Greatest Korean Boy-Band Ever?
by Tricia Cowan
Exo (stylized as EXO) is a South Korean-Chinese boy band based in Seoul, with nine members: Suho, Baekhyun, Chanyeol, D.O., Kai, Sehun, Xiumin, Lay, and Chen. The band was formed by SM Entertainment in 2011 and debuted in 2012. When they started out, there were 12 members, and they were divided into two parts- EXO-K (Korean) & EXO-M (Chinese). EXO-K consisted of Suho, Kai, Sehun, D.O, Chanyeol and Baekhyun. Although there were only 4 Chinese members, Lay, Kris, Luhan and Tao, SM gave Chen and Xiumin Chinese stage names and had the perform with EXO-M. In 2014, Luhan and Kris left the group, with Tao leaving in 2015. Lay (Yixing Zhang) has remained a member of EXO even though the issues between South Korea and China have made it difficult for him to be with them full-time. He has released 3 solo albums, Lose Control, Sheep 02, and his most recently Namanana.
Their music incorporates genres like pop, hip-hop, and R&B, alongside electronic dance music genres like house, trap, and synth-pop as Exo releases and performs music in Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. The band was ranked as one of the top five most influential celebrities on the Forbes Korea Power Celebrity list each year from 2014 to 2018, and have been named "the biggest boy band in the world" and the "kings of K-pop" by the media.
What makes EXO stand out from their K-pop boyband counterparts is the ingenuity of their reach: in producing all of their albums in both Korean and Mandarin, the group easily reaches fans of many different areas, and encourages people to seek languages different from their own. Despite the lyrics being just about the same between different language versions of their songs, you'll find fans choosing their favorite version of each, finding which sound resonates with them better. EXO's music truly transcends language and works to bring people together in a way only music that reaches the soul can.
You'll find EXO stands apart from certain other big groups such as BTS and BIGBANG (who tend to be more based on their rappers' abilities) because of their close focus on the talents of their vocalists. While rappers Chanyeol and Sehun absolutely set fire to the microphone, EXO's songs are written and produced to highlight their vocal talent, and for good reason. EXO has long since been renowned to contain some of the greatest vocalists in K-pop, with voices that are unique and show stopping. Each vocalist has a different range and different ability that all seem to mesh together perfectly, whether the team is singing a technically complicated ballad to a fun, fresh bop, these voices really have no competition.
Another thing that sets EXO apart from other groups is the exciting appearance changes the members make as their concepts change. In early days, we see a young and dark EXO, receiving their "powers" and beginning their storyline with darker and edgier clothing and hairstyles, before moving onto a strong and powerful look with their second era, EXODUS (2015). This era's title track, "CALL ME BABY," shows us EXO as smooth and cool bad boys, confidently making their mark with fans around the world. We move forward with EX'ACT (2016), where we see the return of a darker EXO, but we can see that the band's members and music have matured, and we get to enjoy the dark image with cooler than cool outfits, faux piercings, and fan-favorite hair during the beloved time of their hit "Monster" (2016). Then, as a contrast, EXO's fourth album, The War (2017), brings us a more bubbly and fun side of EXO, with tropical clothing and bright hair colors, this was sure to bring a fresh outlook to our members and our sound. Coming back with a different bad boy look with a fun biker concept, which during promotions had interactive teaser announcements which took the listener onto the imprisoned "race track" that our members' storyline took us to, we were brought to "Don't Mess Up My Tempo"'s (2018) leather jacket clad era to life. Pushing even further the coolness factor, their newest adventure in "Love Shot" (2018) shows our members clad like suave gentlemen pulling the heist of the century, with outfits that may resemble James Bond if he had been a little more daring and toned down hairstyles from Tempo's era.
Even as the most awarded group in K-pop, EXO stands out as the pioneers in concepts. When they debuted in 2012, they created the concept of powers, each member has a power that coincides with their personality. Suho, the leader, is Water, the source of needed for life. Chanyeol, EXO's main rapper, is Fire. D.O. is Force, referring to his ground-breaking vocal abilities. Baekhyun is Light, referring to his bright power vocals. Chen is Thunder, which also referring to his powerful vocals which some could argue are among the greatest in K-pop, truly splitting the sky with his unique and powerful sound. Kai is Teleportation, which refers to his phenomenal ability to transform between singer, rapper, main dancer to center, which means that due to his talent and abilities, he is specifically placed as the first member fans see in their formations. Sehun is Wind, which refers to his ability to transition from main dancer to rapper, as well as a great singer, as swiftly as the wind he "controls". Xiumin is Frost, and he is referred to as having calculated vocals and fluid dancing, like the way the snow falls and ice forms. Lay is Healing, as he is seen as the force that keeps everything in perfect order. This concept has been included in every album/comeback to date.
In 2017, when they released The War, they gave the fans a comic story to go along with it. They also invented releasing teasers and information during an eclipse, leaving fans looking for the next message, making them unique among their peers as a group that always keeps fans waiting for something new, something different, and something still so purely powerful as EXO. With a fandom of over 4 million, it is interesting to see the theories and thoughts from all over the world about this.
After a 14 month drought, EXO announced their 5th Album, Don't Mess Up My Tempo, which left fans in awe yet again. In the title song "Tempo", EXO goes from a perfect bridge to accapella. The song and the album shows the strength in their diversity with music styles.
From the first EP MAMA (2012), and first single "What Is Love" (2012), to the latest release, EXO proves there is not another group that can compare to their vocal abilities. Their mere stage presence fills stadiums and sells out in record time, not to mention the level of difficulty of their choreography to the way they never miss a step keeps them on top. The center and main dancer Kai has the utmost respect from so many other idols in the industry and rookies just coming up want to be like him. Maybe it's not surprising that he was recently a mentor on a Korean dance show.
In December of 2018, EXO released their reissue of Don't Mess Up My Tempo in a new repackaged version as Love Shot and a sexier vibe for this senior group and became the highest debuted K-pop album in the United World Album Charts for the year 2018.
Below is a chronological list of music videos showcasing EXO's vocal abilities, as well as the concepts they are so well known for:
"WHAT IS LOVE?" (2012)
This was a strong beginning for the group. Relying on members Baekhyun and D.O's intense power vocals, this song takes you on a beautiful and emotional ride, with a beautiful and theatrical music video that mirrors the feelings behind the song perfectly. If you're looking to start with EXO and you want to know why we talk about these vocalists' abilities, you have to start here.
"MAMA" brings us into the somewhat dark and serious world of young EXO as they obtain their "powers" and begin to find their responsibilities in the world. The song starts strong with a heavy build of classical music leading into smooth vocals, truly keeping you on the edge of your seat as though you were watching a superhero flick. The video showcases our members finding their abilities and using them for the first time, bringing us into their world with them.
Also from same EP, this is reminiscent of a sound you may find in senior label-mates SHINee's older music. With a mesmerizing choreography in which main dancer Kai truly shines, a quick beat that has you jamming along, and a theatrical music video that fans will come to expect and love from EXO, this is a truly "historic" jam.
"Wolf" has one of the most memorable choreographies in EXO's arsenal, literally imitating nature as the members show us how strong their bite can be. An intense yet fun song and a visually stunning video, "Wolf" shows us EXO's fantastic teamwork.
Considered by many one of the most popular songs in K-pop history and frequently covered in song and dance by rookies of K-pop (ATEEZ, Stray Kids, and NCT Dream), "Growl" is an incredibly catchy bop tune with a choreography that inspired many others to dance along in their seat as they watched. We see a young EXO dressed in uniform, hitting us with some serious notes and some delicately spun raps that show us they mean business. "Growl" is considered to be the song that put EXO on the path to popularity that they enjoy today.
In "Overdose," we're introduced to EXO's long standing concept of the "maze." We see them trapped in this maze of sorts, trying to escape. The song itself, complete with Kai's dazzling introduction choreography bringing us a clean, intense and fresh EXO with a lively and invigorating sound while still holding onto some of the darkness from their previous records. "Overdose"'s choreography also stacks members with fluid yet deliberate movements. The vocals are layered in a more than aesthetically pleasing way, pulling you into song.
"CALL ME BABY" (2015)
"CALL ME BABY" is a fan favorite, showing us a bad-boy side of EXO. The song is impossible to get out of your head, with a choreography so fluid that you can't help but follow along. The video is shot almost on a continuous pull at first before switching to scene shifting, which really keeps you on edge and following the screen for the next sight and sound.
"LOVE ME RIGHT" (2015)
"LOVE ME RIGHT," the repackage title track following EXODUS, the second album, has a sexy sound that draws you in with crystal clear vocals exploring their ranges and an extremely catchy beat. The video transfers us between EXO in suits of formal fashion and football player suits and a choreography and videography as bouncy as the song itself.
A fan (and band) favorite, "MONSTER" reaches back into EXO's dark concepts with dark scenery, black clad members, and a thrilling storyline involving EXO versus a force chasing them. The song's intense lyrics are only matched by incredible power vocals and its choreography in which EXO shows us again their teamwork, with several moves requiring them to move perfectly as one unit.
"LUCKY ONE" (2016)
"Lucky One" continues our storyline of a chase in which we see EXO held captive by those who seem to be interested in their powers, like something you'd expect to see on the big screen. In this video, we see a unique choreography as well as members using their powers again in their most basic forms, looking back to their "MAMA" days. The song is an upbeat techno whirlwind that's been known to keep heads bobbing.
"KO KO BOP" (2017)
"Shimmy, shimmy, Ko Ko Bop" (a nod to doo-wop legends Little Anthony and the Imperials) is how this tantalizing bop starts. With the bright vibes brought to us by EXO's fourth album comes "Ko Ko Bop," a song with a video as out of this world and mind blowing as the song is. You can try to get this one out of your head but you probably won't.
A song that makes you feel like you can never lose, we may find ourselves reminiscent of EXO's amazing Olympics performance with this absolute jam. "Power"'s music video brought us into a world fresh out of a science fiction flick. In the video, we see the space-adventurer members fending off a robot alien menace and managing to sing an incredibly catchy and pleasant bop while they do it.
After a long period of waiting, endearingly referred to as "the drought", EXO's fans' thirst was quenched with this energetic and bouncy hit that reminded us that EXO is very much still here. "Tempo" is their masterpiece, with a fast paced and visually stunning choreography. It was a comeback worth waiting for.
LOVE SHOT (2018)
EXO's most recent drop and the repackage follow up to Don't Mess Up My Tempo, Love Shot keeps up the tempo set before it with a fresh hit, which takes us along a wave of cool smoothness from the first note to the last. A sexy choreography that shattered view records in videos all over social media and the video's grand heist concept that shows us EXO starring as your instant favorite outlaws.
When you watch these videos, you do not need to understand the Korean language as the music itself speaks straight to you. You can see the work and dedication they put into every song. The way they have grown as performers in such a short time and their overall aura is something to behold. There is no set or designated visual (or "face" of the group) for EXO but it is pretty easy to see why. All nine members are quite the sight, and as their motto says 'We Are One.'
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