At around 9:30 on Sunday morning, an old white Pontiac Sunbird, with J-Hope song titles scrawled across it in black and blue paint and a human-size stuffed Harlequin clown shoved in the car’s tiny back seat, idled outside the main entrance of Lollapalooza blasting J-Hope songs. Presumably, this was intended to inject new anticipatory energy into the crowd lined up against the gate, some of whom had been camped outside for quite literally 12 hours, before Saturday night’s headliner, J. Cole, had even finished his set. (“My muse,” J-Hope, dressed head-to-toe in Balenciaga, called the rapper when we spoke.) Or, rather, the old convertible was the chariot ringing in the new day, the one fans of BTS had been anxiously waiting for. Hobipalooza was nigh.
During his Sunday night set, J-Hope would become the first Korean artist to headline a major American festival and the first BTS member to perform without the others since the group’s temporary (temporary!) shift to focus on solo projects. When he was added to the festival in June, along with HYBE labelmates Tomorrow X Together, the Lollapalooza tweet announcing Hobi’s performance blew up, and the ARMY members I spoke to swooped up tickets immediately, drawing first-time festivalgoers from all over North America — Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Boston, Juárez, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston — and beyond (including South Korea) to Chicago’s sprawling Grant Park. “Never been here before, never coming again,” said one fan, who had been posting up at the Bud Light Seltzer Stage’s barricade all day. “Unless Hobi plays.”
Photo: BIGHIT MUSIC
“It’s my first time at a festival,” the 28-year-old rapper and dancer told me on Saturday afternoon through his translator. “It’s a very special experience, also a new history for me.” J-Hope had recently released his second solo album, Jack in the Box, which unveiled a darker side of the sunshine boy the ARMY is used to seeing. Later, he hinted at what was to come: “That ‘jack in the box’ concept is rooted in the entire set list,” he said.
J-Hope told me he had been practicing constantly for the performance, all too of the pressure that comes from stepping out onstage as the sole focal point, without the shield of the other six members to sing, dance, goof around, or cry with. Of course, a festival slot, where you have to power through songs within strict time constraints, is vastly different than a stand-alone BTS show, where they’d be the draw of the night and surrounded by eager fans. “When I chose to perform at Lollapalooza, it was actually a very bold resolution, but I don’t regret making that decision because that ambition, that thirst to perform here, led me to where I am right now,” J-Hope said , adding that preparing without the rest of BTS made him realize the effort he would need to put in to go it alone. “During the process of practicing the set list, I realized that I was kind of lacking, but now I’m fully prepared. I just have to put it on.”
So too were the sea of festivalgoers waving lit-up ARMY bombs and screaming and chanting his name a full 40 minutes before the music started — though J-Hope said he was envisioning a more mixed crowd of longtime fans and curious newcomers. “I want people who don’t know me to listen to me as well,” he said. “I’m just gonna experience how they’re gonna take my music and just feel the vibe.” At a prompt 8:50 pm — an extra ten minutes were gifted ahead of the originally scheduled 9 pm start time — the voice-over story of Pandora from Jack in the Box‘s “Intro” began, and J-Hope sprung out of the platform stage just as he had promised me the day before. (“I’ve prepared popping,” he said at the time, making the requisite sound and gesturing his hand from a fist to a firework.)
Photo: BIGHIT MUSIC
Dressed in oversize, all-black Louis Vuitton-embossed denim, holey tee, and workman’s gloves, J-Hope swayed, lurched, and jackknifed around the stage during more raucous songs like “More,” “Pandora’s Box,” “Base Line, “What If,” and “Arson” — which closed out the first half of his set in a spitting blaze. Before “Blue Side (Outro),” his silhouette hung in front of a blue screen like a marionette. “You guys are really fucking crazy,” he said in between “Hangsang” and “POP,” both off his 2018 mixtape Hope World. This was all by his own “meticulous and thorough” set-list design, he said on Saturday, to highlight the “new J-Hope and show my musicality” and the “old J-Hope,” where he can finally whip out” my ultimate weapon, which is dancing” — a feature noticeably absent from the Jack in the Box music videos, which instead favored artful stumbling and headbanging.
As paramedics rushed to extricate festivalgoers who had been baking all day under the 85-degree heat, he briefly exited the stage and popped out once more, this time dressed in all-white with blue gloves and transparent neon-green sunglasses, launching into the tropical remix of BTS’s first entirely English song “Dynamite.” The back half of his 18-song set was stuffed with tracks ARMY had been hoping for — J-Hope played “Daydream,” “Outro: Ego,” off BTS’s Map of the Soul, and “Hope World,” before pausing to sit down. “What the fuck, I feel like I’m gonna die,” he said, before adding, “Are you okay? I’m fine if you are,” and hopped back up, battery recharged. He then launched into “Trivia: Just Dance” off BTS’s Love Yourself: Answer into “Chicken Noodle Soup,” where collaborator Becky G joined him as a surprise guest. (Fans were also hoping for Jimin, who flew out to watch his bandmate perform, to make an appearance.) As the 10 p.m. curfew drew near, J-Hope spoke in Korean for the first time.
“This is a very meaningful moment for me,” he said in his native language. “I’ve grown so much throughout the whole journey with the album, and seeing the audience at Lollapalooza today gave me a firm belief for myself. I am grateful to everyone who came to watch my performance. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I’m also proud of myself for enduring the challenges up until this moment.”
Afterward, he switched back to English to introduce and perform his final song, “Future,” waved to the audience that stretched back to the northern steps of the park, and sank back down into the distorted-checkered box he came from. Later, as the swarm of the crowd spilled back out onto the street, J-Hope he hopped on V Live (with Jimin) as a newly minted maker of history, giggly from post-performance euphoria and the sweat still caked onto his neck.