Kim Namjoon, stage name RM, is most well-known as the leader of the global music sensation, BTS. But that’s not all he is. As the group’s main rapper, producer and one of the septet’s primary songwriters and lyricists, RM has co-written nearly every BTS song with his fellow members. The Korea Music Copyright Association credits him with over 200 songs, making him the youngest Korean artist to achieve this milestone. This portfolio includes not just his work for BTS, but also solo projects like his debut mixtape, ‘RM’ in 2015, ‘mono’ in 2018 and most recently ‘Indigo’ in 2022.
Namjoon will be celebrating his 29th birthday on September 12. We are celebrating alongside him by tracing his journey as a songwriter, lyricist and honouring his musician’s legacy. Let’s meet the creative genius and philosopher behind the stage persona who propelled BTS’s success story.
The smartest member of BTS
RM has an IQ of 148 and was in the top percentile in South Korea’s KSAT – a national-level entrance exam for university applications. Since a young age, RM experienced the conflict of following the tried-and-tested path, the path expected of him; or choosing to pursue music – and his early lyrics reflect his torn perspectives on the pressures of education and academic performance in South Korea.
BigHit Entertainment`s CEO, Bang Si Hyul, recognized RM`s potential early on, making him the foundational member of BTS. By the tender age of thirteen, RM had already carved a name for himself within South Korea`s underworld hip hop community. His passion for writing blossomed at a young age. RM has often talked about wanting to be an author/poet early on – by 5th grade, he was already writing on the unification of Korea.
As a budding artist, Namjoon often secretly scribbled lyrics on bits of paper tucked within his school books, even if it meant facing reprimands. In his solo track ‘Voice,’ he reminisces about being a top student with a burning desire to take the stage and perform. A similar sentiment is also expressed in the song, ‘Born Singer’ where BTS were on the cusp of breaking through with their ‘The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Era.’ In a soul-wrenching verse, he raps –
“Hey, what is your dream? Mine is a rapstar, can`t you feel”
“And let the haters hate on me, it`s their day job
Where you mock the keyboard, I fulfill my dreams
Sunglasses, hair style,I know why you insult me
Anyway, at 20 years old I’ve come farther along than any of you”
His other songs from BTS’s debut era like the hidden (and extremely underrated) track, ‘Path’ have Namjoon ruminating about the difficult path they had chosen to traverse and whether things would be different if they had not chosen to challenge the norm. But perhaps, the road they were meant to take was the road less travelled, after all.
“If I had chosen a different path, would have I been any different?
If I stopped and looked back, what will I see at the end of this road?”
Making a statement
Since the beginning, Namjoon’s lyricism intimately engaged with his inner worlds, and yet was extraordinarily politically attuned to the world. BTS’s early vlogs pre-debut had 18-year-old RM rapping about how voting matters. Their debut EP, ‘No More Dream’ spoke about the incarceratory nature of the educational system that forced young minds into a school – legitimate career – burnt-out adult pipeline and did not encourage a safe space for ideas and dreams. BTS might cringe looking back at their initial album, but these songs were revolutionary for the time.
In ‘Strange,’ a collaboration with bandmate Suga from his solo mixtape D-2, RM delves into criticisms of capitalism and consumerism, highlights societal polarization, and points out how many are entrapped within the same system. In ‘Change,’ his joint track with American rapper Wale, RM addresses issues like the flaws in the education system, police brutality, racism, and lends his voice to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Another enduring legacy of the leader is the song ‘Spring Day’ where BTS unhesitatingly returned to politically engage with the world and musically reflect on the Sewol Ferry Tragedy in Seoul – and the wounds of marginalized communities.
Greater awareness of oneself and the world
Diving into RM’s lyrics reveals depth and empathy – the songwriter uses his lyrics to explore a greater awareness of oneself and the world, which is also immensely inspiring for his fans. His incredible wordplay, a sharp command over both English and Korean and poetic allegories craft an unfiltered and singular portrayal of the human experience through equally as haunting melodies – which is RM’s trademark style.
One instance of such wordplay can be witnessed in his solo song, ‘Trivia: Love.’ The leader has a live stream following the release of every BTS album, in which he delves into the composition, songwriting, inspiration and production behind each track. During one such live, he mentioned the genesis of this song.
“The words for ‘life’ and ‘love’ in Korean are uncannily similar – and I wanted to play with this emotion in my song. The inspiration was a person, ‘사람’ (saa-raam) is softened by love ‘사랑’ (saa-raang) – the square shape in the script becomes rounded. Isn’t that what life is about too?
RM has mentioned that the natural world is a deep and lasting source of inspiration in his words. His lyricism mired in an incisive, unflinching introspection; when combined with the metaphors of nature and life have produced songs that will remain timeless in their resonance.
In the track ‘134340,’ RM crafts a poignant euphemism, likening their feelings of isolation to the forsaken planet, Pluto. ‘Whalien 52’ sees him drawing a philosophical analogy between rising yet increasingly isolated sensation, BTS to the world`s loneliest whale, reflecting solitude. With the collaborative piece ‘Boy With Luv’ featuring American artist Halsey, RM eloquently conveys the adoration they receive from fans, suggesting, “Instead of the sun`s scorch, like Icarus, let me soar towards you.”
In his solo track ‘Everythingoes’ from ‘Mono,’ RM employs the cyclical nature of seasons to portray the transience of pain, poetically musing, “As day turns to night, spring to summer, from blossoming flowers to ripening fruits, every existence knows pain.”
‘Moonchild’ serves as a lyrical tribute to those souls that find solace and can be themselves only when the moon rises. While in ‘Forever Rain,’ he personifies rain as a compassionate friend, gently checking in on him through the window in a pulsing and busy city.
RM’s growth and journey as a songwriter has also seen him increasingly write about his personal self and public persona – and the complex merging and tussles between individual and artist. “Intro Persona” captured RM`s internal dilemmas between conforming to his public image and his authentic inner self – are the two different? Can they be different?
“Someone like me ain`t good enough for music
Someone like me ain`t good enough for the truth
Someone like me ain`t good enough for a calling
Someone like me ain`t good enough to be a muse
The flaws of mine that I know
Maybe that`s all I`ve got really
There`s something that raised me up again every time
The first question
The three syllables of my name and the word `but` that should come before any of those”
In his most recent album, ‘Indigo,’ Namjoon really confronts these questions – especially in the light of BTS’s hiatus as a group.What does it mean to be an artist and still have a private self? Are you allowed to traverse different paths if your old dreams begin to shackle you? What does it mean to preserve and nurture oneself when you are being constantly pigeonholed into a publicly curated ‘title’?
“When everything I bеlieved in grew distant
When all this fame turned into shackles
Please take my desire away from me
No matter what it takes
Oh, let me be myself”
Paused and turned out to be gloriously barefooted
Nothing was ever meant to be mine
And don`t tell me like you gotta be someone
Because I`ll never be like them (Light a flower)
Yeah, my start was poetry
My one and only strength and dream that protected me so far (Light a flower)
Burning fireworks to flowerworks
Boyhood to eternity
I`ll stay in this barren field
Ah, I`ll return someday”
“I`m still life, but I`m movin`
Just live now, goin` forward, yeah
A still life that does not stop, keep my flower blooming again
Gimme no name `cause I`m untitled”
RM has been a cultural reset to this generation of poetry and music. With every song, he gives audiences a chance to get to know RM (an acronym for ‘real me’) a little bit more. We wish Namjoon a very happy 29th birthday!