For Somi, the winner of the first season of Produce 101 and the center of the show’s project girl group I.O.I, a solo debut and debut album seemed fairly imminent following the end of the popular girl group’s activities. But it took years for the actual album to arrive. In those years, Somi left JYP Entertainment and signed with The Black Label, an independent label under YG Entertainment. Now at long last, after Somi’s official debut as a soloist with the 2019 single “Birthday”, her long-awaited first album XOXO is here. 

While not necessarily a make-it or break-it occasion in her still-early career, XOXO is an underwhelming expression of what Somi is capable of, and of the promise she showed during her Produce 101 days. As a natural-born performer with vocal skills and songwriting chops, XOXO is a stifling effort for an artist of Somi’s nature. 

For starters, XOXO is a full length, eight-track album. However, four out of those eight tracks are previously released singles dating back to her debut in 2019, including “Birthday.” Other such tracks include “Outta My Head”, “What You Waiting For”, and “Dumb Dumb”, the last of which was only released a few months ago this year. 

While each of these four pre-released singles are from their own distinct (albeit short-lived) Somi eras, they do little to signal the idol’s growth within the context of the entire album and her career thus far. “Birthday” and “What You Waiting For” are solid pop hits, harnessing and showcasing Somi’s confidence in her vocal prowess and styling, while “Outta My Head”, a more R&B-inspired track, demonstrates her ability to traverse somewhat outside of the typical YG and The Black Label pop-meets-EDM sound. However, the album undoubtedly could have benefited by including a wider selection of fresh and new tracks to give some insight into who Somi is as an artist, and where she’s going. 

The album’s title track, “XOXO”, provides somewhat of a sneak peek into the direction she’s headed in, but not much. A fun, catchy track adhering to the ongoing 2000s inspired pop-rock trend, “XOXO” is certainly relevant to the current times, although not so much in the context of Somi’s overall discography to date. While her voice can undoubtedly traverse genres well, her attachment to this musical trend again does little to showcase her identity as an artist up to this point. 

Sound-wise, “XOXO” also falters by falling too closely within the realm of a Black Pink anthem, especially due to its chanty chorus and production from The Black Label founder and resident YG producer Teddy Park. There’s an obvious but unexpected easter egg reference to Black Pink Jennie’s “Solo”, which Teddy Park also produced, when Somi sings  “Growing like solo” (the iconic line from the chorus of “Solo”). Additionally, for most of the song, the overpowering production masks Somi’s voice, which on its own has a powerful and unique tone. 

Somi’s potential exists beyond the confines of a Teddy Park produced track, but the next song on the album, “Don’t Let Me Go” featuring rapper Giriboy, puts her right back in the same box. The track begins with a whistle reminiscent of the one at the beginning of “Dumb Dumb” only in a slightly different pitch and tone. While Somi’s and Giriboy’s vocals compliment one another exquisitely over the course of the track, “Don’t Let Me Go” finds itself falling into the same trap as the album’s other typical YG-sounding songs, losing its way in a simple yet overpowering beat, plus other too frequent snapping and clapping elements to accompany a backing timber drum.

Unsurprisingly, where Somi especially shines on this album is on those tracks that are not produced by The Black Label founder, such as “Anymore” and “Watermelon”. Although “Anymore” begins with almost the same guitar rhythm as the beginning of “XOXO,” but without the chanting production aspect, the track still presents a different take on its 2000s teen pop influences. Unlike “XOXO”, the production of “Anymore” is by no means overdone, yet not too stripped to the point where it sounds bare. For much of the song, soft acoustic and bass guitar riffs take turns carrying the track’s rhythm. A light electric guitar riff accompanies the instrumentals in the pre-chorus, and in the chorus, blends seamlessly with Somi’s vocals, especially when she sings the line “Do I ever cross your mind”.

“Watermelon”, written by Somi and produced along with producer 24, falls along the lines of a more R&B-inspired track, and is sonically far different in terms of instrumental makeup compared to the other tracks on the album. The song is laidback, and marked by sharp, clanging synths and an R&B beat that gives plenty of room for Somi’s vocals to shine. Much like Somi’s previously released songs on XOXO, “Watermelon” particularly showcases Somi’s proven talent in writing her own lyrics, even from a young age, as the lyrics present a watermelon as a metaphor for love:

Trying to tell my biased story

It’s kind funny but love is like watermelon

So hard to get to at first, 

Yes it’s hard to get before I open my heart.

Whereas the four previously-released tracks on the album establish who Somi was at debut, “Anymore” and “Watermelon” feel like what she can be. Meanwhile, “XOXO” and “Don’t Let Me” feel like no progress at all. Considering that now is an undoubtedly ripe time for Somi to showcase everything she’s been working toward and then some, XOXO is a stifling pause in her promising trajectory as an artist, but not necessarily a complete setback altogether.

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius[1][2]. Images via The Black Label.)