K-pop group EXO transforms

CONCERT VENUE: Fans gather outside KSPO Dome on July 20 for the second day of EXplOration in Seoul. Sandra Han/The Scoop

If there is one word that could describe EXO, a South Korean-Chinese K-pop group, it is “resilient.”

Debuting in 2012 under S.M. Entertainment, EXO was hailed as a game changer. Aside from its unusual concept of superpowered aliens from another planet, it was split into two groups – EXO-K and EXO-M – both of which would promote in South Korea and China respectively.

At the time, South Korea was in the middle of a music drought. The era of Korean music seemed over, with g.o.d.’s album being the last to sell a million copies — 12 years ago, in 2001.

When EXO debuted, it didn’t seem like anything would change. Presented with title track “MAMA,” a baroque pop song with Gregorian chanting, and a six-minute music video that went a bit too into detail on the intricate mythology surrounding EXO’s concept, the South Korean public was skeptical at best, repulsed at worst.

S.M. Entertainment’s newest boy group had, for all intents and purposes, been a flop. Their members were dismissed as plain and untalented, their music strange and unfamiliar. For a year, S.M. kept them under wraps, only to return in 2013 with the biggest hit South Korea had seen in 12 years.

“Growl” was a breakthrough. Released in August 2013 with EXO’s repackaged first studio album “XOXO,” the catchy tune shattered both records and expectations. Nominated for Song of the Year and Album of the Year, “Growl” sold over a million copies, reviving South Korea’s music industry. For a while, the question wasn’t “Do you like EXO?” but rather “Who do you like in EXO?” The skies had cleared; things could go only up from here.

Then, on May 15, 2014, nine days before EXO’s first concert, Chinese member Kris filed a lawsuit against S.M., terminated his contract, and left the group. A month later, EXO member Baekhyun was slammed with criticism when news broke of his relationship with Girls’ Generation member Taeyeon. In October of the same year, Chinese member Luhan also filed a lawsuit, citing health problems. A year later, Chinese member Tao was the last to file a lawsuit against S.M. Entertainment. EXO, having started off as 12, was now nine.

Brighter skies

Despite such hardships, EXO has managed to break records time and time again, setting the standard for idol groups of the third generation. In 2015 and 2016, Forbes named EXO the “most powerful South Korean celebrity.” EXO performed at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as representatives of K-pop. With the release of its fifth album, “Don’t Mess Up My Tempo,” EXO became the first South Korean artist to sell over 10 million copies cumulatively.

The year 2019 marks the seventh year of EXO’s decorated career. This July, fans had much to anticipate with two new debuts and a concert tour in the works.

Byun Baekhyun’s solo debut, which was on July 10, was long overdue. As one of the more popular members and one-third of EXO’s main vocal line, Baekhyun broke the record for most album sales of a soloist, surpassing 400,000 copies for the first time in 15 years. Korean news sites called it the birth of a new generation of solo artists.

In an unexpected move, Baekhyun’s solo album was predominantly R&B and a result of some of the biggest names in songwriting coming together. The title track, “UN Village,” is a smooth, addictive song about the location in Hannam-dong, UN Village, a wealthy district in South Korea. Lyrics speak about taking a lover on a midnight drive to a hilltop in UN Village, from where the moon and stars can be seen.

Other standout tracks include “Stay Up,” which features Korean rapper Beenzino and “Diamond,” a funky, up-tempo track. Its heavy vocal layering and harmonizing are trademarks of American producer Darkchild, who previously worked for singers Whitney Houston and Beyoncé.

Bonus track “Psycho,” which was previously composed for Baekhyun’s solo stage during the ElyXiOn tour, has a darker, menacing tone. Overall, the album is an outstanding contender for R&B album of the year.

Twelve days after Baekhyun’s solo debut, EXO-SC released its first minialbum, “What A Life.” Standing for members Oh Sehun and Park Chanyeol, EXO-SC is a subunit composed of the two main rappers in EXO, which would be almost unthinkable for any other group.

But they are EXO, and synonymously solid vocalists. Produced and written heavily by Chanyeol and Sehun, this album comes directly from the artists to the fans. The main title track “What a Life” is the quintessential summer bop, with relaxed lyrics of “It doesn’t matter if we don’t have any plans/We are still young and free.” As a hip-hop track, “What a Life” manages to showcase both the members’ rapping and smooth harmonizing.

Personal favorites “Daydreamin” and “Borderline” have more whimsical, dreamy tunes, with unique beats and sweeter lyrics. Both members take turns singing about the fragile line between friendship and romance in “Borderline,” while “Daydreamin” is a gentler, melancholy ballad.

The other two title tracks “Just Us 2” and “Closer to You” are more vocally focused, with lighthearted beats and impressive harmonization from the duo. Overall, “What a Life” marks a strong, diverse start to EXO’s first pair unit, in a way that only EXO can pull off.

What lies ahead

Lastly, to finish the month, EXO held six concerts in the last two weeks of July, officially starting its fifth concert tour EXplOration in KSPO Dome, Seoul.

This concert tour comes on the heels of a lengthy, six-month-long group hiatus. In May and July, members Kim Minseok “Xiumin” and Do Kyungsoo “D.O.” enlisted in the South Korean military to fulfill the mandatory serving requirements. Fans were hesitant at the news that EXO would be performing with so few members, as Chinese member Zhang Yixing “Lay” is promoting his solo album in China.

I was lucky enough to score tickets to the second day of EXplOration in Seoul; tickets are notoriously difficult to get, selling out in 0.2 seconds. Though I entered the stadium with impossible expectations, EXO managed to surpass them yet again.

The concert starts with a bang, “Tempo,” then transitions into a selection of songs from the group’s most recent album after another personal favorite, “Transformer.” Solo stages are scattered throughout, with Suho turning “Been Through” into an ethereal, otherworldly performance and ending with his shirt ripped off. Chen stops breaths for a solid four minutes with his powerful high notes in “Lights Out,” and Kai does as well for an entirely different reason - he continually manages to lose his shirt.

Then follows a medley of some of EXO’s greatest hits, such as “Growl” and “Call Me Baby,” and an encore stage. For nearly three hours, six members brought audience members to their feet over and over.

Seeing the members on stage was an incredibly emotional experience. Once 12, then nine, and now six, EXO’s motto comes to mind: “We are one.” Six members stood on that stage, but listening to Suho’s words, of how EXO would exist as long as one fan remained, I realized. Whether there’s one member or 12, EXO remains the same. Truly, EXO is one. Being their fan has been a privilege, and whatever lies ahead, I look forward to supporting these incredible artists.

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