Exo and I have a strange, love-hate relationship. But I’m sure for any K-pop fan who sat through thirty something teasers, an intro ninety seconds too long, three plotless music videos, and then proceeded to wait a year and half for the comeback of twelve pretty boys, a love-hate relationship sounds about right. It’s been a long time since Exo’s been doing something other than walking through airports and performing the melodramatic “MAMA” every different way possible, and I think I can speak for many of us when I say, well it’s about time.
In all the months Exo wasn’t doing anything new, it’s not as if the world of K-pop came to a stand still. Many of their accompanying rookie contemporaries that crashed onto the scene with the rookie tidal wave of 2012, rose to new heights in the time Exo seemed to be MIA. And though it didn’t seem like fans began to love Exo any less (rather, I’m certain all that distance made hearts grow that much fonder), many did begin to worry. What was going on? What was the hold up? Why wait this long? Is the group going to fall apart, even before they take off? And if they do make it back, how do they outdo themselves?
This rampant, viral comeback anticipation also quickly warped into momentous expectation for the group as the central question quickly boiled down to, ‘well, what do they do next?’ For any group who has just debuted, a dazzling comeback is essential for a lot of reasons. This early window in any group’s career is especially critical because it is a time open to worlds of criticism, and even more so when the group is wearing the stamp of one of the three biggest entertainment companies in Korea. It is in post debut glory that fans are cultivated. But it’s a solid comeback that keeps fans interested. Any wavering in between is undoubtedly a sign of weakness.
It would be one thing to say, Exo could pull this belated comeback crap because they’re from SM Entertainment, that their fanbase is already a guaranteed thing. And sure, maybe they could string the wait out as long as they did because of the names involved here, but let’s be honest: both the wait for this comeback and the fact that this is a group from SM meant that bar of excellence only got higher and higher.
And truthfully, I was skeptical.
In my own opinion, Exo had a pretty haphazard beginning. Everyone knew SM was going to make Exo into rookies like we’d never seen rookies before, but I didn’t expect to be disappointed. Granted “MAMA” was a very interesting title track, I’ll admit it never was the music that I had a problem with; it was presentation. Drab color palettes and strange choreography (ahem, excess pocket shaking via “History,” don’t even act like that wasn’t weird) that followed in Exo promotions didn’t string me along the way I hope and pray every rookie boy group does. And truthfully, the boys never seemed totally in sync with what they were doing either.
At times they looked sloppy. More specifically, performance-wise they had yet to win me over. Their ultra-nuanced choreography wasn’t doing their large unit any favors, and certainly some blatantly shined more than others in a way that made me question if there were perhaps even power struggles amongst the group. And besides a handful, many of them fell flat during live performances and lacked charisma otherwise to make up for that fact. Furthermore, because this was a debut, I didn’t have the knowledge to even consider ‘well maybe this is just one of those songs that doesn’t capitalize on everyone’s strengths as much as it should, because I know these kids are talents,’ because I didn’t know whether or not they were talented, again for the love of God, this was the debut. In fact, because this was a debut, and because it seemed very all-over-the-place for an SM act, I was very ready to move on, and I don’t think it would be outrageous to say that I’m sure many others were as well.
But it seems as though 2013 will be different.
For starters, everything about the Exo comeback is everything it needs to be, and then some. And I’m not just saying this because I think “Wolf” is brilliant, or because the XOXO album literally forced me to take a cold shower, but because it finally feels like SM is delivering on the rookies they had promised, that for so long I was ardently looking for but couldn’t really flesh out. And this is coming from someone who was convinced Exo was just premium SM jailbait until probably last week.
Though both “MAMA” and “History” were also predominantly dance-centric music videos, comeback title track “Wolf” takes on an aggressive character that commands an audience whether you hate the song or scream “geurae oolf, naega oolf” during your evening workouts as you listen to the track at deafening volumes. From the inherent and addictive drama of the song itself, to the heart-pounding hook and the genius choreography, “Wolf” claws at a strange and hyper-masculine angle that outshines traditional rookie material, be it from SM or anywhere else. It’s a piece of art (yes, I said piece of art) that uses its theatrical air and hunky appeal to demand focus on Exo, rather than leaving it to Exo to vie for the viewer’s attention with classic eye-catchers like chocolate abs, booty shorts, aegyo, or hip-rolling. I mean, there’s a lot of eye sex, but we all know that’s just straight up talent.
And I’m not saying this just about the music video. Exo continues to go OT12 for their “Wolf” promotions, but going on air doesn’t seem to be putting them under by any means. This is another up-side to “Wolf” — it is not a vocal-heavy song that dazzles on screen but flops in live action.
It’s lyrically calculated to match with intense choreography in a way that doesn’t leave the song sounding lame or unenthusiastic, so I would say their live performances are almost on par with what you see in the music video. And that itself is already an impressive feat for any K-pop act, because we all know how post-production editing wonders can make any MV look like a ten and leave the live looking like a four.
So yes, I’m crazy about “Wolf” and I’m crazy about everything about “Wolf” and Exo right now, but “Wolf” is pretty much crap compared to the lyrically emotional and endearing powerhouse that is XOXO. That is to say, the XOXO album is slaying. This ten track little tizzy is an Exo gold mine, the first chunk of material in which, for the first time, you can hear every member’s contribution to the music and the skills lying therein. But Leslie pretty much says it all in her review when she gave the album accolades for being worth the wait.
And here is where I throw in the towel and finally admit, okay, fine, yes, okay, here, Exo, here are all my fangirl feels, you’ve officially won your biggest critic over.
In all seriousness though, Exo has very and really truly stepped up their game in their quest to be other than the typical bill of a K-pop rookie group, and though this kind of growth may be grossly overdue, I’m glad to see it finally happening. But while “Wolf” continues to reign over the airwaves and the internet and Exo continues to worm their way into hearts across the globe, keep in mind that this is still only their humble beginning. Even though it seems as though Exo has done well given the heightened expectations both their company’s reputation and their own have given them, the bar will only get higher as Exo continues to climb the ladder of idoldom. They’ve become a much cohesive unit and finally come to the stage with something to show other than their hands in their pockets. So here’s to hoping the talent sticks and, more importantly, that the next time they choose to wow us, they don’t wait eighteen months to do it.