K-POP / REVIEWS

[Review] [Album] EXO – ‘XOXO (Kiss & Hug)’

2013_exo_xoxo

written by: McRoth
Artist/Album: EXO – ‘XOXO (Kiss & Hug)’
Genre: Idol, Pop
Release Date: June 03, 2013

The assembly of heavy editing and compression present in EXO‘s debut mini-album ‘MAMA‘ was a all-too-claustrophobic, pressurized listening experience that found a far more pleasant way of getting appreciated through moderation. That’s how it grew to become one of last year’s top ranked albums (by my account). And while the exact design has armed EXO again in their first LP, ‘XOXO (Kiss & Hug)‘, the breadth in room and pace alone has allowed for all of this album’s dynamics to soar and every slither of silence to crest.

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In many ways, the sensational lead single “Wolf“, which opens ‘XOXO’, portrays the shifts in acceleration at play throughout this album quite well. ‘XOXO’ is reminiscent of the links in style and strong production value of f(x)‘s ‘Electric Shock‘ EP (2012); moreso than, say, the ‘I Got a Boy‘ LP by Girls’ Generation (2013), which had all the potential to do the same, with its ferocious lead single, but didn’t really get there in the end as a collective.

In all actuality, “Wolf” resembles the unconventionality of “I Got a Boy” (the single), in that it sinks its claws into one style of music one second without thinking twice to pursue another the next. The distinction here though is that there’s one theme present and a set of interlocking routes taken to bring it to life, whereas Girls’ Generation’s hit single, while balls-y and magnetic, pompously topples over itself from musical disconnect. The atmosphere is strong here and there’s a fierce blend of climactic technicality – major drops, a family of gritty synths, precise timing – and vocal acrobatics (Dear TVXQ‘s Changmin, Baekhyun‘s after your high C notes) that the rapid shifts in rhythm feel at least a lot more purposeful.

Kenzie, a long-time SM Entertainment producer/composer who’s had her hands dipped in SM’s discography just as deeply as Yoo Young-Jin (her contributions stretch back as early as BoA‘s “My Name” single and beyond) co-penned “Wolf”. Listening back to her most recent contributions, like f(x)’s “Jet” and “One More Chance” by The Grace-Dana & Sunday (2011), there’s a certain atmospheric grandeur in these songs evoked by clusters of noise being restrained and let loose in tightly gripped fashion. This effect overwhelmed in “MAMA”, partly for its haphazard arrangement, but is far more provocative and alluring here.

Still, “Wolf” is a lot to take in. There are times when the song becomes heavy and overly shouted, to where it disrupts that very delicate level in compression keeping it afloat. As operatic as it is, it does its duty in piquing the ears interest and an even better job of setting the tone for the rest of ‘XOXO’. Not only do we revisit elements introduced in “Wolf”, but do so in such precise fashion that we’re able to pick up completely new ones while maintaining a unity in the listening experience along the way.

Baby Don’t Cry“, one of many points of anxiety for EXO fans, finally makes its debut as a full track on ‘XOXO’. Sung over a subdued piano riff and slick R&B arrangement, EXO present one of their strongest vocal performances to date. They may have recorded this years ago, but it’s only a testament to their talents and that of their production team by how immensely impacting it is, both aurally and emotionally. And even if we already had the knowledge of EXO’s vocal strengths (at least in the studio), the way EXO’s vocal leads in both subsidiaries is near breathtaking here. EXO-K’s D.O., Suho and Chanyeol are particularly moving in their performances.

It comes as a genuine surprise, actually, how emotionally mesmerizing this album is, especially coming from a group that is relatively new to the game, even moreso from a group under SM Entertainment – the juggernaut least cohesive in their LP deliverables. Although, it’s to SM Entertainment’s credit how well-rounded they’ve become in the last year (i.e., TVXQ, BoA, and SHINee‘s recent records). “Black Pearl“, the next track on this album, is just as spellbinding as the last. Carrying the dubstep undertones of the lead single and layered with crisp House details, this song is one of the strongest on ‘XOXO’. EXO-M shines beautifully on this one, as their version is incredibly smooth and overflowing with glimmering high tonalities, something their counterpart seems to lack in comparison. Though, the fact that there are two separate and very different halves serving the same material under one name gives the ear an interesting take on how each is able to handle and deliver.

Don’t Go“, a generally basic pop mid-tempo, benefits from EXO-K’s melismas while remaining rather still under EXO-M’s care. On the other hand, EXO-M’s bright harmonies cause the light “Peter Pan” to ascend to sheer brilliance, where EXO-K weigh it down (ever slightly) with a far bolder set of vocals. There’s something to look forward to from both groups and it’s a treat when the songs themselves are as powerful as the ones chosen to appear on ‘XOXO’.

Let Out The Beast” is a thundering up-tempo riddled with rapid off-the-tongue verses that sounds incredibly strong under both EXO’s. It possesses the perfect amount of kick and breathing room to land its emphasis in all the right places, and both EXO’s nail it. The same goes for “My Lady“, another fan favorite on this album; although this particular song speaks more about a song’s composition being so insanely stunning that EXO’s only job was to make it sound perfect: they do.

Explosions and expletives are as much a part of this album as its muted moments and you hear these two key elements bleed together in nearly every track with more purpose here than before. It’s for this reason why full length albums still hold an important, albeit diminishing place in the music industry. The art is in the vision, and to hear it realized in one mighty package is worth every spare second allowed to see it through.

The tones are dark and emotive on ‘XOXO’, and through EXO’s expressive vocal performance and a strong bond between tracks, those elements are fulfilled with confidence and in vivid certainty.

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Scorecard

Wolf
.75
Baby Don’t Cry
1
Black Pearl
1
Don’t Go
.75
Let Out The Beast
1
3.6.5
.5
Heart Attack
.75
Points scale
0 – could do without
0.5 – mediocre/filler
0.75 – pretty good/grew on me
1 – liked immediately
Peter Pan
.75
Baby
.5
My Lady
1
Total Points
8

Points to stars conversion: [(8/10) x 5] + 0.25*

4.3/5

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*there is a 0.25 bonus for every album. The logic is that, if every song were “pretty good”, it’s a 4-star album.

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24 thoughts on “[Review] [Album] EXO – ‘XOXO (Kiss & Hug)’

  1. I’ve been waiting for your review on this one, and you didn’t disappoint. I’m glad you like the whole album!! Hahahahahaha I love all of the songs and I listen to it everyday going to school both Korean and Chinese versions. And for me, you can make great covers in this album. And even the rappers can sing beautifully!! I have to thank SME for producing this wonderful album.

  2. I completely agree with your views, though I haven’t actually listened to EXO-M’s tracks yet. Though I liked Heart Attack a little more than Let Out The Beast. Also- Wolf is my least fav track on this album… But overall, I approve of this rating ^_^

    • I really wanted to talk about Heart Attack in this review (it’s one of my faves on the album!), but there wasn’t a spot I could fit it in to flow with my analysis. But just generally, I lovvve how reminiscent it is to SHINee’s ’2009, Year of Us’ EP. As one of my favorite SHINee eras, it was a pleasant surprise to hear those similarities under EXO and be pulled off so well.

  3. I usually put Kiss on heavier rotation compared to Hug. I was surprised when I listened to M’s Peter Pan and thinking… how did I miss this song? M’s version was brilliant. I dunno how to describe it but it put a smile on my face listening to it.

    Now that you mentioned K and M’s different delivery techniques, it makes sense. I’m pretty impartial to EXO but their MAMA and now Hug&Kiss albums have been favourites. The ratio of talented members to ‘black holes’ amongst the 12 is staggeringly high, in fact I think there aren’t any dead weights in EXO… which is a miracle in itself. This means we get not just four or five talents to swoon over, we get twelve! And to add choc cream to the cake, EXO has two of my favourite voices in kpop… Bacon and Donut.

    I hope they get more opportunities to show off their natural talents and charms. Their perfs on stage are lacking in organic quality. SM needs to loosen their rein a lil n let them boys have some fun n show it off to the public. It’d probably help ease the fanatical behaviours of the EXO fandom if their oppas are more accessible.

    • I definitely agree that EXO as a whole is a well-rounded vocal ensemble, though if I were to choose an ideal EXO, I think I could only come up with a decent six, and that’s taking overall aesthetic, dance, and stage presence into account. As separate EXOs, I think SM did an excellent job.

      And yes! Please let them sing live! I know I’m praising them to the high heavens in this review, the thing to take note of is that I’m only speaking of their studio work. When it comes to the stage and live singing, that’s a whole different story that I’d definitely like to get into in an editorial.

        • If I could only choose six members to create my own EXO, ideally, I’d choose Chen, Baekhyun, LuHan, Chanyeol, Kai, and maybe Lay. The last slot could be a wild card, though. Good instinct!

          What about you?

          • Oooh, I’m butting in here because this is something I’ve always wanted to try (picking and choosing members to create what would be my ~ideal~ EXO). For me, I’d choose Chen, D.O. (I’m adore his voice and prefer it over Baek’s who doesn’t really do anything for me tbh especially in these round of promotions where when given the chance to sing live he’s been….. let’s just say not great), Lu Han, Lay, Chanyeol, Kai and the last spot would probably be Xiumin actually (I think he’s highly underrated. He’s one of the best dancers the group has and when given the chance to sing I’ve actually really liked listening to his voice).

          • The six I mentioned would also be my choice. Although I’m kind of torn between Kai and Lay for the last slot. I understand why you wouldn’t include DO, but I prefer his voice over Baekhyun’s, so he’s still on my list :)

            • Man, after listening to them live a few times, I’m starting to question Baekhyun’s position in my Ideal EXO. Like, I think he’s super talented, but Chen can already belt super high notes, so I feel like if I had both of them, it’d be a clash, especially if I’m aiming for a softer vocal ensemble. I’d definitely keep Kai and Lay: Kai for visuals, of course, because COME ON BOY IS ENGAGING AS HELL; and Lay is on par as a dancer AND I kinda sorta think he has a nice timbre.

              I’m one of the few who doesn’t particularly dislike DO’s singing, but who doesn’t particularly find it that special either. idk I’m still on the fence about him :o

          • Since I can no longer reply to your last comment, I’m posting this here :)

            I can totally imagine that potential “clash” you’re talking about. Come to think of it, I guess one of the reasons why I like EXO-M’s “What is Love” more than EXO-K’s is because Luhan’s softer voice complements Chen’s powerful vocals, which makes it more enjoyable to listen to. Baekhyun has good stage presence, though, something that DO lacks.

            So I tried erasing Kai from the picture, but I couldn’t. He’s definitely indispensable. He’s one of the things that make EXO, well EXO. But I also have this soft spot for Lay, I just don’t know I could squeeze him in there.

            • Yes.. I totally agree with you on comparing D.O. and Baekhyun, and Kai and Lay..it’s really hard to choose between them. The truth is, I’m REALLY an anti-k-pop before..yeah, well, I just think of them as…gays. But that was BEFORE I came to know about EXO. That was the first time that I became interested with a kpop boy group…and exo surely swept me of my feet, literally. For me, their songs are really out of ordinary, especially for rookie boy bands because usually, the other groups would be cutie cutie with themselves, being vain and all…well, I just don’t like that thing well. But exo was like, in command, the first time I saw their MAMA mv. It’s ABSOLUTELY hard to choose for my own exo group because each of them has his own charm…you just can’t eliminate them easily. During the first months of being their fan, I just had three biases among them. But as time passed by, I got to know them better: their talents, their wit, attitude, character, and special charms………..CAN THEY ALL JUST BE MY BIAS?? I cannot really choose between any of them anymore! One could be good at that, but not this…the other, good at what the other can’t, but not good at what the other can. Each of them really has his own specialty that’s really unique. Overall, they really bring their group together as one!

              By the way, my favourite song in their XOXO Album is Baby Don’t Cry…the melody is just so soothing to my ears! I always play it before I go to sleep! Even the rap of chanyeol…I really appreciate it! I also like Peter Pan because it gives me a feeling like I’m really in a fairytale, still so soothing to my ears..(btw, I really like soft music). And lastly, I love Don’t Go too…since the melody really is heavenly.

              Their album is really a mixture of all unique! Still overwhelmed by its uniqueness!

          • Honestly, I wasn’t too keen on D.O either but after hearing him sing “The Last Time” with Chen, D.O’s a solid pick in my top 6. Just in case you haven’t heard it:

  4. as for me..well im not an exo fan.. i didn’t like Mama album..
    but i really like XOXO album. i didn’t expect it to be that good~
    tbh i’ve always thought SM albums have nice title tracks while everything else in the album is crap or filler tracks (with the exception of Shinee albums Why so serious and lucifer)

    the songs are really high quality.. i liked all songs except for wolf. i always cringe when the “ah saranghaeyo” part comes..
    my favorites in the album are Let out the beast, Heart attack and Dont go
    i was actually impressed when i first listen to these songs~
    it is a really nice and solid album overall

    • You’re so very welcome! Thanks for reading and thanks for the support!

      They very much deserve any win, and haters are just going to have to deal with it.

  5. Great review! There are some real gems on this album which I really didn’t expect, I’m glad I actually bothered to give it a listen. ‘Baby Don’t Cry’, ‘Black Pearl’, ‘Heart Attack’ and ‘My Lady’ were the standout tracks for me.
    Generally like the M versions more (maybe because I infinitely prefer the members in M over K) except for ‘My Lady’ which Kris really fucked over with that awful rap (I’ll never forgive him).
    Overall, I’d have to agree it’s a pretty solid effort.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your review! Especially appreciated the analysis of Wolf and the focus on the vocal differences between K and M. (I also never knew Kenzie’s history.) I really love the album for its lyricism and earnest expressiveness but initially thought Wolf didn’t really fit in; I’m going to listen to it again now with your insights in mind (: Also, I completely approve of Chen as your Twitter homepage header. Thanks again for writing this!

  7. been waiting for this review, didn’t know it was released so much earlier. I really like Black Pearl although my ultimate bias is in EXO-K, I can’t deny the fact that EXO-M delivered Black Pearl better. Same with Baby, Don’t Go and some songs I can’t remember. I think Black Pearl is really special, it sounds really haunting and really engaging with the lyrics. From my opinion, it’s cuz EXO-M has more mature voices (half of the EXO-M is older than Suho, who’s the oldest in EXO-K).

    But overall XOXO is really a solid album, been listening to the both versions for weeks right now orz.

  8. I love their album :) I wish you had included heart attack because I would love to hear your more in depth opinion about that song. I personally liked the song on my first listen and it along with Peter Pan and Don’t Go are definitely my favorites in the album.

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