“Use it: while taking a walk, shower, drive…” reads the packaging of ‘Indigo’, the debut solo album from BTS leader RM. These instructions of how, where and when to listen to the record continue, each extra point adding more moments of daily life that the music can soundtrack. It’s a fitting guide, not just because of how quickly ‘Indigo’ will weave itself into the fabric of listeners’ everyday, but also because of how much this album feels like a reflection of life itself.
The follow-up to RM’s two mixtapes, 2015’s ‘RM’ and 2018’s ‘mono’, is unpredictable and restless. It exists in a constant state of metamorphosis, all the while searching for – and finally finding some – answers. Described by its creator as “the last archive of my twenties”, it sustains a mirror up to a period that’s often seen as one of exploration and finding your path. It, like life, is a record that is thrillingly in flux.
It begins with ‘Yun’, a pensive callback to ’90s boom-bap that asks questions of identity, art and purpose. Even as RM declares, “I wanna be a human / ‘Fore I do some art / It’s a merciless world / But there’s gon’ be my part”, uncertainty is rife. The rapper looks to the artist the song is named for, Korean painter Yun Hyong-keun, to lead him on “the path to finding out”. By the record’s end, another legend is offering him words of wisdom, Korean singer parkjiyoon gently advising, “Dear, don’t look back anymore […] All you did was just to do your best” on the warm ‘No.2’. By the time the song reaches its conclusion, RM and his guest are singing that sentiment in unison, as if he’s taken her message to heart and vowed to keep his focus firmly ahead.
In between, there are similar moments of resolve to keep growing, paired with odes to frustration and feeling stuck. ‘Still Life’, a funk-tinged piece of infectious hip-hop featuring the ever-ebullient Anderson .Paak, twists the title from an art term into a commitment to keep moving forward. “I’m sowever life / Ya can’t lock me in the frame, I’m movin’,” .Paak sings on the jubilant chorus. “I’m sowever life / Life is better than the death, I’ll prove it.”
In the album’s second half, though, that bid to be free of borders becomes unravelled, the RM we find on ‘Lonely’ penned into a Las Vegas hotel room. “With cars honking loudly / As the width of the room shrinks / I’m trapped in myself,” he laments. Though the finger-picked guitar instrumental is polished and somewhat upbeat, there’s a rawness and roughness – and almost emo quality – to his vocals as he spits out his dislike of “the cities I don’t belong” and “the buildings I don’t even know”.
‘Hectic’, a city-pop gem featuring Colde, and the alternative R&B of Mahalia and Paul Blanco collaboration ‘Closer’ offer a similar flip from one contrary to another. The former details nights spent drinking with individuals you don’t want to see, evoking the torn feelings of ‘mono’’s ‘Seoul’. The latter longs to be close to someone with whom you just can’t create it work. “If I could be under your skin, closer than we’ve ever been / We’d be closer than we’ve ever been,” Mahalia sings on the forlorn chorus. They’re lines full of beauty and romanticism but also bursting with sadness and desperation, like someone clinging onto a relationship when they already know deep down that it’s a missing cause.
‘Indigo’ might represent change, but it also stands for growth, too. Lyrically, the record shows one of his generation’s most incisive and imaginative writers levelling up. ‘Yun’ and ‘Wild Flower’, in particular, showcase some of RM’s best work yet, their lyrics powerful if you hear them in tandem with music or read them on a page. “To Caesar what is Caesar’s / The charred heart / Writing poetries on top of scattered ashes,” goes ‘Yun’, its vivid lines swirling like mists of embers and dust. “Nights the beating of my heart kept me up / The mournful crescent moon hung beyond the window,” RM narrates on ‘Wild Flower’, painting another stark nocturnal scene. “I do wish me a lovely night.” It’s true, poignant poetry.
Musically, the album takes life’s capricious nature to heart and wanders a zig-zagging path through a variety of genres, from the soft folk of ‘Forg_tful’ to the exuberant hip-hop of ‘All Day’. That fluctuating disposition is key to the record’s most interesting and experimental track, ‘Change pt. 2’ – the song itself a nod to the impermanence of our world. Buzzsaw synths dip and dart beneath RM’s slurred delivery, taken over by urgent glitches before a clean piano melody cuts through the chaos. The disappearance of distortion at first feels like an acceptance and embrace of inevitable change, but the stumbling last melody reveals enduring doubts and wariness in each new, lurching note.
RM has likened ‘Indigo’ to an exhibition, the musician playing curator not just with the stories he feeds into the songs but with the guests he’s assembled throughout the record. There are only two tracks out of 10 that are free of cameos and, with that numerous collaborators, it would be easy for his voice to be diluted and missing – especially with the sheer star power on display here. Instead, he deploys every feature masterfully, each buoyed by a feeling of purpose rather than tacking someone on for the sake of it. Erykah Badu provides smooth sageness on ‘Yun’ and Korean rock icons Cherry Filter’s youjeen graces the stunning ‘Wild Flower’ with an explosion of emotion. The moment in ‘Closer’ where Paul Blanco takes the baton from Mahalia and RM, meanwhile, is one of the most satisfying vocal segues in recent memory.
In the “magazine film” that accompanied the release of ‘Indigo’, its creator described the album as feeling like, for the first time, he had “made something that’s mine”. “Fuck the trendsetter” goes the impactful first line of the record – three words that sum up exactly what RM has made here. ‘Indigo’ is an album that feels unperturbed by current trends and sounds most likely to score a hit, instead focusing on construction its own inimitable world. It’s too early to tell if the record will help the BTS leader accomplish his goal of creating something truly timeless but, in this moment, ‘Indigo’ feels like a masterpiece with the potential to be remembered as a classic.
- Release date: December 2, 2022
- Record label: Big Hit Music