I intend to treat EXO-M and EXO-K separately in reviewing their minis and their PVs. Since K is first in the alphabet, I will discuss EXO-K first, and then EXO-M afterwards. Let’s get to it.
1. MAMA: Their title track and official debut song opens with some chanting: “Careless / Careless / Shoot anonymous / Anonymous / Heartless / Mindless / No one who care about me,” which honestly scared the bejeesus out of me the first time I heard it. What if the actual Anonymous heard this song? They could reach out from the depths of the internet and strangle all of these cute little boys.
MAMA is a heavy song– it starts with ominous chanting, it is interlaced with I-mean-business strings and a flexible beat that could almost be characterized as whip-slap. The piece is also in a rather slow cut time, further pushing its heaviness. In short, it tries to be heavy and masculine– epic. The latest epicly masculine song to come out SM’s cogs was TVXQ’s Keep Your Head Down. However, for me, there is just one important difference that renders EXO-K’s rendition of MAMA inferior– they try too hard. I roll my eyes at Baekhyun’s numerous scratchy wailings, Kai’s incongruous screamo bridge, and the extra-long instrumental interlude which I think was just put in to give Kai, Kai, and Kai some more time to show off his dancing chops. Because of all this extraneous ‘epic’ frills loaded on top of an already epic track, there is just way too much going on for MAMA to be catchy and instantly memorable– which is what any good debut is. I have already listened to it five times and I still cannot remember what the melody line was.
2. What is Love? This was the first pre-debut single released, and it is classic YYJ, as probably many of you already heard already. Moreover, this is a duet between D.O and Baekhyun– both of these facts reminds one immediately of TVXQ’s Before U Go. Nonetheless, What is Love? is simpler and more well-structured than TVXQ’s ballad.
Yet, D.O and Baekhyun do not suit the song. Neither are smooth or particularly soulful singers. Maybe Onew/Jino and Jonghyun, Kyuhyun and Yesung. Especially when D.O and Baekhyun sing the chorus, it feels lackluster and I feel one of them might pass out from boredom. All of their vocal runs are more or less the same. Actually, I might be the one who passes out from boredom.
3. History: This was EXO’s second pre-debut single. I think it would have served as a much better debut single, though it may not have been as ‘epic’ as MAMA. It has a lot of key ingredients for a solid debut– tight track, tight vocals, catchy, upbeat, slightly cocky– and it promises a whole lot more to come.
I suppose here is a good point to bring it up as any– I am having trouble telling apart EXO-K’s voices– they either sound similar, or they are covered with heavy-backing that it seems like a joke to say “Oh yeah, now SuHo is singing.” Who’s SuHo and why does he sound like an army of synthesized voices?!
4. Angel: This is a track that does not jibe with the rest of the album– it is faint, R&B vibe, unremarkable, and understated. This is not the I’m-making-a-splash-EXO, rather this is I-need-a-filler-song-EXO. EXO’s voices are not remarkable at this stage so no section particularly shines, or makes this song particularly compelling.
5. Two Moons: I hear the obligatory rap song! This is probably the most gangster thing I have ever heard from SM, so kudos for stepping in the Drop It Like It’s Hot direction. The impression I get from EXO-K’s rapping is that they all are trying to imitate gruff-voice-rapping (i.e., TOP, to a lesser extent, Key), which is currently in vogue. For this, demerit.
Key’s guest appearance is nice, we get to hear him rapping quickly at the low end of his register which is usually taken by Minho. Key is really a jack-of-all-trades.
6. Machine: Because of the pulsating synth, I hear the some electrorap influence (think Dev, Far East Movement) in this one as well. Machine is not nearly as fun, the singing is happy and cheerful, the rap bridge dutifully gruff and badass, mixed with a bit of Michael-Jackson-SHINee feel in the higher registers. Next to Angel, Machine is probably the next song I would vote as ‘filler’.
1. MAMA: EXO-M nails the epic more so than EXO-K, for the sole reason Chen has a beautiful voice. Every time he opens his mouth, I sort of forget about the bad chanting, the idiotic Xiumin / Kris screamo bridge, the overdone-heaviness of the backing track. Chen sounds so organic and willing to let go, even if this language is not his first. Chen and Xiumin of EXO-M are both Korean, not Chinese. Tao and Kris, when singing, provide tantalizing clues to what their real rapping voices sound like, raspy and deep.
2. What is Love? This is a duet between LuHan and Chen, and they harmonize extremely well, one voice melting into each other, but each having a distinct enough flavor. LuHan is a bit more straight-singing (think Kyuhyun) while Chen tends to reach for a range of textures and dynamics (think Jonghyun), providing a good balance. In comparison to EXO-K, EXO-M’s interpretation is much better because the two smooth voices actually seek to flesh out the song and are especially matched to this type of ballad. This duet reminds a bit of the many duets Onew and Jonghyun sang during debut, so earnest-sounding.
3. History: EXO-M sounds much sharper than EXO-K. I have several theories on why this is, but it all boils down to: I can tell their voices apart. Especially those of Tao, Kris, and Chen– they sound unique and thus color and flavor the song in new ways that EXO-K could not. I can already sense Kris becoming a token SM version of TOP. In this sense, History in EXO-M’s hands is just much more triumphant, and most importantly, more epic.
4. Angel: Michelle says this also sounds like filler for EXO-M. Of course, Chen’s voice makes it a bit less unremarkable, but Michelle prefers to pass.
5. Two Moons: Even more lackluster than its EXO-K’s counterpart. Kris and Tao disappoint here with their way too passionless and low-key rapping. Like before, Key provides the high point.
Also, no “roll like a buffalo” from Kris anymore? Disappoint.
6. Machine: After listening to this again, I am just convinced the way the song is written is lackluster. Nonetheless, EXO-M sounds so much more polished than EXO-K– for some reason. This track does not sound like filler like it does on EXO-K’s iteration of MAMA.
Special note on EXO-M’s Chinese pronunciation: Many have been commenting that EXO-M’s Chinese pronunciation is less than pristine, which is not a revelation since two members (Chen and Xiumin) are not Chinese; they are Korean. Koreans tend to have a thicker accent when speaking in Chinese, and so some of the subtle tones of Chinese are lost while they are speaking or singing. However, I find Chen and Xiumin’s pronunciations rather passable– once I read the lyrics, I know exactly what they are saying. I think it is a bit presumptuous for people to be slamming EXO-M because I highly doubt any of them can listen to a song in their native language and be sure of everything that was sung. My native language is English, but I usually have to Google lyrics.. “So that’s what Billie Joe Armstrong was singing!” So I never understood the furor over their pronunciations very much.
I would have to say a majority of fans now do not care about this pronunciation issue. Chen and Xiumin are cute, are talented, have good voices, whatever. However, the new fans that EXO-M are trying to draw from the mainland are used to traditional, 普通 Chinese singers, which makes their less-than-perfect pronunciation a problem. Moreover, I would go even as far to say that how you speak Chinese determines your social standing; China is in a great flux of urbanization right now– e.g., those who live in the countryside speak rough dialects instead of formally correct Mandarin. Regional discrimination is very alive and well in China, and I have no doubts that language plays a very large role in it. Though Chen and Xiumin are not Chinese, their imperfect, Korean-accented Chinese makes them psychologically lower-class to most Chinese. Yet, even if Chen and Xiumin are able to speak perfect Chinese, I highly doubt they will ever be widely popular in China. I will discuss this more in-depth in ‘concept’.
The cinematography and exposition of sets are absolutely beautiful– the song does tend to give off a cowboy vibe, so the travelling in a camper van and the nature shots are absolutely cohesive to the concept. However, the way in which everything fits together is not; you have these beautiful shots of them walking in fields, looking at the sky, standing in artistically relevant positions, and then you have random dance and fight breaks. The randomness of such scenes incongruously breaks up the ‘mystery’ of the music video, as they obviously travelling to find something out (sounds a tad familiar to Sherlock, hm?).
After watching two videos, I am fairly sure that SM intends to put EXO-M and EXO-K together in music videos. At this point, I am totally confused, because I still have no idea who most of them are and which group they are in. From a Chinese market point of view, I think this is a terrible idea too, sticking the two groups together in music videos (however, more on that in ‘concept’).
This is a typical empty-room-with-an-impressive-other-set music, like we often see for Super Junior (Mr. Simple, Bonamana, A-CHA, the list goes on). Therefore, this is clearly intended as a predebut track, which is not a bad move. Sort of. The dancing in EXO-K’s side is rather lackluster; despite SM being the home of many great choreographers and male dance groups (TVXQ, SHINee), History fails on this aspect. It is neither memorable or particularly astounding, except for their pocket flapping.
The beginning monologue is actually pretty impressive gibberish, but once you realize it is talking about a boy-band, I do not quite believe that they are gods restoring order, because the boys themselves are not really presented in an epic enough fashion. The monk robes they are wearing in the beginning? A sign of servitude, not actual godliness. Moreover, though they are miles ahead of many rookies, they still look like rookies about to debut. TVXQ did not settle into their role as “Gods of the East” until way later; SM is really jumping the gun with EXO.
SM must have spent boatloads of money on all of the top-quality CG they used in this music video. However, aside from a few cool shots (tornado-butterfly!), what SM succeeded in doing was making an expensive video with no substance. SM, don’t you remember giving Yunho and Changmin powers in Keep Your Head Down? Yawn. We have seen this before and the only thing that any shock value was Kai in that terrible facepaint job. Honestly, Kai’s tattoos were terrible; I would never want to see Key or Minho with SHINee tattoos all over their face and chest.
Not much to add– it is basically the same thing as EXO-K’s music video except LuHan and Chen take center stage and different random dance scenes are terribly spliced in.
The clothing concept for EXO seems to be a lot of metallica, which does mesh well with its ‘outer-space’ theme. However, it makes for a rather drab music video, where everyone is wearing silver, gray, black, white; the white and brown sets are not really helping either.
Perhaps it is because I am Chinese, but I find EXO-M much more visually appealing. They have a lot more unique and less-mainstream faces– less baby-faces! They have sharper angles which I find extremely refreshing.
EXO-K’s sets for MAMA are much prettier, though again, I have to say, EXO-M members are much prettier. The tattoos were not as terrible looking either. They also have a blue infused background for individual shots, which is quite nice– overall, EXO-M is more ‘colorful’ than EXO-K. I am not quite sure if it is intentional, though, because sometimes they wear brown items and dance in a brown empty room.
Overall, for the music videos, I have been consistently impressed with how much money SM is willing to dump on EXO and the subsequently exquisite cinematography, but then consistently under-impressed by their choreography, style, and story of their videos.
For you, I will suffer through the four parts of the EXO showcase. I will not comment on everything, but just point out some things I think are important.
The first thing that’s important: it was only passable. They lip-synced a good majority of it, like History and What is Love. The choreography was not that sharp live, but I have to say that the choreography in general for EXO was not that memorable– especially when you compare with their sunbaes, SHINee with Sherlock. They are not that scarily good rookie group that SM makes them out to be, they have quite a ways to go before they become strong performers. Perhaps it is the over-hype that SM created for them; when SHINee debuted, there was very little fanfare, but there were many, many fangirls struck by how solid they were as rookies.
The second thing that’s important: AYO WUDDUP KREASE AYO WUSSUP.
And that’s all.
Superficially, the superhero concept strikes me as silly and unoriginal, something already touched in TVXQ’s Keep Your Head Down. I have trouble believing that these fresh-out-of-puberty peoples are world saviors (I mean really, what world savior has Luhan’s baby-face?). SM seems to be intent on marketing them as grungy and manly, favoring dark and metallic schemes. But doesn’t that remind anyone of BAP, NU-EST? That bothers me, because SM is usually very good at carving out niches for its singers (except for f(x), it’s just another whatever in a sea of T-Ara, Secret, Afterschool, SISTAR, what have you). It gives me the impression that EXO is going to be big because SM wants them to be big, and has the social clout to do so, not because EXO is a particularly original or good group.
I am optimistic for EXO as a whole. However, for EXO-M, I am somewhat less optimistic. Because of its highly insular mindset, the Chinese market values Chinese people, and with two Korean members and being backed by a Korean company, this makes EXO-M highly unattractive to most Chinese. Even though I do not mind in the least about including Koreans in EXO-M, even watching interviews where the Koreans are speaking in Korean with a translator is extremely awkward and cumbersome.
If SM had wanted to include Korean members, they should have made sure that the Koreans had good fluency in Chinese, able to respond to the most mundane of interview questions. Like Zhoumi from Super Junior M, I am pretty sure all of the Chinese members of EXO have a working fluency of Korean; SM cannot keep continuing to encourage this double standard of having Chinese members fluent in Korean but the Korean members floundering in Chinese, especially so if they are targeting China. This signals such a lack of respect towards the Chinese, and Chinese are especially sharp when picking up things like that, sadly (says a Chinese person herself).
However, I do think EXO-M is a good move on SM’s part. Though EXO-M may not be wildly successful, it will provide a launching pad for SM’s future moves in China. It is all just a game of sheer numbers. With one billion strong, eventually China will be where the money is. SM is racing there before all of the other South Korean entertainment companies, and for that, I commend them.
Let’s just hope that good music comes out along the way.