After ten years and counting as a member of EXO, the group’s lead vocalist and eldest member, Xiumin, has finally joined his fellow soloist members with the release of his debut mini album, Brand New. As the seventh EXO member to officially go solo, Xiumin’s debut expectedly carves out a unique individual sound and musical persona for the singer to differentiate him from both his group and from the rest of his fellow members’ own personally crafted genres. Unlike some of the others’ debuts, however, Xiumin’s is fittingly more understated — suitable to his quiet, yet mischievous and upbeat personality — but just as dynamic.
In somewhat of an unexpected choice, Brand New opts for much of the old — in this case, late ‘90s-era pop. While some tracks are surprisingly off-kilter in production (“Brand New,” “Feedback”), others lean classic (“Love Letter,” “Serenity”). What stays constant throughout, however, is Xiumin’s familiarly smooth and skillful vocals, which coast from track to track with the striking ease and laid-back attitude that only a veteran of his tenure could possess. Even as he jumps between energetic and mellow and from one genre to the next throughout the album, his gentle yet sleek vocal tenor keeps the entirety of Brand New grounded and refined.
Although Xiumin’s vocals champion most of Brand New’s tracks, they never do so to a boastful degree. At its surface, the retro hip hop title track “Brand New,” seeks to make its eccentric, at at times erratic, production choices the star of the show. Its standout and catchiest moments come during the chorus (“Baby, let it loose, let is loose”) and refrain (“Ayy, put your hands up”), which samples a punchy hip hop beat. As these unexpected and sometimes clamorous production moments set “Brand New” apart sound-wise, it’s Xiumin’s vocals during the verses and chorus that smooth things out to keep the groove moving and make the track an easier listen than it at first lets on.
While his vocals do a bit of recon during “Brand New,” they find a fitting place on standout track “Feedback.” Another retro pop track with half-jarring, even punchier synths than before, “Feedback” lets its choppiness lie when Xiumin’s vocals bright, silky vocals come in during the pre-chorus:
Baby, I can’t breathe in
The sound of cold breath all the way to my chin
You’re pouring me out
Little closer towards you
Xiumin’s R&B-like vocals continue into the chorus (“Girl, I wanna dance with you all night”) to give the track an overall seductive vibe. Ultimately, the contrast between the very SM Entertainment-like qualities of the verses and Xiumin’s vocals throughout the rest of the track make for an unexpected combination that in the end works.
As for another (half expected, half unexpected) duo that works just as well, if not better, is “How We Do,” Xiumin’s second collaboration with NCT’s Mark. Undoubtedly the most modern-sounding selection off of Brand New, Mark lends his effortless rapping style to mesh sleekly into Xiumin’s R&B vocal performance. Rather than owning a clunky rap verse during just one part of the song, Mark’s melodic rapping weaves in and out of Xiumin’s hypnotic vocal delivery to make for one fluid R&B-dance track.
Brand New ends with a complete 180-degree change in genre, disembarking with two sentimental ballads — a given for a vocal-forward artist like Xiumin. The first, “Love Letter” is a simple piano- and strings-based number with a subdued feel. As Xiumin sings out his own “clumsy confession,” his vocals remain strong but fittingly controlled and soft, much like his own timid proclamation of love. Although minor, vocal choices like these, which are present throughout the album, give it that extra “oomph,” even where it can’t necessarily be heard.
“Serenity” ends the album on a wistful, nostalgic feeling, largely thanks to a gentle acoustic guitar and uplifting drum beat. Here, Xiumin’s vocals are at their loudest compared to the rest of the album, not only in terms of volume but in reflection of emotion and passion compared to his delivery on other tracks. As with the rest of the EP, however, “Serenity” finds balance to keep its overarching feel refined and comfortable, this time with Xiumin’s emotive vocal style and the track’s contemplative instrumentals.
As expected, Xiumin’s solo debut is a masterful depiction of his longstanding vocal talent but in a fittingly mellow, unobtrusive manner — despite the EP’s surprisingly boisterous moments. With Brand New, Xiumin opts to show the world a new side of himself, while presenting a seasoned level of skill and artistry that reminds us of the singer we’ve known all this time.[YouTube. Lyrics via Genius. Images via SM Entertainment.]