Kim Namjoon’s “Seoul” and My New York

I’m not usually a K-pop fan, but when Kim Namjoon (also known as RM) announced a song in his new mixtape produced by Honne, I jumped on board. Yes. YES. As you all know, I am a big fan of Honne—big enough to have seen them live three times and wrote a creative nonfic piece based on one of their songs. As for RM? I am constantly surrounded by fans of his Korean pop group BTS who have said that if I were a BTS fan, my bias would be him. When he announced “Seoul”, I knew that this track could be a starting point for me to get into his music.

When I listened to the track for the first time, I can sense the signature quirks of a Honne-produced song: sweeping synths, dynamic-yet-subtle beats, and an ethereal soundscape in general. RM’s voice goes along very well with the synths. Usually a rapper in his pop group, he ventures on his vocals in his solo projects—I’m not this knowledgeable in K-pop, I “interviewed” a BTS stan for this blog post so please do not ask me further questions about Namjoon’s backstory—and there is a mastery of composition evident in this song: the layering of harmonies, the smooth transition between rapping and singing, and how it all goes together with the music. I personally don’t know Korean, but guessing from the song title, I took a wild guess of thinking that this song is about the city Seoul. The soundscapes reminded me of songs like Grimes’s “Realiti” (written about Vancouver, Canada) and Emir Hermono’s “3 a.m. in Jakarta”, which further strengthened my guess.

A few hours after the mixtape was released, a full translation was published somewhere on the Internet. My wild guess turns out to be true, and furthermore, the lyrics reflect a dilemma I face living in a big city. RM tears the difference between hating and loving a big city apart and at times blurring the lines between love and hate. He mentions about being sick of the city, but at the same time, not shying away from the indelible fact that he is a part of the city. He brings up an interesting wordplay of “Seoul” being similar to “soul”—what soul is underneath the city? What kind of a soul it is to hold RM inside of it?

In “Seoul”, RM takes the concept of romanticizing buzzing metropolitan megacities and tears it with his bare hands. He constantly uses contrasts and contradiction to highlight his parallel love and hate towards the city: highlighting “the cold parks that pretend to be warm”, loving the “fishy smell of Cheonggyechon”, loving the “loneliness of Seonyudo”, and explicitly mentioning how he “love[s] [the city’s] hatred and disgust”. He explores a unique relationship one might feel towards the beautiful mess of a metropolitan world.

Once I’ve read the lyrics, I can tell that I deeply relate with RM through my experience with New York City. I’m still learning to love New York. I am always confused about how people romanticize New York as easily as they would construct a Chomskyan syntax. They imagine themselves walking out of a Broadway theater, ears still ringing from the grand finale of whatever hit musical they were watching, their eyes suddenly hit by the bright array of lights in Times Square with yellow cabs rushing in the foreground, their tummies growling and ready for a slice of “NYC pizza” from a store probably adorned with tons of pictures of its owner with random celebrities.

I was never one of those people. I guess I’ve never been attracted to the charm of the big city. I am more attracted to medium-sized, big-personality cities: Seattle’s sound-side views, Portland’s beard oil-donning cyclers, Boston’s autumn wind, New Orleans’s raucous Friday nights. But, to put it in poetic words, fate has brought me here and now I have to learn to love New York. I am repelled by Times Square—by how crowded it is, by how blinding the lights are, how reckless the people drive, and how it overloads my senses. I squirm at the large rats I would occasionally find just hanging out on the subway platform, or the occasional cockroach (or two) roaming in my room. I hate the pungent smell of whatever is in the sewers downtown, and I loathe the 40-minute wait to try a restaurant better than my dining halls.

I want to love New York, though. In the end, I have to learn to love it anyway, like how RM finds the beauty in what he hates. I’ve found some of my big city solaces in public parks and art museums, but I still have a lot of work to do. Someday I will be friends with the rats and the cockroaches. Someday I will have to enjoy the anonymity of blending in with dozens of people crossing Broadway. Someday my fear of death will disappear when I jaywalk, like a “true New Yorker”. 

Do I just wait until this city consumes me, or should I keep seeking what “soul” is trying to draw me into this city? I don’t know, to be honest. At least Kim Namjoon and Honne have put my apprehensions into music and lyrics.

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