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Mixing boom-bap beats reminiscent of old school Korean hip-hop, with elements of punk, R&B and rock, j-hope showcases his talent and creativity in producing his first album ‘Jack In The Box’.

Image: Jack In The Box / Source: Spotify
Image: Jack In The Box / Source: Spotify

Known for his carefree, happy persona, the rapper took the bold step in producing an album which displays his inner demons and vulnerability. Garnering the attention and support from notable names within the Korean hip-hop and R&B scene such as, Code Kunst, HEIZE, Simon Dominic and LOCO to name a few, ‘Jack In The Box’ can be seen as a success for j-hope since he tackles a drastically different style from ‘Hope World’ (2018) and projects released with BTS. Unlike most of my other reviews, this one breaks down the album song for song in chronological order as the album structure was carefully thought out to convey the rapper’s message.

An eloquent female voice retells the Greek myth of Pandora and the box gifted to her by Zeus in the first track ‘Intro’ to establish the album’s premise. After releasing “all that was foul” upon the world by opening the box, it is only “Hope” which manages to make her “heart glow with warmth”. A twinkling sound often associated with enchanted, fairytale creatures of good occurs with the introduction of Hope, and gives the listener a false sense that the album may have more light-hearted tracks. However, the track comes to an abrupt end due to a sample sound of a needle being hastily removed from a vinyl on a record player, ceasing all thoughts of a potential lighthearted album.

Jumping straight into the next track, ‘Pandora’s Box’, j-hope introduces himself with his deep, rough voice as the aforementioned character Hope; “The ray of light that is left in the Pandora box/Put it into a pure-hearted boy/Till the end, framed to become Bangtan's hope”. Unlike in ‘Intro’ however, there is no twinkling sound to accompany this personification of ‘Hope’, rather quite the opposite sounds occur such as, a haunting piano melody and a dirty synth (you can hear other tones or noise alongside the note itself). The song concludes with a synth solo reminiscent of j-hope’s 2018 mixtape ‘Hope World’, and could represent a twisted version of the “twinkley” feeling often associated with hope.

Pre-released as a single alongside teasers which hinted at a dark concept, the muffled vocals and instrumentals of ‘MORE’ gave fans of the rapper a pleasant surprise as the song was a clear contrast to his 2018 mixtape. Maintaining the rock, punk blend, ‘MORE’ uses a steady beat established by drums and cymbals to accompany the rapper’s rhythmic rapping. Working on music is j-hope’s passion and joy and since he already knows that "Fame, [and] money’s not everything" he continues to work as it "makes [him] breathe, so [he] want[s] more". When the track draws to a close, all instruments drop out along with the delay and long reverb on the drums being removed which ceases the distorted effect and brings the track to an abrupt end, making the listener sympathise with j-hope’s craving for “wanting more”.

The fourth track ‘STOP’ sees j-hope rap about social issues and “Human nature” over a beat similar to old school hip-hop where such topics were often discussed. While the lyrics are trying to provide j-hope with comfort and hope that “There are no bad people in the world”, the production contrasts with them. Making use of silences, monotone vocals and samples such as, “Get down on the ground” being shouted followed by the sound of handcuffs closing then the words “I need help. I need help”, the track design ensures listeners hear the reality despite the rapper’s desperate plea. I would recommend listening to the album with earphones at least once so as to not miss the panned samples and subtle grunge ear candy which add texture to each track, ‘STOP’ being one in particular.

Along the same wavelength as ‘STOP’, ‘= (Equal Sign)’ is a clear commentary on the inequality and discrimination that people face daily across the globe, including j-hope. With South Korea recently electing Yoon Suk-Yeol as President - a politician with far right policies such as abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family which was formed to create “A society where all family members are happy” - the rapper probably found inspiration within the country’s current political and social climate. Ultimately though, it is a track which was produced “to give strength” to others whilst conveying the simple message that “Equality is you and me”.

‘Music Box : Reflection’ is exactly as the title states; an instrumental interlude in the style of a music box. Opening with a sample sound of a music box being wound up, a lullaby begins to play which is accompanied by a metronome, then midway through the beat joins. Until this point one might think it is another hip-hop take on the traditional music box lullaby, however an off pitch string instrument that sounds similar to metal against metal occurs every now and then, giving off a sense of unease to the listener.

Listen to 'Jack In The Box' here:

“Incoming” is the first word uttered in ‘What if…’, and there has never been a more relevant opening lyric. In the seventh track of ‘Jack In The Box’ j-hope has an existential crisis and questions his “Hopeful, optimistic, always with a smile on my face” persona. Dialogue between j-hope and Jung Ho-seok occurs, in which he asks himself if he would still stand for hope and positivity if he didn’t have “hope”, “dream”, “passion”, “vision” as well as materialistic objects such as, “money”, a “house” or a “car”. Following the psychedelic and warped ‘What if…’, ‘Safety Zone’ is layered with a groovy beat, soothing backing vocals as well as piano and vocal riffs. Once more, the lyrics juxtapose the instrumentals; as the rapper talks about his “struggles” despite all his effort and success and how he does not have his own “safe zone”.

Unlike the other tracks, ‘Future’ opens with vocals rather than beats. Sonically representing different stages in his life, the instrumentals of his past are contained in the jumbled and chaotic verses. Whereas, the crisp, clear chorus’s contrast to represent his future of “Betting on courage, faith, and hope”. ‘Future’ feels like it should be the last song of the album as it emits a similar vibe to a bow on a present; however, it is not, ‘Arson’ is. While the rest of the album builds upon the storyline surrounding “hope” as a character, emotion and essence of j-hope, ‘Arson’ closes the album by burning down what ‘Jack In The Box’ has cleverly crafted. Once more blending a boom-bap beat with trap instrumentals, making use of samples and vocal cries, and a lyric delivery similar to 90s Korean hip-hop such as, Seo Taiji and the Boys, ‘Arson’ includes all the best elements from the album to question whether j-hope should “put out the fire, or burn even brighter?”.

One thing which I feel is necessary to highlight though is that despite including ten tracks, the album is a mere 21 minutes long. Despite being transported to the deepest depth of j-hope’s psyche through well produced, enjoyable songs, the beats become overused and unimaginative, leaving you hoping for more.

Rating: 7/10

- Catherine Parker

Sources: [1] [2]

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