It's time to start taking the breakout star of BTS seriously as a rapper.
Rap Monster in Sexy Brain-Problematic Men
Sitting up straight at his desk, quietly listening to the questions posed and thinking carefully before responding, Kim Namjoon is a teacher’s dream. So attentive and polite! But he’s not in a classroom, and he’s not a student. He’s a rapper on the set of Sexy Brain-Problematic Men, a Korean talk show featuring a panel of smart celebrities. Better known as Rap Monster, the young rapper was cast as the show’s youngest panelist earlier this year for his IQ (148), his high school mock exam score (top 1 percent in the country), and his English language skills (he taught himself). On the show, the cast discusses everything from middle school career aspirations to first breakups in addition to solving brain teasers like “Where does ten plus three equal one?” Rap Monster easily solved that one (on a clock, if you were wondering), quickly impressing the rest of the cast.
Rap Monster is the show’s Rising Star, and, with everything he’s accomplished in just the last two years, the title suits him well. The 20-year-old brainiac debuted with hip hop group BTS in 2013 and has been on a non-stop schedule of music show performances, variety show appearances, fan signs, and touring ever since. In less than two years, BTS already has four mini-albums, a full-length, and a Japanese release under their belts. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only slightly busier than your average idol group schedule. Maybe it’s not quite what he pictured for himself when he started rapping at age 13 or later, when he and his friends (including Topp Dogg’s Kidoh, Show Me The Money 3 finalist Iron, and producer Supreme Boi) formed Daenamhyup, but he chose the idol rapper life and finally seems to be embracing the title. He is BTS’s leader, and he takes the group’s success very seriously.
Now that BTS has enjoyed healthy album sales, quite a few K-pop award show victories, and a successful tour (coming to the US in July!), Rap Monster has been able to focus more on personal projects. He recently collaborated with K-hip hop bosses MFBTY on their braggy, percussive track “Bucku Bucku.” In it Rap Monster claims to be shy in the company of MFBTY greatness, but his posture in the video says otherwise. He casually shrugs off disses from fellow rappers with an “Is that the best you can do?” and jokes that even his shit smells like jasmine. (He then makes a cameo in an explosive toilet scene in MFBTY’s video for “Bang Diggy Bang Bang.”)
Despite being busy preparing and promoting with his group, Rap Monster still managed solo projects like the MFBTY collab and the more recent feature on Primary’s “U.” In the smooth, sentimental song, Rap Monster gets real sweet, which, if you’re not familiar with the rapper’s work with BTS, you might not expect from him. (Go listen to “Miss Right,” though.) Primary is an established producer who has worked with acts like Dynamic Duo and Zion.T, and enlisting Rap Monster for his latest release is a big endorsement, especially on top of the already major MFBTY seal of approval.
Not only does Rap Monster have big names in Korean hip-hop in his corner, but he’s also got backing from American hip-hop veteran Warren G. Last summer, Rap Monster and his fellow BTS members traveled to Los Angeles for a hip-hop boot camp, where they were schooled on everything from history to dance to beatboxing and, with Warren G as their professor, songwriting. Despite not winning the songwriting challenge on American Hustle Life, the Mnet mini series that documented their education, Rap Monster left a strong impression on Warren G and the two came together earlier this year to work on “P.D.D”, in which Rap Monster asks his haters to stay alive to witness his success and welcomes them along for the ride.
Addressing the haters has been a prominent theme in Rap Monster’s music since deciding to work with Big Hit and BTS. He’s been called out for dancing and wearing makeup by rapper B Free and, more recently, by YG rookie Bobby. There’s been no end to the idol rappers aren’t real rappers taunts, but where the insults once stirred up self-doubt, they are now a source of strength for the rapper. At March’s BTS Begins concert, Rap Monster performed his cover of Drake’s “Too Much”: While it sounded vulnerable and tormented when he first uploaded it to the group’s Soundcloud a year ago, it now sounded powerful and determined in front of a large audience.
Rap Monster’s growing appeal comes from the way that he represents all the overthinkers and overachievers who outgrow the good boy image because they need something more. Deep down (OK, not so deep down) he’s still a nerd who thinks too much and tries too hard, but that’s where his charm lies. He knows he’s got a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in him, but he’s closer to younger artists like Earl Sweatshirt and Chance the Rapper in spirit, and that’s exciting.
His newfound strength can be heard loud and clear on RM, the solo mixtape he released in March. In “각성” or “Awakening,” he comes right out and says, “fuck you, I’m an idol,” a label he admits he once hated but now loves. He used to let the disses get to him, but now he’s realized that the idol rapper line is the only ammunition his haters have.
Though he’s gotten past the haters, the rapper still hasn’t gotten past himself. He’s clearly the type of artist who agonizes over every detail but is never satisfied, and you can tell when listening to RM that a lot of thought went into each song. “목소리” or “Voice” sets a serious tone for the mixtape, starting bare with just a soft piano melody and Rap Monster reflecting on the turning point that led him to hip-hop and the journey he’s been on since. He recalls the thrill of writing his first rap as a stellar but unfulfilled middle school student who didn’t know he needed that outlet until he first set pencil to paper for something other than homework.
RM standout track “Do You,” with its metronome beat, slick composition, and cool confidence, shows how much work Rap Monster has put into his craft. He’s truly come into his own, not only as a solo artist, but also as the leader of a dynamic group whose members admire and respect him. In “Do You” Rap Monster refuses to be defined. He doesn’t care what you say about him, if you don’t like what he wears, or if you don’t think he’s real hip-hop. He recognizes his strength now and his potential to really impact Korean hip-hop via pop music and a new generation of fans, who, though they may not exactly be hip-hop heads, are passionate about Rap Monster and will follow his lead. He’s Rap Monster, and he’s here to show you how it’s done.
Blanca Méndez is Noisey's chief Sexy Brain-Problematic Men correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.