I wrote before that EXO were hopelessly mediocre, and now I must write this letter of apology. “Lucky One” and “Monster” were typical mass market fodder but the rest of the album goes in. Where the singles are second-rate versions of better songs by better artists, the rest of the album plunders the pop and R&B landscape with forward thinking tracks that marry controlled ambition and new-gen hooks like no one’s business.
“Artificial Love” is an immediate banger that hits hard and soft at the same time. The cold and yet luscious singing of “Artificial Love” mixed with a restraint belt in the chorus, the rap and singing parts perfectly weaving together in unexpected ways, and the ever driving beat all work to dig deep. It’s very rare an actual dance song gets into the bones, and this does it in spades.
“Cloud 9,” “White Noise,” and “They Never Know” are the spirit successors to Taemin’s “Drip Drop.” “Drip Drop” should have been the heart and soul of Taemin’s album, but instead he played it safe and stuck to more straightforward R&B. Like “Drip Drop,” “Cloud 9” has traditional verses but becomes more experimental in the chorus. The distorted strings, the vocal effects on the chorus contrasting with the solid R&B verses layered with soulful ad-libbing, it’s all wonderfully coherent for a song with so many parts. Multiple vocal parts birth from and dive in and out one another, adding a lot of interesting ear worms.
“White Noise” once again goes for the futuristic synth elements that provide a foundation, a landscape, for full bodied vocals. The middle-eight bridge sounds like a sole radar bleep with a single voice, a great moment of isolation in a track with a lot going on. This song very artfully captures its titular theme.
“They Never Know” repeats the formula. Standard R&B verses that build into distorted, skittering acoustic-mimicking synths laying in a pool keyboard chords. The snare rattles at select moments just to add to the layers of experimental spirit. Each song is a variation of a formula, creating three different results. That kind of paradoxical cohesion and uniqueness is how you make an album.
And there’s the art. So much going on, so many elements, but none of it feels maximalist with the sole intention of driving sales. Everything feels deliberate and controlled, it all drives forward but is in such…I’ll say it again…control. EXO’s last album sounded so plodding and down-the-middle, the voices lacked personality, and I said in the last post they needed to work on layering their voices more… I was right. Their voices are very good, but often too “standard” pop/R&B. Giving them very individualized productions highlights their voices well. Being trained to handle these kinds of productions with so much skill, hearing their voices so beautifully framed with this music, definitely means this group has what it takes to not just commercially, but also artistically, earn their place as this generations male idol group.
Cut off the two promo singles and the obligatory ballad, and this would have been a classic EP. I accept “Heaven” and “One and Only” as straightforward dance and R&B respectively because they are solid and establish the bar while bending and stretching the formula in other tracks. I’m excited for the next release, and I’ve never said that about EXO before. I rushed typing this just so could go back and listen to the album again. I’m not proofreading, so fingers-crossed that this is coherent.