“YOUself-titled.” Go to any art gallery anywhere in the world and you will inevitably find that word on the wall. It’s a title with no intention of being one; an invitation to interpret a piece as you see fit. With every ‘Untitled’ artwork there are no wrong answers and no definitive conclusions.
The first time BTS leader and rapper RM noticed this labeling, he was perplexed. “I was like, ‘Why are these guys so irresponsible? You just paint it and [call it] ‘Untitled’ – what you see is what you see?’ I was like, ‘OK!’” he smiles, the last word delivered in a bark dripping with contempt, like wet paint dripping across a canvas. Since then, though, he’s come to not only understand but relate to those creators’ decisions — so much so that on “Still Life,” a gloriously positive, forward-looking hip-hop track on his first official solo album “Indigo,” released today (Dec. ), he commands: “Don’t give me a name, because I have no title.”
“There are a lot of names that symbolize me – maybe especially RM or BTS or Kim Namjun to my friends,” he explains from a wide table in a room high up in the Seoul office of his label, HYBE. “But I felt like there is a piece of art of my 29[th year], it should be called ‘Untitled’, because nothing has been decided yet. I don’t know what to do now – I just made an album and this is me. I’m just figuring it out.”
‘Indigo’ captures snapshots of navigating that uncertainty and change, from relationships to a life unfolding under the public’s eye. Elsewhere on ‘Still Life’ he raps: “The past is over, the future is unknown / Catching your breath at a crossroads.” This record, which RM describes as a diary of his life between 2019 and 2022, feels like that pause, looking left and right, north and south, trying to figure out which way to go.
The search for direction has occupied RM lately. In BTS’ latest Festa dinner video — part of the group’s annual celebration of the anniversary of their debut — released in June, he spoke candidly about feeling lost about where the seven-piece should be going next. In the same video, they announced that they would be focus more on solo projects for the near future.
“I spent the whole decade trying to balance the team and myself, but it was really hard because BTS really took a lot of time and a lot of mind and heart,” says their leader now. But even with this burden temporarily relieved, he still struggled to know how to move on: “I feel like I was stuck on a big rock and I couldn’t move because it was like, ‘Okay, now I really have to concentrate on my own thing’.” To recalibrate his compass, RM had to go right back to the beginning of his journey, back to the boy who dreamed of becoming a poet and the teenager who fell in love with hip-hop, and remind himself why he took this path in the first place.
“I don’t know what to do now – I just made an album and this is me. I just find out”
HHe may not have known exactly what direction he wanted to go in, but, as RM mentioned in that same Festa dinner video, he knew he wanted to create something lasting and timeless: building a legacy. It’s a grand and ambitious desire that all art should nurture, but being hyperaware of it can also be the very thing that frustrates your efforts to get there.
“I’ve thought about that too,” RM replies when NME poses that riddle to him. “If you do it on purpose, can you have it?” He’s come to the conclusion that the answer is no, he explains, straightening his round-rimmed glasses under short curtains of black hair. But being aware of that goal is still “very important,” he adds. “I just want to have it in my head and enjoy every ride and then, maybe, at some point, like when I turn 60 or 70 or after I die, I can have some textures of [timelessness] – like old clothes, or when we look at our grandparents. I love [the idea of] but I’m too young to have it, so it’s my dream.”
Someone he feels has achieved that dream Eric Badu, which appears on ‘Indigo”s opening track ‘Yun’. It’s an exciting cameo from an artist who “barely”, as RM notes with a broad grin, appears in other people’s songs. After hearing her Robert GlasperNeo-Seoul’s ‘Afro Blue’ icon was the only person the rapper wanted on the track: “Her voice is really magical and has its own power – it’s like a spell. It really changes me and takes me somewhere.”
“Yun’s Hook – “You keep the silence / ‘Before you do something’ / You are human / Until you die” – is a statement by the painter Yun Hyong-keun, one of RM’s favorite artists and a leading figure of the Korean art movement Dansaekhwa. “When I sing [those words]“I didn’t think it would be very convincing because I’m too young to preach or tell people to be someone,” he explains. “With Erykah, it can be compelling because she has her own story through her life and she has a castle – she lives in her own kingdom. She has nothing to do with the hype or the viral[ity] and the noise, but everyone knows her and respects her.”
The hypnotic track also ties in with the BTS member’s desire to “enjoy every ride” – an attitude Yun shared. “He always said you have to be human first / Don’t try to make art, just have fun and enjoy all the cares and joys of life”, RM raps in one of the verses, referring to a lesson he learned from the hardships the artist endured for most of his life. Although Yun was arrested, tortured and jailed several times for standing up for what he believed to be right, he insisted that “the most beautiful life means surviving after experiencing extreme suffering and hardship”.
“In his day people were starving and there was art, but most people were like that [focused on getting] eat and [the need to] survive,” RM explains, his voice solemn with respect. “I could never imagine how they could think of art in those days – [through] the wars, the battles, the politics. That’s why I have great respect [for] especially him. He never bowed to the bad things.” Now the musician wants to “be an ambassador for him because I owe him” and send Yun’s messages out into the world.
AWhile ‘Indigo’ is essentially an ode to change, one thing in RM’s life has remained constant since childhood: his love of language. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a writer or poet. “Especially a poet,” he recalls. “But I realistically thought I was going to starve and die at some point because I wasn’t so confident about being a pro-poet. I was like, ‘It would be romantic to be a poet.'” He still sees his lyrics as a version of the art form—”rap stands for rhythm and poetry,” he insists—and is grateful to share his dual passions. for writing and hip-hop allowed to “harmonize”: “My thing was just to spread my voice to the world and I think I’m doing and realizing it in my own way. I’m trying to keep my young dream from when I was a kid [alive].”
Over the years as a member of BTS, RM has become known for another harmonizing act – of both Korean and English, acting as the group’s translator as they broke through the world. ‘Indigo’ features two full English songs, ‘Change pt. 2’ and ‘Nearby’. These, he laughs, are not an attempt to appeal to global listeners, but an organic consequence of his music-making process. “I think language has its own worlds or textures,” he explains. “Sometimes I watch interviews [I’ve done] in Korean and English [and] it’s really strange – the frequency and the dynamics are really different. But I love it and I’m happy to be able to do both because I’m lucky – I can be on land or in the sea.
“Erykah Badu’s voice is really magical and has its own power – it’s like a spell. It really changes me and takes me somewhere”
Satisfaction – and especially no regrets – is something RM wants to feel with this album. Since debuting with BTS nearly a decade ago, his life has been played out in full view of the public.
“There are many regrets because my whole twenties were an exhibition,” he sighs. “There are a lot of pictures and videos and pictures of my past online and they’re still on a lot of people’s phones or social platforms — too many memories I want to forget. Maybe the technology is too awesome so it stays somewhere forever, and sometimes it’s really horrible and scary. But it’s my destiny because I chose to be a star and be a member of a boy band.” While there are downsides to his global superstar status, you won’t see RM longing for another life. “Doctor Strange taught me that this version of the universe is the best,” he laughs.
Singing alongside iconic Korean singer and actor Parkjiyoon in the beautiful closing track ‘No.2’, RM is not looking back at the moment, but focusing on what’s to come. For private person Kim Namjun, that means “growing up”, trying to be “a bigger adult so that he can share love and be a nice influence on people” and indulge in hobbies. For the public-facing RM, things are more complicated.
“RM is fine,” he says hesitantly, expressing his words with a wry laugh. “RM has a challenge. He has been making music for 15 years now, but he finally managed to release his first solo album. He is like the young bird from the egg in the novel Demian, but at the same time he is a veteran because he has been going through BTS for ten years.” As he names the group, he lowers his voice to a dramatic, reverent silence. “So it’s really tricky. We’ll see what he does from now on.”
As life and the world around him continue to change, a lyric from the bouncy ‘All Day’ gives an indication of how RM will continue to move forward. “I’m digging all day”, he raps exuberantly. “I find the real me.”
RM’s ‘Indigo’ is out now via Big hit music