However you look at the current purgatory for K-pop superstars BTS — a long-expected pause for military service, a renewed focus on solo careers or an existential crisis for the genre — there are significant stakes not just for the group, but for the global music industry.
While the seven members of the most successful act in South Korean history take turns, based on their respective birthdates, performing mandatory 18-month turns in the military — Jin and J-Hope are currently serving — those not yet conscripted have the chance to reestablish themselves as solo acts, after six chart-topping Billboard albums and six No. 1 Hot 100 singles.
For the band’s label, Hybe, in the midst of a global acquisition spree, billions of dollars are potentially on the line. Bang Si-hyuk, Hybe chairman, recently stated that there is no set date for BTS’ comeback as a group, though he hopes they can return in 2025.
Before beginning his military term later this year, group member Suga is touring U.S. arenas on the back of his solo debut album, “D-Day,” performed under the alias Agust D (he has two other mixtapes as Agust D). The dark, smoldering rap album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.
This week, Suga will perform three sold-out shows at Inglewood’s Kia Forum, on May 10, 11 and 14. However, he swears, he’s not competitive about it with his bandmates.
“Are you competitive with your family members? Do you get jealous if your brother or your sister does well?” he asked with a laugh during a Zoom interview (Suga spoke through a Korean translator). “We’re real brothers, period. If I do well, that’s good. If my family members do well, that’s even better.”
Suga’s Agust D alias has long turned heads within the BTS solo-project sphere. Sometimes, those heads nearly get decapitated via giant ritual temple sword, as in his 2020 video for the rowdy “Daechwita.” Other times, they get stabbed right through with a pair of chopsticks, as Suga does himself in the deliciously grisly, “Oldboy”-worthy video for the new single “Haegeum.”
It’s tough to square this genuinely transgressive solo artist with the snazzy-suited, fleet-footed heartthrob harmonizing on a Hot 100 hit like “Butter.” Devoted BTS Army fans know that Suga has an underground streak from his pre-BTS days, cribbing production notes from pioneering Korean rap acts like Epik High.
“Some bright and cheerful songs go into BTS,” he said. “But I’ve been doing music without any filter all the time, so I wouldn’t differentiate between Agust D or Suga, because all those are all me.”
Still, “D-Day” is a standout, and not just for the sub-shaking production and gory videos. “Haegeum” is lacerating about modern life in South Korea: “Maybe we do it to ourselves/ Slaves to capitalism, slaves to money/ Slaves to hatred and prejudice/ Slaves to YouTube, slaves to flexin’.”
Then he turns his blade on the internet culture that fascinates and destroys young people (including other K-pop artists, like the late Moonbin): “Endless influx of information prohibits freedom of imagination/ And seeks conformity of thought/ All these painful noises blind you.”
“We’re living a life that’s better than ever before,” Suga said. “Some say we all live better lives than the king hundreds of years ago. But everything we worry about is coming too fast. Everyone’s lonely without having a sense of belonging, we can’t relate to the things that our parents have experienced, like being obsessed with accomplishments. Nobody feels a sense of belonging.”
Suga’s not immune from self-criticism, either. On “People Pt. 2,” with K-pop R&B singer IU, he sorts out his wariness around intimacy. “Selflessness can actually be selfish too, it’s true/ It’s actually my greed when I say that it’s all for you.”
“This thing called love … it’s conditional,” he sings. “Wasn’t loved enough as a kid, that’s why I’m the cautious type.”
Suga, born Min Yoon-gi, famously broke down in tears after seeing his formerly reluctant parents attend a BTS show in 2016. What did they make of that song?
“I don’t actually let my parents listen to my music before it’s released because there’s so many swear words,” Suga answered with a laugh. “My parents only listen to BTS songs. Things are good with us.”
On one hand, being in a globally famous act means any slip-up could be perilous. On the other, BTS-size stardom and a reputation for real artistry allow for uncommon candor, said Sang Cho, co-founder of the L.A.-based K-pop distribution and event firm KAI Media.
“Suga and RM are to BTS what Lennon and McCartney were to the Beatles. [RM is expected to be the next BTS member to enlist.] Every member is talented, but these two are definitely the driving force behind their music,” Cho said. “I think Suga is a bit more Lennon — more explicit in his antiestablishment sensibilities. ‘Haegeum’ is a double entendre of a traditional Korean string instrument and wordplay on ‘liberation from restrictions.’”
“D-Day” also reflects on the music that helped Suga become a serious artist. His track “Snooze” was one of the late Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s last collaborations, an artful yet stern track that brought Suga back to his teenage days learning to sample.
“I’m not really good at piano, but I remember playing ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ all day when I was young,” Suga said. “It’s impossible not to be influenced by him if you’re born in Korea. When I was young, I needed instrumentals without voice to sample, so I reversed and chopped his music. I am very grateful I can call him a mentor even though I only met him once.”
While Suga is playfully cynical about accolades like Grammy Awards — “Isn’t that a local thing?” he joked, echoing South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s quip about the Oscars — he has nuanced thoughts about his place in hip-hop.
“I did have that differentiation when I was younger. I hoped that [rap fans] would approve of my music,” he said. “But I have this very firm belief that if I go to a hip-hop concert, where there’ll be only hip-hop fans, well, BTS fans are hip-hop fans too. I’m a huge fan of hip-hop, but what’s important here is that it’s not empty words to do music for the people that have sent you love and support.”
As the members of BTS sort out these years in transition, they’re still in one another’s lives. BTS’ Jimin debuted atop the Hot 100 with “Like Crazy” in March. Suga can’t wait to be in the crowd cheering for his bandmates when their times come.
“If you live for 13 years in one house under the same roof 24/7, you become a family,” Suga said. “A lot of people think that the relationships between K-pop band members are kind of fake, but that’s not true. For me, it’s more like, ‘Oh, Jimin, hi! You made it to the Hot 100, I’m so proud of you!’”