I should probably specify that I’m going to be reviewing the Korean versions of all the songs, thus EXO-K. But I’m still going to refer to the group collectively as EXO, and how the significance of their debut opens a new chapter in SM Entertainment‘s history. More on that later.
I first wanted to write a review for EXO when they released their debut single “What Is Love” back in January. And so, I began working on an image:
I thought “Nah, I’ll just wait until they release their album”. Nearly three months(!) later, here I am, finally working on this review. SM has released more teasers for EXO in the last few months than the number of K-pop groups who have debuted since January. Which in K-pop these days implies a lot! The number of teaser videos were turning into a joke and I started to care less and less about EXO. But now, after the album finally released, all I can say is nobody – including me – can ignore EXO’s presence in K-pop!
Here’s a track-by-track review:
01. “MAMA” – The title track:
As soon as the music video began, and the man’s voice over spoke of “history,” “legends” and “myths” – I skipped it! It reminded me of the corny TVXQ music video for “Tri-angle”. Then at 1:25 the members appear in Illuminati garb and chant “”Careless. Careless. Shoot anonymous, anonymous. Heartless. Mindless. No one-uh care about me”. I have no idea what “shoot anonymous” means but I tried to shut out the supernatural visual effects because I just wanted to keep my mind on the song. Written and produced by Yoo Young-jin, the song does share some traces of TVXQ’s “Keep Your Head Down” and some Super Junior material. That should be given since it’s Young-jin’s trademark musical style. He surely has a thing for thumping beats. Cutting out the visuals, “MAMA” (which is Korean for “her majesty”) is a pretty good song, and keeping the visuals in mind, a fitting track for SM’s new ‘super-group’. – 4/5
2. “What Is Love” – The song SM decided to be EXO’s first single – which struck me as a surprise choice:
After all the teasers showcasing the boys’ dancing and martial arts skills, they choose an R&B ballad produced by Teddey Riley as the debut single. Questionable choices aside, the song won me over easily. It’s a good ballad and the vocals really impressed me straight away. I had my opinions about EXO as soon as I heard this single, but I’ll sum it up below in the conclusion. – 4/5
3. “History” – The second single SM released, and we finally get to see the group dancing together:
Judging by the number of views already accumulated, “History” seems to be pretty much everyone’s preference over “What is Love,” and I’m no exception. This is my jam. With the exception of the questionable ‘pocket shake’ bit, the dance choreography is good and so is the song overall. The music video… *sigh*, for a change couldn’t SM have shot an outdoor dance video for this group? I’m really getting bored of seeing set pieces and dancing under the same set recycled from previous SM videos. The song, produced by Thomas Troelsen (of SHINee’s “Sherlock” fame) is another good song selection on SM’s part to diversify EXO’s sound. – 4/5
4. “Angel” – Three singles are over, so if I were to apply SM’s formula for albums, that means it all goes downhill from here on, right? Wait, what is this? Another good song? This mid-tempo ballad is yet another showpiece for EXO’s vocalists and keeps the album at it’s quality pace. – 4/5
5. “Two Moons” Feat. SHINee’s Key – A complete change of tune now, and EXO’s rappers get a track to themselves. It’s alright but not up my alley as I wouldn’t listen to such rap even if it was in English. My tastes in rap music and hip-hop are slightly more old school. – 2.5/5
6. “Machine” – Wow, who would have thought the last track on an SM album would end up becoming a favourite! As soon as I hit play, I was immediately transported back to the heydays of boyband pop when Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync ruled the world. Even the soft “yeah” at 2:27 reminded of AJ McLean‘s trademark “yeah” (but slightly toned down). The production sounded so very European and after looking it up, the credits go to Albi Albertsson and Timo Kaukolampi of Finland. Love the chorus and I just couldn’t resist hitting play again as soon as the song ended. I really, really like this song! – 4.5/5
After listening to EXO’s songs, after watching EXO’s music videos (and their countless teasers), there’s no doubt in saying SM Entertainment have turned a new page. With their latest boyband creation, the company seems have left their past formulae behind (to some extent) and created something very new and most importantly, fresh. Sure, SM has even more money now than they did when they debuted Super Junior, or SHINee, but man – the effort they put in to create EXO! Everything from member selection, how good-looking each guy is, to their individual skills, the song selection and the amount of money spent making videos… SM made a heavy investment right from the start!
As much as the teasers got a bit too much, they seemed to have worked. EXO are probably the only rookie group to debut this year with a fanbase already amassed to the hundreds of thousands, even before their first live performance. They (EXOtics is the named going around) already know the fanchants and hundreds of them thronged to the airports to follow the new top idols. So if this is only the start, imagine where they will be by the end of 2012. In fact, EXO has many other songs already recorded that didn’t make the first mini-album – like “Baby Don’t Cry,” “Black Pearl” and “My Lady” – all of which were used in the teasers. Which means we’re definitely going to get a second release or a repackage album by the end of the year.
But speaking about the first album, consider me impressed. All six track were fantastic! Yes, I know I gave “Two Moons” only a 2.5 out of 5, but that’s only because that style of rap music isn’t my cup of tea. Doesn’t mean others won’t like it. The remaining tracks were all stand outs. For once I can write a review of an SM album without mentioning “album fillers” – because there are none on this album. I’ve always had a beef with SM’s album releases. Okay lead single, one or two good tracks, rest fillers – Super Junior, SNSD, SHINee – all of them were packaged using that formula. Every SM album I have reviewed in the past has never scored above 3 out of 5, but all that changes today.
My final rating for EXO’s ‘MAMA’: 4 out of 5 (Very Good)
That said, I do feel a bit sad for Super Junior. For that matter, every other SM group that debuted much before EXO did. One can question as to why those artists, despite all the money they bring in now, couldn’t get such quality music releases. Quality is not something you hear when SuJu goes “Because I naughty naughty”. I know SuJu were formed by SM mainly because they didn’t know what to do with those boys. Kind of like rejects who weren’t good enough to make the DBSK cut. But fast forward to 2012, SuJu are money spinners for their company and I feel like the boys had to work their way to the top as supposed to SM making them a super-group overnight.
Still, SM is in absolute control. It’s SM who gives them the songs, not the members who writes the big hits that made them famous. They can turn off the switch on SuJu if they wanted to, and devote all their resources on EXO or whoever is next. I’m not saying Super Junior will disappear overnight, but with many of their members due for military enlistment, their days are numbered. So I’m sure SM factored that into mind when deciding the timing of EXO’s debut. And by the time SuJu do re-group to their former glory, I’m sure their fans would have moved on.
I know EXO is mainly split into sub-groups to cater to two important markets: home and China. But the way EXO was marketed, everyone is aware of them as a 12-member group – one shy of resembling Super Junior’s initial 13. Oddly enough, EXO debuted without much mention from their peers too, and it’s as though SM wanted to distance the new group from their current roster of artists. I never saw much inter-mingling or show of public support by their labelmates. In the past, SM would release a support video for a compatriot’s new album or debut, with the other groups showing their support (even if they were instructed to just do so for the cameras). EXO didn’t get one. Is it because SM decided even those support videos are too old-fashioned? Maybe, but the sheer confidence SM has in EXO, it puts these boys on a higher mantle than the others, right from the get go.
Nobody who has enjoyed the limelight for long likes to be referred to as “old” or “uncool” all of a sudden, but the ‘old’ being replaced by the ‘new’ is part and parcel of the showbiz industry. Maybe it’s new management at SM Entertainment, and not Lee Soo Man and his corny ideas for TVXQ (Final Fantasy-inspired styling, silly names like ‘Hero’ Jaejoong or ‘U Know’ Yunho), who knows. Even as company, SM Entertainment has improved its own tactics in this ever increasingly competitive K-pop market. If EXO is an example of what SM is now going to do musically — I can’t imagine what their next girl group is going to do to my precious SNSD 🙁