Last year, j-hope of BTS released the LP “Jack in the Box”and headlined Lollapalooza. It was the first drop from a member of the history-making group as BTS publicly announced that it would be transitioning temporarily from band releases to focusing on individual projects. With “Jack in the Box,” j-hope kicked off such a period of solo development with a dark, gritty exploration of his self and career. Now he’s back with a new single that further relays new facets of the much beloved K-pop star and his artistry, “on the street (with J. Cole).”
A lo-fi hip-hop tune guided by a mesmerizing whistle melody performed by j-hope himself, “On the street (with J. Cole)” is a reflection of j-hope’s career and life thus far, looking towards the future while recalling the path he walked to get there, emphasizing his history as a street dancer prior to becoming a members of BTS. It arrives on the verge of j-hope taking a step out of the spotlight temporarily, soon enlisting in South Korea’s military, fulfilling the country’s mandatory draft service.
“Since the release of ‘Jack In The Box,’ I kept asking myself, ‘What drove me here? What made me who I am now?’” he tells Variety in an exclusive interview. “As an artist who expresses himself through music and stage, I realized that it helps me to move forward and learn new things through reflecting on my roots and reminding myself of where I come from. It is a part of the learning process to become a more mature artist.”
Capping off this stage of his career with a J. Cole collaboration is something that feels like it was in the works since j-hope began pursuing this path, with the North Carolina rapper serving as an inspiration for both j-hope and BTS from the very early days. In 2013, about a month after BTS’ debut that June with their “2 Cool 4 Skool,”the then-rookie septet released “Born Singer,” a lyrical rewrite of J. Cole’s 2013 song “Born Sinner.” It was released officially on 2022’s “Proof”compilation album.
In 2014, on the song “Hip Hop Phile,” j-hope further emphasized his appreciation, referring to J. Cole and his “Cole World”and “Friday Night Lights”as an inspiration: “Hope, Hope World / Before I made my own world Cole world / When he lit up Friday nights, got inspired and wrote my songs” (Hope, Hope World, 내 세상을 만들기 전에 Cole world/ 그가 금요일 밤을 비출 때부터 더 영감을 받고 써가 내 곡을).
Speaking with Variety, j-hope shares thoughts about “on the street (with J. Cole),” collaborating with his idol, and where his mindset is currently at, on the verge of stepping away from his daily life as a superstar into that of a soldier.
How did “on the street (with J. Cole)” come about? Can you share the story behind the release?
It goes back to Lollapalooza last summer. J. Cole is my idol and we met there. Since then, I couldn’t stop thinking about how great it would be if we could make music together. So I reached out to him. I already had a plan in mind to release music around this time, and I began working on it in early November. As much as it took me a while to finish the song, I cherish it so much and it means a lot to me.
What do you hope the reaction to “on the street (with J. Cole)” will be? How do you hope it resonates with listeners?
The word “street” bears special meaning to me. It means “street dance” which is my roots as an artist. It’s where my inspirations come from and it symbolizes the path I’ve taken as j-hope. It’s also where I learn lessons of life.
To me, the street is a place where we can actually encounter and feel the real lives of people: a child’s innocent mind; first encounter with someone and falling in love; someone in an urgent moment; a quarrel; an avoidable breakup, etc. Street is a metaphor for life. I tried my best to convey all of this in the song, and wanted to share hope and courage to those who are walking through their lives.
I want this song to accompany all those who are off to a new start or on a long journey, like a friend. Enjoy the song!
In your previous releases, 2018’s mixtape “Hope World“ and last year’s “Jack In The Box”album, you portrayed dual images, one bright, one dark. How does “on the street (with J. Cole)” extend the picture you’re painting with your solo music?
I listen to lo-fi hip-hop songs a lot, and I wanted to create a song in the genre, interpreted in j-hope’s style. In terms of the big picture, you can think of it as another endeavor to find j-hope’s musical directions.
Hope has been a theme of your entire ethos as a performer, as a person. In “Hope World,” you explored it most vividly. In“Jack In The Box,” you drew on the darker elements that parry with hopefulness. What aspect of hope or hopefulness are you sharing or ruminating on within “on the street (with J. Cole)”?
With “on the street (with J. Cole),” I wanted to get closer to my contemporaries — people like me as we live through the same age. I wanted to share “down to earth” hope and comfort.
The song arrives following the news that you will likely be enlisting soon. What thoughts went through your head while writing the lyrics?
For me, this song opens a door to my next chapter. I wanted to share new music as a gift to all of my fans. The song includes lyrics that say, “To repay you even from afar, just like a butterfly.” The message I want to deliver is that just like a butterfly, with a flap of my wings, I hope to reach as many people as possible, giving them strength and comfort.
Heavy hip-hop, grunge, lo-fi… there are many musical facets to j-hope as a solo artist. Why is “on the street (with J. Cole)” the perfect soundtrack for where you are now, in March 2023?
I thought “on the street (with J. Cole)” would be a great song to reveal this time around with the change of season from winter to spring. I wanted to share warmth through the song to serve as “shelter” from the cold wind and support everyone’s new beginning.
Does the music video blend or relay your history of dance with the present release of this song?
Relaying my history of dance wasn’t the focal point in this music video, but I did want to make the connection to “street dance” as that’s my roots and where I get my inspirations from. I hope there will be more opportunities to show everyone my passion for dance in various ways.
Why did it feel important for you to emphasize your artistic origin as a street dancer for this song, this momentary finale of j-hope as a performer?
Since the release of “Jack In The Box,” I kept asking myself, “What drove me here? What made me who I am now?” As an artist who expresses himself through music and stage, I realized that it helps me to move forward and learn new things through reflecting on my roots and reminding myself of where I come from. It is a part of the learning process to become a more mature artist.
You’ve been a longtime fan of J. Cole, and now get to collaborate with him, bringing together the legacies of Hope World and Cole World. How did it come about and feel? What was that like for you?
To be honest, it still feels unreal. It’s such an honor. Looking back, we’ve gone through so much to make this happen and it wasn’t always easy. If you listen to J. Cole’s verse, you can see how he really put his whole soul into it to tell the story of his life and true feelings within. It took a long time to work on it, and when I finally heard his verse, I was deeply moved.
I also put in a lot of effort to convey my genuine feelings. If you watched my documentary film, [Disney+’s] “j-hope IN THE BOX,” you can tell how hard I tried to speak out of my heart even with my lack of English [while meeting him at Lollapalooza]. As I’m a big fan who full-heartedly supports J. Cole, I think my sincerity reached him. The whole process was such an invaluable experience.
There’s a rather hypnotic whistle that drives “on the street (with J. Cole).” Whistling is as much of a form of communication as it is a biological instrument. What intent or message do you feel this sound relays?
Actually, you might find it funny but it doesn’t really have any special meaning. [Laughs] In a way, you could say the song began with me whistling as I often whistle the melodies of the songs I listen to. I was home dwelling on what kind of music to make and I just randomly blew a whistle and that just became the melody for “on the street (with J. Cole).” I instantly liked it, recorded it, and worked on the song with my producer. It came to me naturally, so I hope listeners would feel the same way about the song.
As j-hope of BTS, you’ve made history a thousand times. Your name and visage are known by millions, and you are very beloved. It’s a time of change for you and the group right now. At this moment, what are you feeling?
It’s been almost 10 years of BTS working as a team. Going through our second chapter, we are taking this time to think about what each of us can do as individual artists. I took this time to explore what I can do and freely express myself for those who support me and the team.
I had so much fun working on my solo projects, and I’m just so grateful that many of you also enjoyed keeping me company along the journey. It gives all of us time to grow and mature. I do believe that after these times of personal growth, our synergy as a team will be much more powerful. As a team with members who love and care about each other, we look forward to meeting our fans as a group again very soon.
The song equates life and your career to a street. In your mind, what does this street you’ve walked thus far look like? Where do you hope this street, this path, leads you in the future?
I’ve walked through every step of my life with my two feet, feeling every moment, pouring all my soul, and carrying courage and hope on each and every step. This will remain unchanged. I also look forward to the path I will take with ARMY.
At this moment, what does your career and artistry as “j-hope” mean to you, Jeong Hoseok?
They define who I am. I want to give myself a round of applause and cheer for my passion and courage. [Laughs]
When we see you next, what can we expect from j-hope?
You can expect to meet j-hope envisioning a life with more depth and in larger diameter. And I will always be your friend who loves music and performance no matter how much older I get.
What do you hope for yourself in the future?
Just stay healthy. Both physically and mentally. That’s the way you can keep moving forward. This is the only thing I hope for myself. I’ve always thought that there is nothing inevitable in life, but I’ve learned that sometimes there are things that you really have to accept as fate. I want to be able to enjoy what comes to me by fate as well.