only went there because it was close to my house,” he says in a Japanese-language magazine disseminated as fan content for members. Ho-seok was an active child who took up dance in the third grade and showed great promise early on, eventually deciding he’d pursue the form seriously in sixth grade after pleading with his parents.
Ho-seok became an accomplished street dancer with a team he’d joined while in junior high called “Neuron”; on YouTube, you can still find numerous videos in which “Hobi” practices different hip-hop dance routines either solo or with team members. The lanky, long-haired Ho-seok showed a real affinity for physical fluidity as well as glimpses of his trademark joyful energy even through puberty. Eventually, his love and skill for performing led him to pursue becoming an artist, which in turn led him to audition for the K-pop powerhouse JYP Entertainment.
While Ho-seok didn’t land a gig with JYP (wherein it’s theorized he could have been part of the then-forming boyband GOT7), he still came away with praise and further confirmation that he could be a star. In 2010, the freshly sixteen-year-old dancer passed his audition with Big Hit Entertainment and joined BTS, wherein he’d learn to rap and sing. Ho-seok eventually settled on the stage name “j-hope” with RM and Bang.
“When we were making names, I said I wanted “Ho” in my name, so at first it was J-Ho,” he says in the group’s latest tour documentary, Bring the Soul: The Movie. “We kept thinking, “J-Ho? J-Ho? J-Hope?” That’s how we came up with my name. The meanings came after that.”
As far as those meanings, j-hope has long played with his name and how it relates to his message; as illustrated in the track “P.O.P. (Piece of Peace), Pt. 1” from his 2018 debut Hope World, the rap star considers it his goal to provide hope and joy for those struggling in an unjust world. “I thought it would be hugely meaningful for me if I can become, like my namesake, hope for someone in the world — not even some grandiose peace, but just a small shard of it,” he told TIME.
Hopefulness was harder to come by in the early days of Bangtan. Big Hit struggled with finances and industry pressures--much early discourse about BTS pre- and even post-debut was dismissive of the group and its unusual concept. The members themselves were all teenagers until late 2012 (when eldest member Jin turned 20), and did not come from wealthy backgrounds nor an abundance of nascent polish. Even Jungkook, the group’s absurdly versatile youngest member, says he had to grow out of issues with selfishness.
Each member of the group had to work extremely hard to master different qualities they’d need for stardom. J-hope in particular was still developing as an emcee. He wasn’t an underground rapper prior to auditioning for Big Hit like RM and Suga were--as a matter of fact, he wasn’t a rapper at all. He learned through both lessons and interactions with his far more experienced peers, who often expressed themselves in rhyme form outside of music the way young rap fans do in America.
Rather than saying I was forced to learn rap… I naturally absorbed it in my daily life. I would return to the dorms to some freestyle rap happening… in the beginning I would wonder incredulously ‘How are they able to do that?’ but I could feel that this was what defined rap. It was so interesting watching them fool around, dissing each other through rap, talking to each other through rap.” – j-hope (2018)
Eventually, j-hope joined in, even freestyling an entire night away once with Suga. But the long, grueling journey towards the group’s debut took its toll on him. At one point, he briefly left; the reasons why are unclear, but it’s suggested he felt he wasn’t needed. It took the teary pleas of young Jungkook and the devoted fight of leader RM to keep him from leaving the fold for good.
“I talked to the guys,” said RM in Burn the Stage, a behind-the-scenes documentary set during BTS’ 2017 tour. “I told them we need Jung Ho-seok. We can’t make it without Jung Ho-seok.”
When it came time to debut, the pressure was on for BTS to tighten their stage routines; the task required special dedication from the man selected as their dance leader. To make matters more daunting, BTS’ early choreography demanded great athleticism and energy as well as an industry-standard precision. According to j-hope, the group filmed the choreography for “We Are Bulletproof, Pt. 2” every day for three months, and “even the slightest difference in angle between our bodies or movements in our fingers meant we had to film it again.”
This led to numerous health scares for j-hope: “I even collapsed on occasion,” he said. “I injured myself lots. I even had too much blood accumulated in my feet and had to get it drawn out.” But his dedication for performing, and for the project he’d committed to, superseded all: “It feels like all our efforts and hard work until now have paid off.”
The results are beyond comprehension: BTS are the biggest group in the world, having broken numerous records for South Korean album sales, swept every top prize at the Melon Music Awards and the Mnet Asian Music Awards this year (the preeminent South Korean music award shows), had the best-selling album of 2019 globally for most of the year (final results are pending as Billie Eilish gave it a run), and accounted for nearly $5 billion of South Korea’s GDP, rivaling Samsung and Hyundai. They’ve paved a new path for the Korean music industry, one in which Korean artists with “idol” origins can reach peak popularity and performance whilst being creatively independent and unafraid to comment on social issues or speak about personal ones.
In the midst of this real-life fairytale, j-hope has branched out into a notable solo career of his own, wherein the rapper gradually spread his wings artistically through the years. Pop-rap pleasantries demonstrated in songs like “A Brand New Day,” featuring pop-dance star Zara Larsson and an enrapturing vocal performance by bandmate V, are polished demonstrations of his capacity for mainstream gold. But don’t mistake this for a lack of hip-hop bona fides. He’s perfectly capable of stepping into the prototypical rapper role, too.
In late 2015, a freestyle of his on The Game’s “El Chapo” instrumental titled “1 VERSE” was released to BTS’ Soundcloud. The track showcases some of J-Hope’s trademarks as a rapper; his raspy bellows, his nimble flow-switches and his word-bending whimsy. His lyrical dexterity, which he is rarely credited for, is on display: at one point, he poses a double entendre with his age (22, or two-two) and the onomatopoeia of spitting (ptew-ptew) in a metaphor about haters being phlegm caught in his throat.
He kicks off BTS’ following album, 2016’s Wings, with a solo, “Intro: Boy Meets Evil,” which sees him rap exasperatedly about temptation: “Too bad, but it’s too sweet,” he repeats in a sung refrain. And just for kicks, during the group’s Wake Up tour, he penned the Japanese “Otsukare,” the most wholesome of trot songs, and pushed a surprisingly willing Suga to perform it exuberantly for BTS’ Japan crowd.
The constant evolver had built a small oeuvre of solo moments that built anticipation amongst fans for a solo record; in 2018, they finally got it. Most everything about the mixtape Hope World thematically is revealed in its title. It is both a culmination of the promise that preceded it and a mission statement for what’s to come; though it’s untraditional sonically and linguistically within the hip-hop canon, it follows the spirit of the traditional, idealistic rap album in that it (quite deliberately) invites the listener into the rapper’s world.
From the moment Jung Ho-seok chose the name “j-hope,” from the moment he’d decided to become a performer, from the moment he chose to become a dancer, he had subconsciously taken up the path to build “Hope World”; a place where he could, if but for a moment, give listeners a place to find freedom. This is the purpose behind his unflappable cheeriness; he tries to give others levity even when he struggles to find it for himself.
For his big forward-leap into life as a soloist, j-hope pulls out all the stops. On opening track “Hope World,” a blend of dance-pop, g-funk and other sonic ideas, he invites listeners to “his Hope World,” which he likens to an underwater sphere akin referentially to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. On lead single “Daydream,” he blends his colorful personality with extra colorful visuals reflecting different sides of j-hope, including the duality of his persona and his un-depicted self.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the tape is the penultimate track, “Airplane,” one of three songs j-hope gets a leading production credit for. “I remember I made the beat with a machine in the hotel room,” he said in a livestream post-release. “I wanted to write about an airplane. Because last year, the year before last, and these days, I spend so much time on the plane. When I was a little boy, my wish was to be on an airplane.”
The cloud rap-influenced and spacious instrumentation backs a uniquely reflective j-hope; one reminiscing on success through reflecting on stark, simple visuals: “When the barren land was burning me down, I ran looking at the blue sky; I wanted to fly on that airplane,” he croons in the refrain. “Every day above the clouds,” he repeats to begin a short but dazzling second verse, which he caps off with more Hope-ful wisdom. “Love the airplane mode; turn off all the concerns, no matter what anyone says.”
You may notice that, though j-hope has long been acclaimed for his dancing, none of Hope World’s tracks feature choreography either for the stage or for music videos. This feels like a choice made to emphasize j-hope’s artistry as a musician. A different choice is made in his 2019 comeback single, “Chicken Noodle Soup,” a tribute to the Harlem dance-rap classic of the aughts.
From the jump, “Chicken Noodle Soup” delivers the hip-hop street dancing vibes that inspired j-hope from an early age. The video opens with four young, female dancers of color converged on a city wall; shot in Los Angeles, the clothing, sonics, setting and choreography aim for a complexly updated revision on early 2000s hip-hop.
The beat’s main bass riff sounds like that of a Neptunes production, particularly that of “Lapdance” by N.E.R.D. and “Superthug” by Noreaga. Yet it explodes into throbbing, updated drum sounds, with a raucous half-time breakdown for the penultimate section.
Thanks to the combined power of BTS fans and fans of featured urbana artist Becky G, as well as a clever Tik Tok dance challenge, “Chicken Noodle Soup” made j-hope the youngest Korean artist to reach the Billboard Hot 100, the fastest to top the iTunes chart and the first Korean artist to surpass 2 million followers on Spotify.
Additionally, the song serves as an inspiring moment of cultural exchange, in a landscape wherein Asian artists and non-black audiences often dismiss the vital education and attribution that inspires the entire space artistically. The track, video and press run were posed specifically to tribute the song’s (and artist’s) influences from black American artists.
The original “chicken noodle soup” was a variant of the Harlem shake popularized in the mid-2000s, which inspired the DJ Webstar tune of 2006. Bianca Bonnie, who performed in the original as Young B, got herself a nice bag with a songwriting credit. After expressing appreciation for the remake, stating it’s “good for the culture,” BTS fans took to Twitter to trend a responsive appreciation hashtag: #ThankYouBianca. “Thank you for this @BIANCAisKING! You did that and inspired our beloved J-Hope!,” read one tweet.
What’s more, j-hope emphasized his connections with the original song and the original artists. “When I was young, my first dance lesson was ‘Chicken Noodle Soup,’” he told LA’s KIIS FM in a brave display of his improving English. “Thanks for the inspiration, Webstar and Young BEEEE!”
These connections came through not only in j-hope’s interviews, but in the song itself. The bouncy tune kicks off with a verse from the rap-line extrovert directly connecting his roots in Korea with the interpolation’s original home: “Geun-nam Chung-jang Street, that’s my Harlem,” he says. Later, a video set in Gwangju tributes the song directly with the city’s natives performing the choreography in different parts of j-hope’s beloved hometown. “Since he promotes Gwangju around the world,” reads the description, “we should gather this many for him, shouldn’t we?”
What has become of hip-hop? Purists often declare that the artform, and its original elements, have simply been removed from its sphere; that the form we know today, the most commoditized and influential form on the planet, bears no resemblance to or appreciation for the forms that made it great. For the most part, this at least appears to be true. Hip-hop’s four elements--DJing, b-boying, MCing and graffiti--certainly don’t all make themselves apparent on your usual RapCaviar playlist.
Yet, from one of the least likely sources from which this hip-hop traditionalism can be expected, hip-hop traditionalism is found and celebrated. J-Hope was a boy from Gwangju, known more for its agriculture than for being as urbanized as the capital city, Seoul. He stars in (an ostensible) K-pop group, one that wears makeup, sings pop songs and dances cheerily for their young fans and demanding press. To the rap world, this is cultural detritus.
But on j-hope’s biggest record, he writes clever raps and emcees with his trademark charisma. The video and album artwork feature graffiti, and the video is chock-full of b-boy-style dancing. This peppy Korean country boy has, against all odds, pushed the four elements of hip-hop to the forefront of pop music. He’s brought it to YouTube and Tik Tok; he’s brought it to Stan Twitter and fan cafés.
j-hope is not alone in this; fellow rap-line members RM and Suga have been dedicated to hip-hop since pubescence, often flexing their lyrical skills in tracks like Map of the Soul’s leadoff song, the RM solo “Intro: Persona” or Suga’s vigorous single “Agust D.” They harbor influences not only from America, but from previous Korean rap pioneers like Verbal Jint and Epik High--and even K-pop outfits like Seo Taiji and Boys.
The globalization of hip-hop is a complex reality to analyze and opine on. For every BTS, there is a handful of less-appetizing interpretations of hip-hop; racially insensitive comments, blackface performances and, in conservative spaces, still dismissive attitudes towards hip-hop and its significant meaning to black American culture. In 2020, we shouldn’t have to remind people that hip-hop was created by black people in New York City struggling to rise above the oppressive realities of inner-city life.
We shouldn’t have to remind people that entering hip-hop’s space requires respect and praxis for the black lives that influence nearly every element of pop culture while still being marred by a global caste system.
With the heavy presence of these unsettling conversations, including these unsettling misunderstandings between people of color, it takes exceptional artistry to transcend racial and cultural barriers. It takes performances so compelling, so appealing to our hopeful, fun-loving lizard brains that they allow us to shut off our analytical tendencies. We need dance as much as ever. Psychological analyses have proven a powerful emotional release exists in dance; it is socially, cognitively, emotionally and physically stimulating in a way unmatched by most anything.
Yet, perhaps because of the sociopolitical clouds of doom that hover over every social interaction, or perhaps because of the decreased emphasis on eye-catching physical performance in deference to the highly saturated market of audio and visual content to consume, and the accessibility of modes with which to create and curate them, we seem to have lost our way in regards to dance.
People don’t really dance anymore. Pop stars float and riff over moody instrumentals; rappers freestyle brief bounces engineered by savvy young producers and depart, bag in hand. And in between it all, everyone’s always posting something.
Are we witnessing a resurgence of dance in rap music? Duke Deuce’s “Crunk Ain’t Dead” is among the latest in a series of viral music videos in which an artist not only raps a well-crafted, energetic tune, but performs to it--in Deuce’s case, he shows off impressive litheness, from an invigorating resurrection choreographic sequence at the start to a number of Michael Jackson-esque moves he showcases atop a table.
DaBaby brought out the legendary Jabbawockeez for his “Bop” visual and went Twitter Platinum. Lil Uzi Vert, himself an ex-b-boy turned rap star, decided to come back from his hiatus with a dance craze of his own, setting social media ablaze with “Futsal Shuffle 2020.” Some, but not all, rap stars are showing a willingness to utilize the joy of dance, and it makes their songs ever-the-more tantalizing for audiences in need of serotonin. Perhaps these moments signal the beginning of a movement in which dance and hip-hop finally reconvene in the spotlight.
If this is the case, then it’s time to acknowledge j-hope in the rap sphere. Yes, his story is inspiring, and yes, his pen is impressive, and yes, his fits are as colorfully street-inspired as his songs. But at his core, Jung Ho-seok has always been a transcendent dancer.
In Los Angeles, he battled multiple professional street dancers for BTS’ American Hustle Life reality show and looked not only competent, but potently confident. When working through BTS’ complex choreography alongside dynamos like Jimin, himself a highly acclaimed, transfixing dancer, j-hope never fails to perform with flair and ease.
When he’s on his own and decides to go all out, his moves seem impossibly hard. In his “Boy Meets Evil” solo choreography, he wiggles and bursts with death-defying precision; for one move, his foot flies and curves at eye level then speedily slams back down from a crouched stance; for another, he rolls above the ground with his back to it, propelling himself up only with his switching arms and his core strength.
His colorfully joyful personality, as shown in his oeuvre of wholesome shenanigans alongside power-tenor Jin, often subsides when it’s time to work on choreo; he will drill his fellow members until everything is perfect.
When it’s time to perform the simple stuff, he’ll add a little extra--a few wiggly arms, a couple of violent hip thrusts. As evidenced by “Chicken Noodle Soup,” j-hope can give you the viral dance craze and invite participation, but he can also distinguish himself from you in skill-level at any point. He represents the natural progression of the dancing rapper; a cross between the Heavy Ds and the Jabbawockeez.
— 𝕀𝕄𝕆ℕℍ𝕆ℙ𝔼𝕎𝕆ℝ𝕃𝔻 ⁷ (@btsrapline30) January 10, 2020
His music will not be for everyone, especially if one’s enjoyment of hip-hop’s lyrical features is contingent on understanding the rapper’s language--there are likely less than 100 million Korean speakers in the world, and most of them are not in the United States. His cheeriness will not charm everyone, either--even those of us who aren’t bigoted in our perceptions of masculinity may be confused by it from time to time--but j-hope’s dancing skills are undeniable, and that is not frivolous information at all.
Hip-hop’s origins lie in dance as much as they do in rap. DJs cut up breakbeats to empower parties, wherein both the casual partaker and the skilled breaker would convene for hours on end. Through his devotion to both forms, j-hope is directly calling upon the traditions of the world’s most important cultural movement.
As hip-hop continues to strengthen, and as new rappers continue to push the genre past perceived limitations, remnants of its beginnings remain in plain sight. But we as fans will struggle to find them if we do not open ourselves up to new possibilities. The first thing we’ll need is hope.