The Philosopher Who Raps — Meet The Genius Lyricist Behind BTS
Kim Namjoon — known through his stage name, RM — is mostly known as the leader of worldwide group sensation, BTS. But that’s not all he is. The BTS leader is a well-rounded lyricist, producer, rapper, father of four bonsai plants, and UN ambassador who gave an incredibly poignant speech at the summit two years ago.
He is also the current highest-charting Asian act in the world with more than 120 #1’s for his album mono. The twenty-six-year-old has journeyed far over the course of his career and has achieved many remarkable things — but where does it all begin?
RM was scouted by Bighit Entertainment’s CEO Bang PD and was the very first member of the group, BTS. Even at the beginning of his musical career, RM was well known and revered in South Korea’s hip hop circle at the mere age of thirteen. RM started writing young and early and was only in grade five when he wrote a poem about the unification of Korea.
He began writing songs early, hiding lyrics in scraps of paper in his workbooks, and spoke of how he would get in trouble for doing so. In his solo song Voice, RM talks of being a star pupil who desperately wanted nothing more than to perform.
RM now boasts 167 songwriting credits from the Korean Music Copyrights Association, making him the youngest Korean artist ever to achieve it.
Apart from a mixtape, an album, and multiple other collaborations with Korean and Western artists alike, RM has diligently worked on almost every track BTS have put out to the world.
His work and incredible insight are admirable if you take a look at his lyrics — that all range from incredible wordplay, poetic metaphors, and a perfect and raw encapsulation of what it means to be human.
When asked about how songwriting came to him, RM described how there were always two sides to everything. "If there’s light, there’s a shadow." He said in an interview for JPFC. "There are many layers of things in the world and they’re three-dimensional. When I start to understand it, that’s when I’m able to accept things lightly.”
“It [his songwriting] is inspired by the fact people don’t often notice things."
RM's take on what lyricism means to him is obvious, especially if you delve deeper into his words. In their song 134340, RM creates a euphemism where he explains the loneliness they feel, comparing it to the outcasted once-planet Pluto. In Whalien 52, RM draws parallels to the loneliest whale in the world. In their collaboration Boy With Luv with American artist Halsey, RM speaks of the love their fans have given to them — "With the wings of Icarus, let me not fly towards the sun but you."
In his solo song, everythingoes, RM uses seasons as a metaphor for how pain is inevitable but it too shall pass — "As night goes and morning comes, when spring goes and summer comes, as a flower goes and a fruit comes, everything must be hurt."
moonchild is an ode to the ones who find comfort in the night. Intro Persona is RM struggling to come to terms with the persona the world has created for him and the person he truly is. In forever rain, RM akins the rain to a friend that knocks on his window and asks if he's okay.
In his collaboration Strange with band member Suga in his solo mixtape D-2, RM criticizes capitalism, consumerism, speaks of polarization, and how all of us are slaves to the same system. Change, his duet with American rapper Wale, criticizes the education system and speaks of police brutality, racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. BTS — in particular, RM, Suga and J-Hope— have always incorporated socio-political themes into their music as well, starting from the debut of their career.
In his collaboration Winter Flower with Korean soloist Younha, RM scoffs at every single person who dismisses human pain and anguish by providing empty words of assurance. “‘Do you think the world is harsh on you? Everyone has it hard.’ These can’t be your words of comfort.”
Perhaps, one of RM’s most famous works is Spring Day — a gentle ballad that speaks of wanting desperately for winter to pass and waiting for someone you love to come home. It is also an ode with Suga to each other to commemorate their ten-year friendship. Spring Day is the longest-charting track on Genie, Korea’s biggest music platform. RM admitted to writing Spring Day after he saw a leaf fall from a tree.
Another incredible track RM diligently worked on was Black Swan, a B-side track from the band’s previous album Map Of The Soul; 7 that spoke of the fears that came with being an artist and having the ability to create. Songwriters August Rigo and Vince Nantes who worked with RM said that RM had spread his magic across the track and made it what it was.
Black Swan resonated deeply across people all over the world and spoke of the fear that came with losing your love and passion for the arts. It spoke of the fear of losing your love for music, for the arts, for words, and the ability to create. In Black Swan, RM goes, “If this can no longer resonate, no longer make my heart vibrate — then like this may be how I die my first death.”
In their most recent title track Life Goes On — that charted number one on the Billboard Top 100 making it the highest-charting Korean track in history and the group’s third number one this year — RM spoke of chasing behind a cloud, feeling it squeeze out of his grasp and having the sudden painful realization that he was human after all.
RM has been honest about his music and his words, early into their career. Fans diligently wait for his album reviews where he gives a regular overview on the behind scenes of every album and insights behind all their lyrics.
In a recent interview, RM confessed to how he felt like a Korean artist in the West. It is obvious that despite being the biggest group in the world, BTS are still treated as anomalies and something temporary. This was seen with how radio hosts reacted to fans politely asking for radio play and how their most recent title track got the least radio spins, despite being the highest-charting single in the current charts.
RM expressed more of his sentiments in a personal interview where he spoke admirably about feeling like an outcast. In a recent Reuters interview, RM confessed to feeling like an “alien” in the industry. In another live stream, RM voiced out a sentiment many non-English speakers resonated deeply with — “‘Music truly transcended the barriers of language.’” He said, recalling his words in a previous interview. “I questioned myself if I even believed it.”
This sentiment was met strongly and understood well by BTS’s fanbase. Despite selling out stadiums, BTS got their first number one through the release of their first English single, Dynamite — which was consequently nominated for the group’s first-ever Grammy nomination in a major category.
RM’s sentiment spoke of how the anticipation and excitement surrounding Dynamite was bittersweet. It confirmed the prejudice and bias in the music industry and the way it treated non-English speaking artists. But this sentiment burned less after the group’s Korean single Life Goes On went straight to number one, despite no media support, heavy playlisting, or radio play.
For many, BTS’s words and continuous honesty had resonated strongly and shifted something within them. BTS’ determination to speak of what it meant to be human and what came with being human had a tremendous impact on anyone who wanted to feel understood. It is entirely plausible that one would be drawn to BTS because of human curiosity or a sudden shift in interest — but it is obvious many have chosen to stay because of the message BTS chose to spread.
In a pandemic that has robbed every sense of normalcy, perhaps one of BTS’ greatest messages was through the release of their album — BE. A musical catalog of the fear and anxiety one feels as life goes on but also a message of hope and anticipation for the future — BE resonated deeply across fans all over the world and rightly so.
RM recently debuted at number three in the Billboard Hot 100 Songwriter Chart along with bandmate, Suga, who debuted at number nine. This counts as the songwriter duo’s first entry into the charts but certainly won’t be their last.
When asked about his songwriting, RM spoke of how people paid attention to how flowers bloomed but never knew the number of petals they had. His music perfectly captures his sentiment. His words remind his listeners what it means to be human, to pay attention to the smallest details, and remember we exist.
In a recent interview for Weverse, RM spoke of how he wished BTS would be a band people in the future could look back and recall their music well. Just like all his favorite artists and people had impacted him greatly.
BTS have already created a forever impression into every single person who listens to them, a forever thumbprint pressed into our wrists. Their words have resonated deeply and will continue to do so till the end of time. It will be echoed like they always have been and will always be understood — that is already clear.