1. Lucky One
3. Artificial Love
4. Cloud 9
6. White Noise
7. One and Only
8. They Never Know
10. Lucky One (Inst.)
11. Monster (Inst.)
A little over a full year after the release of their repackage album 'Love Me Right,' EXO returned with their third studio album 'EX'ACT.'
The album, which dropped on June 9, definitely encompasses a matured sound that we have only heard hints of in their previous albums and EPs. I mentioned this new sound briefly in my MV reviews of EXO's "Lucky One" and "Monster" but didn't delve much deeper as I focused more on the MVs rather than the music.
From the lofty overall score of 9.15, it may appear as though I raved about everything concerning EXO's latest comeback. But that does not mean I don't harbor any inhibitions or criticisms about the group's music.
I was looking very much forward to EXO's new album not because I'm a fan of EXO but more because I was wondering what direction and what kind of spin SM decided to give to their most popular boy group. I remember leader Suho fretting that he didn't know how fans would take to their new music and performance, and though it may not seem proper, his fretting had actually doubled my anticipation. I thought, 'How different could it be?' and 'What kind of new approach did they go for this time around?' And surprisingly, it was different...sort of.
As I mentioned before, EXO returned with a polished sound which marks their growth as K-Pop artists. This new album listed tracks rich and overflowing with soulful, urban, Justin Timberlake-esque vibes, sleek, modern dance tracks with hints of trap, and of course, R&B inspired ballads which were always EXO's forte.
The group shed their teen heartthrob image with these new sounds in 'EX'ACT' which is a giant leap from their first album 'XOXO.' I was actually quite shocked when I heard "Lucky One"; it was so unexpected from EXO, especially as it was such a jarring change from "Call Me Baby." The heavy dance sounds were nowhere to be seen, replaced by an overwhelmingly smooth groovy beat that hesitantly danced around to burst into a hypnotically funky hook. It was so...different that at first I had a hard time wrapping my head around this new EXO. In fact, my first reaction to "Lucky One" was negative, and I didn't think that I would ever like this song. How wrong I was; now, "Lucky One" is one of my favorites song off the album. I'm glad SM decided to give EXO a radical new sound because with "Lucky One," they enabled the group to push their boundaries and test the limits of their musicality, something that K-Pop acts do not attempt often.
"Lucky One" was not the only instance of signaling EXO's growth as artists; other tracks such as "Artificial Love," "They Never Know," and "White Noise" also contained elements I've hardly heard in previous albums. Though I may not have heard them in past EXO albums, I've heard them elsewhere. "Artificial Love" and "White Noise," sounded like the kind of songs that you'd hear in clothing stores at the mall while you're browsing absent-mindedly through the racks--light electronica/dance jams that you don't really remember because they're so generic. They might have been different, but that does not automatically equate innovative or memorable. I actually found "White Noise" pretty grating to the ears the more I listened to it. While "Artificial Love" mixed things up with minor chords and an atypical arrangement consisting of variating synths, cascading harmonizations, and Chanyeol's ad libs (get it Chanyeol), "White Noise" failed to leave any sort of impression.
Other than "Lucky One," the other tracks that top my favorites list are "One and Only" and "They Never Know," and "Stronger." Perhaps it's because I have a penchant for the R&B genre, but these three tracks really stood out for their lush, bumping, and intoxicatingly sensual melodies, particularly "They Never Know." Oh my god, is that Lay's heavenly voice in one part of the chorus because he killed it! Every time his part comes on, I get this strong urge to turn off all the lights...and body roll. Or at least attempt to. "Stronger" is the closing to the album that every EXO-L will fall in love with thanks to the unadulterated exposure of the members' vocals. I had no idea D.O. could sound so good; his vocals really improved in the past year, and he really had much to show for for this comeback.
"Heaven," "Cloud 9," and "Monster" were the tracks that still contained hints of the 'old EXO': very pop-y, pert, and energetic, which is the EXO that we've come to know and love. "Monster" in particular was the darker, heavier cousin of "Overdose," dramatic in both sound and performance. Many people seemed to be divided between the two title tracks "Monster" and "Lucky One"; while a majority seems to prefer "Monster," the clear choice for me is still "Lucky One." Compared to the funky "Lucky One" and the R&B inspired tracks like "They Never Know," "Heaven," and "Cloud 9" weren't as aurally stimulating. Yes, they are catchy, and they contain the staple EXO sound that many EXO-Ls love, but I much preferred "Lucky One" and the latter half of the album for its venture into the experimental.
All in all, I was throughly impressed with EXO's comeback, especially with the group's willingness to try different concepts and their ability to adapt to those concepts like musical chameleons. I just wish that SM had given the boys more songs like "Lucky One" and "They Never Know" which were great songs that gave them a more distinct color. It's easy to get stuck in one image as a K-Pop group, but with this leap forward, I believe EXO have the potential to take on even more concepts and sounds, and make them work to their advantage.