Album Review: Exo’s “XOXO”

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I think I have the joy of reviewing yet another album with a crap title track that ends up being surprisingly decent overall. I’m not going to call it album of the year, but I will say that this the best of Exo and is one of SM’s best releases in a long time. I actually didn’t think that they could pull off something that wasn’t a trainwreck at some point in the album (excluding the semi-trainwreck called “Wolf”) so I’m going to forget “Wolf” ever happened and just be totally impressed by XOXO.

On second thought, I think that “Wolf” is actually worth discussing just for some perspective. Now that I’ve listened to the whole album, it makes complete sense that “Wolf” would be the title track. “Wolf” is just like every other SM title release: it’s the most theatrical song on the album. It’s the song for which they can put the flashiest choreo and the most intense costuming. The only problem is that these “theatrical” songs are the least cohesive, focusing on the making a conglomeration of as many interesting sounds as possible rather than taking a single idea and expanding upon it. I would guess that this kind of songwriting tends to backfire about 70% of the time, and “Wolf” is certainly one of those backfires.

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That said, I’m going to actually defend SM on their song choice. Yes indeed, I’m doing the impossible of trying to conjure logic behind why SM Entertainment would go put “Wolf” as the first song of XOXO, let alone on the album at all. To understand the point I’ll be getting at, first ask yourself this: Would you see any other rookie group out there attempt a song like “Wolf’? The answer is “No,” because it would be way to much of a risk to take, and only a company with a large amount of money and permanent fan base like…I don’t know, SM…could even think of trying it.

For SM, this kind of risk is always worth taking. First of all, it guarantees that people will talk about the song, whether there is a good or bad response to it. Secondly, it guarantees that everyone will associate the song with Exo or the group in question. There’s no doubt that a song like “Wolf” came out of no one but SM and Exo, which means that Exo is already two steps ahead of nearly every rookie group out there. I just reviewed 100% “Want U Back” which is certainly a decent song, but I promptly forgot what the song sounded like within a half-an-hour, because it sounds like every other group out there. The same applies to VIXX, BTOB, you name it. (Besides B.A.P., because they also successfully took a (well thought out) risk and now have fully established themselves within a unique and powerful sound.) “Wolf,” though not for the best reasons, is memorable. Everyone knows the idiotic “Awooo!,” “Uulf,” and “Saranghaeyo”—even my sister who doesn’t even listen to K-pop knows that—and they’re not going to forget it. Finally, in the off chance that this kind of song becomes popular, my friends, say hello to the next mainstay A-list group, just like “Rising Sun” made DB5K Platinum-list. No, that’s not going to happen to Exo’s “Wolf,” but for SM, it was worth a shot.

It’s for this reason that I’m going to stand by SM about their choice to promote “Uulf” “Wolf” (because it’s not as much of a disaster I made it out to be) though I do criticize them for not cross promoting another, good B-side (which luckily turns out to be almost any other song on this album) along with “Wolf.” The advantage to this is that you get benefits I listed above and you can show that there is more than the wacky experimental stuff on this album. My pick for this B-side would be “Let Out The Beast” provided that Exo can put forth a strong live and crap ton of energy to the stage. When I say “a crap ton of energy,” I’m implying that every single Exo kid better sing live and with overflowing enthusiasm/command of the stage or I’ll hunt them down and show them what a real beast looks like.

The reason I highlight “Let Out The Beast” over the others is that it has enough punch to connect with the audience without overwhelming them. There is a sense of familiarity one can glean from the song (despite the modern dynamics) that makes it even more well suited to be a promotional track. One additional benefit to promoting this song is the fact that it’s really easy to sing provided your name is not Chen, D.O., or Baekhyun. And what’s even better? The aforementioned three don’t need to depend on precise synergy with the rest of the group in order to elevate the song musically. This means that they’ve been given free reign to just impress the heck out of all of us. What I like most about “Let Out The Beast” is how the modern electronica avoids becoming too flashy; I’m glad SM decided to tone down the demo version and focus on letting the vocal delivery take the momentum of the song. In one sentence, “Let Out The Beast” takes a modern/dance/dubstep foundation, flips the tables, and makes it classic.

(You can also listen to the full album on this playlist)

Even though I want Let Out The Beast” to be promotional song number two, I wouldn’t dare say that it is the best song on the album. I’d think that a lot of people who would pick “My Lady” or “Baby, Don’t Cry” for the title of best song; however, I think my guilty pleasure has to be “Heart Attack” in all of its generic glory. “Heart Attack” embraces the suave end of hip hop with a gorgeous, but basic, synth instrumental and all around “noona-killer” vocals. (This is when I thank the lord that I’m not a Noona.) What makes “Heart Attack” extremely attractive as a song is how smooth everything is while maintaining some bite with filo dough-like layers of harmonization and the clapping. I’ve heard a lot of debate about which songs are better than others on this album, but “Heart Attack” seems to be one of those songs that has universal appeal—you just can’t go wrong with a sensual and flowing melody coupled with a catchy beat and danceable hook. I also have to talk about how awesome the bridge of this song is, because the moment this song started getting repetitious, the bottom fell out, and we get to hear all the layers beautifully reassemble themselves, one at a time, to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.

“Don’t Go” is similar to “Heart Attack” in that it relies on a run-of-the-mill framework, and takes advantage of the group’s slightly raw but wide-ranged vocals and the attractive guitar/clapping elements. This song doesn’t quite escape the generic label that “Heart Attack” somewhat wriggles itself out of, but it’s pretty enough that I can look over the juvenile structure. That may come off quite snarky, but I really do find “Don’t Go” to be quite good—beautiful even. The thing is, even though I like “Don’t Go” a lot as a listener, it’s hard to just overlook the reality of the song compositionally. “Peter Pan” has a bit more depth and density in its instrumental and vocals than “Don’t Go,” but it too succumbs to the same problems. “Peter Pan” sounds so much like it wants to be an earworm, (which in the end, it is,) that you can’t help but get a bit apprehensive towards the song. In terms of positives for “Peter Pan,” the best parts of the song would have to be in its embellishments; the overlapping backing vocals, the instrumental quirks, and the added synths at towards the end. These embellishments really come to life from the bridge onwards, where the rapping comes in, and you still hear a melodic line above it. Those two lines somewhat converge into pleasant singing-rapping until the melodic line takes over into this great multi-faceted ending.

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I don’t care what anyone says about “3.6.5,” sounding like a One Direction song, “3.6.5” sounds much better than that. (Or it’s just me trying failing to dig myself out of a hole.) If I had to compare songs, “3.6.5” has a more vibrant and intriguing instrumental and vocal delivery, though that doesn’t automatically excuse it from any of the previously noted shortcomings. Regardless, It’s chill, effortless, and fits right in the “school boys music” theme that unifies this entire album. I didn’t think “3.6.5” could have a lot of character considering its very boring roots, but it manages to keep my attention from beginning to end, and that is already better than the One-D song I know we all are thinking of.

“Baby” also takes a traditional boy band/pop song and makes the most of it. There’s a stigma against taking what makes pop successful and grounding yourself in it, but I think that’s only a half-truth. Pursuing what is universally liked (i.e “popular music”) is never a problem. Clearly popular music is what it is for a very good reason. However, there’s a stark difference between being crappy pop and glorious pop, and it’s the job of the musician to find himself in the latter category. “Baby” certainly is a contributor to the better of the two labels, so I think that in it of itself is a marker of success. Though “Baby” is basic and clean enough that it’s probably forgettable in the end, it’s well worth listening to.

Many songs on this album get ensnared by pop music tropes, whereas “Baby, Don’t Cry” takes those tropes, spites them, and runs to infinity. I was afraid that this song would get lost in itself, but it has much more dimension that I could have ever imagined. Listening to “Baby, Don’t Cry” is like eating dark chocolate, sweet and pure but with a little bitterness and complexity. From the flowing piano and soaring vocals to that ever so slightly abrasive guitar twang and all the other subtle undertones littered across its composition, we all certainly got our money’s worth with this song. It beautifully treads the line between complex and overbearing, and sucks you into a enchantment that you can’t get out of until the song ends. “Baby, Don’t Cry,” along with the Exo mini album’s “Angel” alone have certainly made all the teasers worthwhile, but I have to say that the one teaser song that did the opposite and totally blew it was actually “My Lady.”

Yes, in my opinion, the famous “My Lady” was not that great—it would be more appropriate to name it “I’m Lazy.” I actually felt like I was listening to two different songs, though it was not like listening to the aforementioned trainwreck SM tracks. “My Lady” has continuity, which is great, but lacks unity and direction. Here’s my theory about what happened with this song: SM initially had Hitchhiker create a one and a half minute teaser song to go with Kai’s dancing, but when the teaser dropped, they quickly realized that everyone loved the song so much that they needed to expand the song. As a result, we get this song with a bit of an identity crisis. I still love the bits that were in teasers, but the parts (especially the chorus) that we hadn’t heard before were not as satisfying as I would have liked. “Could have been”s are often the most frustrating of songs, but I’d have to say, “My Lady” has to take the cake for being the “could have been” of all “could have been”s, which unfortunately makes it exceptionally frustrating.

On the other hand, “Black Pearl” was one of the teasers I entirely overlooked when I went through my “favorite teasers” list because I was actually scared about what kind of full song was behind the very dynamic and electronic instrumental. I was afraid of a crazy mess of dubstep a la parts of “Catch Me,” but boy was I wrong. I was floored by this song. If you ask me which song was my personal favorite, (ha—did I trick you with “Heart Attack”?) it would “Black Pearl,” because it shows glimmers of ingenuity. Unlike most of this album, which finds comfort in the tried and true of pop music, “Black Pearl” shatters a lot of my assumptions about synth heavy music. First of all, this song is very lyrical, which is quite surprising given the direction you’d normally see songs with powerful undertones. “Black Pearl” has so much conviction, that it really envelops the listener and transports him to another place, as though he’d been thrown into an ocean of electronica and engulfed by it. It’s an interesting paradise, and I’m happy that Exo is showing signs of individuality. This is a song that should define Exo’s music into the future; here’s to hoping it will.

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Exo’s debut I could liken to the unveiling of the Titanic; people from all over the world were anticipating this great and luxurious cruiser, only to find themselves on a one way ticket to an iceberg to drown. I was pretty satisfied with Mama, though I still felt like that iceberg was looming. My trepidation only escalated when I heard the “Wolf” leak with all of the teaser pictures, and I thought that the ship was about sink entirely. Thank goodness this album completely blew away all of my worries. Exo has begun to carve out an identity for themselves, even if it means that they’ll take just generic pop music and upgrade it with a bit of Exo flair. I don’t think Exo will ever become a group that creates a genre for itself like its predecessors, DBSK and SHINee, though that in no way indicates that Exo will never make a name for themselves that will separate them from the “rookie” pack. If anything, Exo has shown what it takes to release a golden pop album, and proving that waiting one year for Exo over the general trend of comeback on top of comeback on top of comeback is well worth it.

Good job boys, you rocked my socks off and showed up all those naysayers.

Score: 4.4/5

(SM Entertainment, ExoPlanet Thailand, Ceci, Youtube [1] [2] [3])

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9 responses to “Album Review: Exo’s “XOXO”

  1. Full disclosure: I am a fangirl.

    I was very surprised and happy with XOXO. I did not expect it to be as good as it is…especially after that ridiculous teaser for Wolf was released (lesson being that what works on stage in a live show could very well end up looking stupid in a slow-motion promo video… although less stupid -ie. hilarious- as gifs).

    I really did not know what to think about EXO musically till XOXO and fortunately my impression is favorable because, if anything, since their debut I’ve wanted to like them musically- I was just searching for the reasons! haha. From Mama I like What is Love (r&b fare showing off their singing), and Angel, which I think was most indicative of their musical potential as a kpop group. That potential has definitely matured in XOXO. Mama (the song), History, and Two Moons where basically showcase tracks- introduce the rookie group, what they can do, and feed the fangirls less they go crazy, so par for the course. Although, Two Moons did give rise to “roar, err, roll like a buffalo,” which is delightfully campy and funny to my fangirl ears… Oh, and there was Machine which seemed like an excuse for them so sing, “mamamama” over and over again. So yeah, Exo has come a long way and I can see what they have been doing for a year plus.

    Wolf is basically a marketing spectacle and even as that, it barely makes sense, but I don’t mind it because it addresses a undeniable aspect of kpop, SM, and Exo, which is fan service. That song was made for pure fan service after one looong (in fangirl years) year without a comeback. If anything SM knows how to put on a spectacle and that is commendable on a purely entertainment level. The live performance of Wolf is great and at the end you kind of wonder how anyone, but 20yr olds could possibly pull that off.

    Wolf and the dance performance only makes sense (kpop sense) once you see them performing on Music Bank. Their performance a couple of days ago on the night they won 1st place on the countdown was pretty impressive because it had so much spirit and the fan chants were crazy. The whole place seemed like it was buzzing- the stage must have been vibrating from the fan chants. I really think that, that electric atmosphere, the buzz, and that win was what SM wanted and also what the fangirls wanted. The Exo members seemed really taken with their win and just the electricity of the whole night too.

    But yes, thank God the rest of the album is better than Wolf. My favorite songs (in no particular order) are Black Pearl, Don’t Go, Peter Pan (it makes me wistful), Heartbreak (I’m ok with the r&B generic when it’s well done because it feels like comfort food and it’s hard to get wrong), and Let out the Beast (although it does have a random unnecessary electronic dance break at about 2:10 which makes me think it will be released, maybe not as their next song to switch up the feel, but there is no way they are going to ‘waste’ that dance break opportunity).

    And lastly, I like that the album feels whole even when some songs may feel fragmented within themselves. I can listen to if from beginning to end and it flows, especially if I skip Wolf. Listening to the album makes me feel like Exo is finding their “sound” if that make sense. The album is XOXO Hugs&Kisses which works thematically since I think every song on the album is about love and yes, refers to their name. Not original, but thematically consistent. A lot of kpop albums feel like a compilation of unrelated tracks, thematically and musically, done by an artist whose identity is purely what is trendy. I don’t think they fell into that trap. So what is Exo’s sound?…studio polished crack r&b and hip hop laced dance tracks and ballads with a healthy dose of the trend electronica of the moment?…

    Sorry I wrote so much…^^

    I might end up putting this comment on my on blog as a post since I ended up writing so much. Who knew I’d have so much to say about Exo?

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  2. Thank you for such a detailed review! I completely agree with your analysis of why Wolf should be the title track because it really does leave a strong first impression especially during the lives, lulzy or not (just like the NOOO in Rising Sun, but I digress). I’m also relieved that I’m not the only one who was disappointed in My Lady – I still love the harmonies and adlibs, but the full song feels … sprawling? compared to the tension of the teaser version. But the rest of the album more than makes up for it – I started listening with a lot of trepidation (like Malta above, I really want to like them for their music) but was pleasantly surprised with how melodic, clean and cohesive the songs are. I can’t really pick a favourite, but Heart Attack and Peter Pan would probably be my guilty pleasures for their bridges and Black Pearl is simply stunning. I’m glad to see that the album made it to your list of K-pop worth listening to, as it has to mine (;

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    • XOXO is one of those albums that just clicks. It doesn’t drown in genericness that comes out of most boy bands these days, but it also has a lot of familiarity to it. I was as shocked as everyone at the sheer quality of this album. It’s definitely well worth listening to.

      As for Rising Sun, I have to say that was one of the best SMP songs ever made, if not THE best SMP song ever made. Rising Sun had conviction, Wolf just doesn’t. I may accept SM’s decision for making Wolf the way it is, but it’s not the kind of epic we all wanted it to be. I highly doubt SM can strike the kind of gold that is Rising Sun more than once.

      Anyhow, thanks for stopping by! Hopefully I can see you around again sometime.

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  3. Heeeelp! I can’t stop listening to EXO!
    I’m a kpop naysayer in general, save for past obsessions with Onew of Shinee and a fondness of one (it’s a bit of a stretch to even say two)… and maybe a fondness of individual personas say GD, Bom, fx’s Victoria, Yuri of SNSD… again, not their groups or their music but the odd member here and there and the odd song I found catchy or odd awe-inspiring choreo… along comes EXO and just… ruins my life.

    I think it all started with my kid niece’s excited chatter about a new group and one of their members being a doppelganger of her uncle (my younger brother) — Chen of EXO-M. So I watched History’s MV and my jaw dropped at the likeness. I kind of noticed Krease (so not my type – and yet, so inexplicably magnetic and charismatic) and then I stumbled across their misheard lyrics and ‘enjoy the mayo’, but it’s kind of snowballed since then… It’s gradually gotten worse. xD

    XOXO is a lovely album. I have the Mandarin version and it’s so addictive. It’s impossible to pick a favourite as every consecutive song verges on the sublime, and then Chen and Luhan’s vocals are liquid love. The mellower, R&B fare like Baby Don’t Cry and Heart Attack are probably my most listened to songs – thus favourites.
    I actually have a physical copy of the album! Gasp! Never done that before (OK, so I tasked a relative to pick it up for me in Korea). I got the ‘Krease’ photocard! Totally, an awesome surprise.

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  4. I like how you review things…..completely unbiased. You pointed out the wrongs but you didn’t forgot to give compliments to the album. Your points were really right and completely meaningful.

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