In October 2022, BTS announced a multi-year hiatus so all members can fulfill South Korea’s mandatory military service. Along with the news, they shared plans for a second chapter in the group’s story where each member would release individual projects. A little over a year, a single, and 5 albums later, Jung Kook is the final member to make their solo debut. His first record, Golden, showcases his raw talent as well as his ambitions to continue making history.
Jung Kook once shared that when his mother was pregnant with him she dreamt of golden rain, and everything this rain touched turned into pure gold. Before BTS debuted, fellow member RM dubbed him as the ‘golden youngest’ (황금 막내 / hwang-geum mak-nae), a nickname that has stuck for the last decade as one of the defining representations of who Jung Kook is – someone who excels in everything he tries. This natural disposition for greatness and his strong sense of passion led to him being surrounded by precious gold in the form of his bandmates and fans, but it is not without challenges.
Sometimes, what starts as a blessing can turn burdensome. With a youth spent being watched by millions, Jung Kook has endured incredible amounts of pressure during his most formative years. ‘Feels like I became a grown-up faster than everyone else’ he laments in R&B track “My Time”, a song released under BTS’ discography in 2020. Traces of loss and loneliness plagued him due to his unique path that began when he was barely 14 years old. In an industry that is often vicious, and in the K-pop system which is often rigid, it is easy to imagine how difficult it might be to discover who one truly is. Yet Jung Kook has broken out of South Korea’s traditional and conservative cultural norms, and what his vocation would dictate, with his sleeve of tattoos and facial piercings. He unprecedentedly hangs out with his fans, called ARMY, on livestreams making dinner, doing laundry, karaoke, and drinking with them. He tells them to think of him as a friend, and earnestly shares his thoughts and feelings. Despite hardships he has faced with BTS and as a singular person, he has come out of all of it unapologetically himself.
It is up to us to transform both our heaviness and joy over time into something cohesively beautiful. The title of this new album itself fully encapsulates Jung Kook’s act of reclamation. It notifies fans and new listeners alike that he has taken all of the gold interwoven with his life and in himself, his good and bad experiences, and made it into something powerful.
Jung Kook has been very direct about how he wants his music to conquer all markets, and with 10 palatable songs in English he definitely closes the gap and proves he can cross between K-pop and pop with ease. One of this summer’s inescapable songs was “Seven”, featuring Latto, and introduced the world to a mature side of Jungkook. Following with “3D”, featuring Jack Harlow, he continued to demonstrate he is no longer the boy he started his career as by using leveled harmonies reminiscent of *NSYNC and the early work of Justin Timberlake.
The rest of the album can be split into two halves, the first being bright and upbeat. The main track, “Standing Next to You” is a retro groove that demands attention. ‘They can’t divide us / We’ll survive the rest of time’, Jung Kook sings with dedication on top of Michael Jackson-esque disco flashes. It is the song that possesses the essence of the stardom Jungkook is seeking. “Closer to You”, featuring Major Lazer, has a reggaeton rhythm and euphoric whispers. Meanwhile “Please Don’t Change”, featuring DJ Snake, finds Jung Kook on the dancefloor. Ed Sheeran joins on the guitar in “Yes or No”; paired with layered harmonies and a smooth and simple chorus, Jung Kook further molds himself to a variety of sounds within pop music.
The second half charts much heartbreak. Playing the record in order might leave listeners feeling like it’s top heavy, but the later songs remain interesting thanks to Jung Kook’s vocals that are wielded with emotion and precision. “Too Sad to Dance” has clean melodies that nod to Justin Bieber’s dance-pop style. “Hate You”, co-written by Shawn Mendes, will become one of those timeless piano ballads that people years from now will still be listening to. ‘Maybe hatin’ you’s the only way it doesn’t hurt’, his voice quietly and perfectly portrays devastating heartbreak.
Jung Kook’s discography is dramatically different from his bandmates. Jin’s single that came two months before he went to the military is a sweet goodbye for fans with a promise to come back with more; j-hope had striking determination to show a new and darker side to himself; Jimin and SUGA (aka Agust D) provided sonic stories of pain and reaching places of peace; RM grappled with art and existential concepts like legacy and purpose; and V dove into his love for jazzy, soulful R&B. While Golden may feel a bit hollow, it achieves exactly what it set out to do – capture Jung Kook’s masterful voice and undeniable pop appeal.
From ‘golden youngest’ to ‘global pop star’, Jung Kook’s story of growth and authenticity is all at once inspirational and a journey only he can take. Every decade has its pop king, and Jung Kook has made it clear he is more than capable, and has every intention to assume the throne next.