high hopes

8 Essential J-Hope Songs

Photo: HYBE Label/YouTube

Throughout his nine years in BTS, J-Hope has projected an image of positivity. “I’m your hope, you’re my hope, I’m J-Hope,” he often says in self-introduction, beaming and throwing finger hearts. But the high-energy rapper shattered all expectations with “More,” a blistering rap-rock song that serves as the first single from his upcoming album, Jack in the Box. The project will make him the first BTS member to release an official solo debut, following last month’s announcement that they will
(supposedly) be pausing group promotions. But on “More,” J-Hope refuses to rest on any laurels. Seemingly aware that this is his chance to make a personal statement on an unprecedented scale, he uses the single as a declaration of his ever-burning ambition to conquer any style and sharpen his craft. “I’m still not enough,” he raps on top of a dusty hip-hop beat, employing deep-throated growls before the song explodes with alternative guitar riffs. “Fame and money isn’t everything, I already know it / My work makes me breathe, so I want more!” he yells in the bridge in a distant, distorted vocal.

With “More,” J-Hope offers a new vision of a K-pop solo star — a risk taker who bends pop’s current trends to his own style and willingly defies the unspoken rule that a hit song requires a viral dance challenge. Its early success, debuting at No. 82 on the Hot 100, builds on the inroads he made on his 2019 Korean-English-Spanish single, “Chicken Noodle Soup,” featuring Becky G, which made him the first BTS soloist to land on that very chart. It also portends the splash that he will make across international markets, as he’s set to become the first Korean artist to headline a major U.S. music festival at this year’s Lollapalooza. Becoming a global household name as a Korean soloist has really only been done by Psy, who won the world over with his avuncular dance antics on “Gangnam Style.” A decade later, J-Hope, a 28-year-old aesthete, former street dancer, and hip-hop fanatic from Gwangju, Jeolla-do, will likely start a new chapter for Korean solo musicians to come.

While Jack in the Box will be an introduction for many, seasoned fans will already be aware that the artist born Jung Hoseok contributed to more than 100 songs since 2012. Though he’s well known for the house-inflected tracks on his 2018 mixtape, Hope World, and his self-penned verses on numbers from BTS’ rap line (also composed of RM and Suga), J-Hope has been quietly proving that true character is more nuanced than his overtly happy reputation would suggest. For those looking to get into his catalog, here is a non-exhaustive list of eight of his essential tracks, in no particular order.

“Daydream” (2018)

This single from Hope World pulses with a sunny house groove, as J-Hope earnestly reveals his worries as a K-pop star and dreams of an imagined fantasyland where he can act on all his desires of falling in love, partying like crazy, and crying in peace. “My personality is half and half,” he opens, suggesting that there’s a darkness underneath his bright facade. He then sings about wanting to briefly escape reality. “Everyone must have been caught like fish / In a net of desire that results from the thirst of life.” The feeling of confinement is in stark comparison to his confident and untethered attitude on “More,” when he breezily raps, “I’m a fish who met water,” an idiom that means “I’m in my element.”

“Trivia 起: Just Dance” (2018)

J-Hope was already a locally renowned teenage street dancer in a dance crew called Neuron He when he became a Big Hit Entertainment trainee in 2010. He brought both a steely precision and overflowing joy to his stage performances, making him the unofficial dance captain of BTS. On this ecstatic dance-pop song, J-Hope sings of reveling in the feeling of dancing with someone and matching their movements together.

“Chicken Noodle Soup” (2019)

J-Hope was such a fan of the song “Chicken Noodle Soup” by Harlem’s Webstar and Bianca Bonnie that he reportedly paid $1.7 million to re-create the 2006 track with Mexican American hitmaker Becky G. It was an investment that paid off: The 2019 version was an instant hit, with its updated jangly trap beat and trilingual verses helping it chart in more than 20 countries. (At the time of publication, the music video has over 355 million YouTube views.) Since he references his dance-team beginnings throughout the song, J-Hope enlisted one of his early peer mentors, Bangstar, to create new moves alongside choreographers Sienna Lalau and Son Sungdeuk.

“MAMA” (2016)

A true tearjerker that calls to mind Kanye West’s “Hey Mama,” this heartfelt hip-hop song built on a breezy saxophone riff is J-Hope’s ode to the woman who “created my breath that made me able to feel the world,” reflecting on how his mother worked two jobs to support his dance lessons. He outlines how her selflessness became the root of his drive to succeed, before going into the sing-along chorus: “Hey Mama / Now you can lean on me, I’m always by your side.”

“P.O.P (Piece of Piece)” (2018)

Another Hope World cut that balances J-Hope’s internal landscape of light and dark, “P.O.P (Piece of Piece)” offers an explanation of why he wants to act as a beacon of hope to his listeners. On the piano-based track, he nods to the youth-unemployment crisis in South Korea (around the time of the song’s release, the rate for ages 15 to 29 was nearing 10 percent). And he raps about wanting to tackle the issue directly — “Daily wages putting our blood and sweat in shame” — before telling his fellow young people that the problem is not their fault. “I’ll help them because I was like them,” he raps, “because I was someone who had a passion.”

“Outro: Ego” (2020)

Though it’s officially billed as a BTS song, J-Hope is the sole performer on this exuberant electronic dance track that closes out the group’s 2020 Map of the Soul: 7, a concept record where the members explored Jungian psychology principles of persona, shadow, and ego. Another one of his uptempo introspective tracks, “Outro: Ego” features J-Hope ruminating over his past self as he wonders what would have happened had he not pursued the idol life. As the chorus bursts with a lively horn riff, he decides to release his worries and follow fate as he runs toward the shining road ahead.

“Intro: Boy Meets Evil” (2016)

“Intro: Boy Meets Evil” opens the group’s Wings album and sets up the project’s themes of greed, temptation, and immature love. Co-written by RM, J-Hope, and their longtime producer, Pdogg, the dark hip-hop track is built on a jazzy sample that mutates into rippling dubstep. J-Hope’s ferocious rapping paints a series of scary vignettes: spilt blood, references to hell, and the leering stares of strangers. He intentionally sounds haggard when he sings, “I’m getting out of breath,” which is also perhaps connected to later themes on “More,” where J-Hope tells himself to “inhale, inhale, exhale, exhale / I feel alive.”

“BTS Cypher Pt. 3: Killer” (2014)

While there’s more than a dozen songs that showcase J-Hope’s ever-changing flows, the third installment of BTS’ Cypher series is a fan favorite that sees all three rappers bringing playful disses and punch lines. J-Hope takes over the middle section of the hard-hitting track, which pairs gunshot sounds with Korean traditional music, taking shots at “hip-hop losers” and unleashing a series of onomatopoeic rhymes. (For those looking for more BTS rap-line gold, “UGH!” and “Ddaeng” are two places to start.)

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted that Jungkook appeared on “Trivia 起: Just Dance.” The piece has since been updated.

8 Essential J-Hope Songs