The crowd roars as J-Hope, with his rugged dark clothes and wavy mullet-styled hair falling in his face, springs up onto Chicago’s Lollapalooza stage on July 31. With a focused gaze, he looks out into the sea of lightsticks and anticipatory faces waiting for him with cheers. Everyone present is here to witness history, whether Army or otherwise, as J-Hope becomes the first Korean artist to headline a major American music festival. After a dramatic introductory track, he shifts into “More,” rapping the lyrics intensely, as if he were in the studio for the first time.
Just seconds before his grand entrance, red letters had flashed on a screen behind the platform reading, “Hope gave people the will to carry on living amidst the pain and strife.” The message sums up what J-Hope and his band, BTS, mean for a lot of people. For an hour, time seemed to freeze and a rush of pure adrenaline filled the air.
On Saturday, the day before his debut at the music festival, I sat next to J-Hope on a couch in his trailer. The star greeted me with a warm hug and a sweet smile, his aura bright and bubbly. Speaking with him felt like talking to a friend or neighbor; I forgot, for a moment, that he’s one of the biggest artists in the world, selling the most tickets in Lollapalooza’s decades-long history. Assisted by a translator, he confidently discussed his debut album Jack in the Box, which he released in July.
“I think it is very important that I am doing the music that I want to do right now. I feel like I should have done this at one point in my life as an artist,” he said. “Now that I think about it, it was a very brave, courageous choice. But since it is my choice, I don’t regret anything regardless of the results, regardless of the consequences.”
He’s cognizant of the reception to his work. “There are a lot of reactions on YouTube, and many people were shocked and surprised. So, those reactions were really fun. And as befitting the album, Jack in the Box, I was kind of popping out, like people were not expecting it from J-Hope.” Indeed, his 2018 mixtape, Hope World, has the exact opposite vibe. It’s a bright, motivational project with multiple pop-forward songs and an aesthetic that fits the rapper’s naturally friendly charms. It would have been easy to continue with this formula for his first full-length album, yet J-Hope’s turn to the dark side creates a compelling anomaly that reflects his artistic journey. His vision is brought to life on stage the next day.
The show starts off ferociously, especially with songs like “Baseline,” “Cypher Pt.1,” and “Hangsang.” During the latter, he moves between mouthing Supreme Boi’s verses to simply tapping his foot to the beat while holding his hand in the air, letting the crowd sing for him. There’s a palpable, unspoken connection between him, the music, and the sea of people below. It’s hypnotizing to watch. He sings his heart out on tracks like “P.O.P,” “Equal Sign,” and “Blue Side,” then takes more time for his rock-raps with a slew of tracks like “What If…” and “Arson.”
Just as the crowd has adjusted to the edgy tone, J-Hope transitions to his brighter self midway through the show, trading his grungy getup for a fresh white ensemble, blue gloves, and neon-green sunglasses. I am reminded of something he said during our conversation: “I’m an artist that didn’t start out creating music. I actually got close to music through dancing first.” You can tell he’s in his element when the speed of the choreography kicks up during fan favorites “Daydream” and “Ego.” He’s disciplined, a natural entertainer, and even when he gets tired, he doesn’t lose momentum. “Play that shit!” he yells in true rock-star fashion.
I’m an artist that didn’t start out creating music. I actually got close to music through dancing first.
The performance seems effortless, but J-Hope admitted during our interview, “This is actually a very huge challenge for me. As an artist, I think this is a necessary leap that I have to take in order to move forward.” He anticipated the moment just as much as the fans. “Nervous? Of course I’m nervous,” he said with a laugh. “I think this nervousness is also a fun factor.”
Everyone watching is entertained, including fellow artists. J-Hope touched on his close relationship with the other members of BTS. “I learn a lot from them. They’re a great source of inspiration, and I think a big part of my journey going forward are my members,” he said. “Actually, Jimin came all the way to Chicago to support me, so I’m getting a lot of energy from him, as well.” During the show, Jimin waits backstage, laughing and hyping J-Hope up just as much as the crowd. There is a genuine bond between them, giving J-Hope the confidence to step into this new career milestone.
He makes sure to pay homage to his roots, performing his own version of BTS’s hit “Dynamite (Tropical Remix),” in addition to solo tracks from BTS albums, like the up-tempo “Outro: Ego.” In one moment, he hits an impressive solo moonwalk during “Trivia: Just Dance” that sparks the audience’s praise. The superstar in him is undeniable.
Onstage, he declares in English, “I put my heart and soul into my music. Even though we speak different languages, I hope you hear my story.” Later in the show, the American singer Becky G joins him for a surprise performance of the second-to-last song, “Chicken Noodle Soup,” which they had never before played live together. The song features Korean, English, and Spanish lyrics, a beautiful mix of cultures that rings true to J-Hope’s overall message of inclusivity.
The show closes with “Future,” and though J-Hope has spoken in English for the majority of the show, he takes time to share his thoughts in his native Korean. He humbly shouts out the band and his dancers, and when he leaves, the fans are still passionately chanting his name. The word “More” is fittingly displayed on various surrounding screens; even though many fans had waited outside since the night before, they’d probably do it again. He started the set at 8: 50 p.m., giving us 10 extra minutes of fun, yet the 18-song set flew by. Comparable to a rite of passage, J-Hope’s debut successfully established him as an artist who can hold his own, and who arguably delivered one of the best performances to ever grace the Lollapalooza stage.