As somebody who has always been partial to BTS for their rap line more than anything else, Suga‘s solo ventures have always been a welcome change of pace to the more mainstream releases of the group, even when controversial in nature. Thankfully then, “Haegeum” continues Agust D down the hip-hop path, and may well end up being his best.
The bones of “Haegeum” are simple, relying on a off-kilter thumping bass that goes appropriately hard and is complemented throughout by a gayageum playing over it. Meanwhile, the haegeum comes into play mainly in the chorus and is known for sounding like human wailing, which provides an eerie undertone to it all that’s perfect for this track. The contrast between the traditional instrumentation and the beat is a delight that’s a draw for the listener from the start. Things don’t get cluttered during the chorus, which also keeps things simple with a repeating rapped refrain every time it cycles, relying on the rhythm to embed itself into your brain.
The primary appeal of the track lies in that rhythm and Suga’s lyricism and flow, all of which are represented well here. I understand this may not have appeal to fans of pop music, as it’s repetitive in nature and has no overt melody to it, but it’s basically right up my alley. There’s no cynical trend riding or abandoning of flows that have plagued so much of Korean hip-hop, it’s just him and the beat with a message, and it ends up being refreshingly Korean in nature.
“Haegeum” not only represents the instrument being used, but also means to lift a restriction or ban, which is how it’s used thematically. While the tack Suga takes on this is predictably aggressive, interestingly enough it’s not for the purpose of dissing the haters or breaking free from restraints of an idol, as many of his contemporaries would do (or perhaps as he would’ve done years ago). Rather, he utilizes the haegeum meaning as a way to call on listeners to question if all the so-called freedom they’re living with isn’t actually a prison itself and/or whether you’re using it to effectively imprison others with it. Effectively, it queries whether you’re restricted and beaten down by overwhelming flow of information and the conformity acceptance in that environment requires, or if you’re a part of the problem in terms of using your freedom to hate and spread bullshit for one reason or another*. As he says, the song is about freeing what’s forbidden, and more than a treatise on what exactly is correct, it’s more like a lashing out at the current state of society and existence in the information world that is getting increasingly convoluted.
*A perhaps odd way this directly appeals to me is that a lot of what he’s talking about is eerily relevant to that of Hideo Kojima‘s AI speeches in Metal Gear Solid 2, and the fun part is whether you agree or disagree with the interpretation or ultimate meaning of either that discussion or the connection to “Haegeum”, it’s a fun and thought-provoking discourse nevertheless.
In a lot of ways, it’s also an anti-idol culture song, with lines about how people don’t even understand their own tastes anymore, that people use their freedom for self-indulgence (like dogpiling), and the hypercapitalization of everything in the industry. There’s obviously an irony in that, given that he’s a part of the biggest band in the world under a company that is pushing those values forward and is almost necessarily describing his own fandom as well. And the fact that you can click on the trending tab for this release and see it being full of chart position discourse instead of lyric discourse perhaps proves his point. Regardless, it could be argued that nobody is better positioned to know about the pitfalls of all this than him, even if it unfortunately likely won’t resonate or change behavior en masse.
Really, the totality of Suga’s artistry is on display in “Haegeum”, as the music video is every bit as engaging and intriguing as the song is, and probably deserves it’s own deep dive. But the song’s exploration of intriguing themes are what set things up for the concept, and the production of it is a refreshing throwback of sorts in its simplicity, challenging the artist themselves to deliver in order to elevate it to meaning, and Suga thankfully steps up to the plate.