The crowd roars as J-Hope leaps onto the Lollapalooza stage in Chicago on July 31 with his rugged dark attire and wavy mullet hair falling in his face. With a focused gaze, he gazes out at the sea of glowsticks and expectant faces waiting for him with cheers. Everyone present is here to witness history, army or not, as J-Hope becomes the first Korean artist to headline a major American music festival. After a dramatic intro track, he switches to “More” and raps the lyrics intensely as if he were in the studio for the first time.
Just seconds before his grand entrance, a screen behind the platform had flashed red letters reading, “Hope gave people the will to live on in the midst of pain and strife.” The message sums up what J-Hope and his band BTS mean to many people. For an hour, time seemed to freeze and a rush of pure adrenaline filled the air.
On Saturday, the day before his music festival debut, I sat next to J-Hope on a couch in his trailer. The star greeted me with a warm hug and a sweet smile, its aura bright and bubbly. Talking to him felt like talking to a friend or neighbor; I forgot for a moment that he is one of the greatest artists in the world and has sold the most tickets in Lollapalooza’s decade-long history. Assisted by a translator, he confidently discussed his debut album jack-in-the-boxwhich he published in July.
“I think it’s very important that I make the music I want to make right now. I feel like I should have done that at some point in my life as an artist,” he said. “Now that I think about it, it was a very brave, brave decision. But since it’s my decision, I have no regrets, regardless of the results, regardless of the consequences.”
He is aware of the reception of his work. “There’s been a lot of reaction on YouTube, and a lot of people have been shocked and surprised. So, those reactions were really funny. And as befits the album, jack-in-the-box, I kinda jumped out like people didn’t expect it from J-Hope. In fact, his 2018 mixtape, hope world, has exactly the opposite mood. It’s a bright, uplifting project with several pop-forward songs and an aesthetic to match the rapper’s naturally friendly charm. It would have been easy to continue this formula for his first full-length album, but J-Hope’s turn to the dark side creates a compelling anomaly that reflects his artistic journey. His vision comes to life on stage the next day.
The show starts wildly, especially with songs like “Baseline”, “Cypher Pt.1” and “Hangsang”. During the latter, he moves between the mouth of Supreme Bois verse to simply tap his foot to the beat while holding his hand in the air, letting the crowd sing for him. There is a tangible, unspoken connection between him, the music and the sea of people beneath him. It’s mesmerizing to watch. He sings his heart out on tracks like “POP,” “Equal Sign,” and “Blue Side,” then takes more time to rock his raps on a slew of tracks like “What If…” and “Arson.” .
Just as the crowd has adjusted to the offbeat tone, mid-show, J-Hope switches to his lighter self, swapping his scruffy outfit for a crisp white ensemble, blue gloves and neon green sunglasses. I remember something he said during our conversation: “I’m an artist who didn’t start making music. I actually only got close to the music through dancing.” You can tell he’s in his element when the choreography speeds up on 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 who didn’t start making music. I actually only got close to music through dancing.
The performance seems effortless, but J-Hope admitted during our interview, “It’s actually a very big challenge for me. As an artist, I think this is a necessary leap I need to make to move forward.” He has been anticipating the moment as much as the fans have. “Nervous? Of course I’m nervous,” he said, laughing. “I think that nervousness is also a fun factor.”
Everyone watching will be entertained, including other artists. J-Hope touched on his close relationship with the other members of BTS. “I learn a lot from them. They are a great source of inspiration and I think a big part of my journey into the future is my members,” he said. “Actually, Jimin came all the way to Chicago to support me, so I get a lot of energy from him, too.” During the show, Jimin waits backstage, laughing and exaggerating J-Hope, as does the crowd. There is a real bond between them that gives J-Hope the confidence to step into this new career milestone.
He makes sure to pay homage to his roots by performing his own version of the BTS hit “Dynamite (Tropical Remix)” alongside solo tracks from BTS albums like the up-tempo “Outro: Ego.” At one point, he pulls off an impressive solo moonwalk during “Trivia: Just Dance,” drawing audience praise. The superstar in him is undeniable.
On stage he explains 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, American singer Becky G joins him for a surprise performance of the penultimate song “Chicken Noodle Soup,” which they’ve never performed live together before had played. The song features Korean, English, and Spanish lyrics, a beautiful mix of cultures that fits J-Hope’s overall message of inclusivity.
The show ends with “Future,” and although J-Hope spoke in English for most of the show, he takes time to share his thoughts in his native language, Korean. He humbly calls out to the band and his dancers, and as he leaves, the fans are still passionately chanting his name. The word “More” is appropriately displayed on various surrounding screens; Even though many fans had been waiting outside since the night before, they probably would again. He started the set at 8:50pm, which gave us an extra 10 minutes of fun, but the 18-song set just flew by. Akin to a rite of passage, J-Hope’s debut successfully established him as an artist who could hold his own and who arguably delivered one of the best performances to ever grace the Lollapalooza stage.