Despite a full 12 months and then some of promotions for his previous EP Peaches, it’s felt like quite the long and quiet year without new music from Kai. Now, the Exo member is finally back — and louder than ever — with his third mini album, Rover

In the K-pop world, 16 months in between releases feels like a lifetime. Between the seductive nature of KAI – The 1st Mini Album and the earnest musings of Peaches — two R&B-heavy albums that showcased Kai’s particular brand of seduction — there was no expectation that he would change his course away from something he had already mastered to such an undeniable degree. 

But that he did with Rover, and fittingly so. If you look at the textbook definitions of the word “rover,” there are two main interpretations that come to mind. For one, a “rover” can be a nomad, wanderer, or drifter. It can also be defined as a physical vehicle made for driving over rough terrain, often associated with Mars rovers that examine extraterrestrial terrain. One seems aimless, the other has a fervent mission in mind. 

On this Rover, Kai is simultaneously both. He comes off as nonchalant, casually weaving his way through several new genres from Afro-Latin reggaeton (“Rover,” “Bomba”) to what nearly classifies as a ballad (“Sinner”) with the freedom of a seasoned professional no longer weighed down by expectation. In another sense, he’s blatantly intentional, as if he’s on an expedition to prove that there’s even more to his artistry beyond the mellow sultriness of KAI and Peaches. Regardless of the specific type of “rover” Kai personally strives to be, he excels plenty at his exploration of the new, and in evolving the “old.”

While title track “Rover” isn’t technically new, and rather a remake of Bulgarian pop singer Dara’s 2022 song “Mr. Rover,” its sound is new to Kai. It’s Baltic dancehall meets reggaeton, but Kai’s smooth, honey-like vocal tone grounds both intense halves of the track to make it at first digestible, then catchy enough to prove that he can make anything work and any sound his own.

Much of the same happens on “Bomba,” another vast genre departure and reggaeton-inspired track, this time with strong Afro-Latin elements. Here, Kai sings of similar themes as in “Rover” of living freely, again melding his recognizable tone with previously uncharted reggaeton beats and sounds, later letting his voice break free from the mesh and reach its full power on the track’s bridge. This becomes a theme throughout — even as the album is at its most experimental, Kai’s familiar yet malleable voice becomes a grounding force that maintains Rover’s newness while ensuring that he himself never strays too far outside the realm of who he is at his core. 

“Black Mirror” and “Sinner” also introduce new genres into Kai’s repertoire, although in completely opposing forces to emphasize Kai’s willingness to stretch his skills outside of what he already knows. While both play with space and emptiness to a degree, in almost a callback to the atmospheric nature of KAI and airiness of Peaches, one comes off as mystic and otherworldly while the other appears grounded and sincere. 

The former, “Black Mirror,” is a hip-hop track featuring a prominent 808 bass and trap drum rhythm that seeks to make fun of and point out society’s reliance on social media through its lyrics. Between Kai’s stoic utterance of onomatopoeic lyrics like “Flash, click, play, switch” and the production’s moments of emptiness between an ever changing 808 bass and drum patterns, “Black Mirror” is overall mysterious and eerie, lifting him even further outside his comfort zone.

Meanwhile, “Sinner,” Rover’s final track, is also bare and sparse, only this time in a way that brings Kai right back down to earth and outside his comfort zone in the opposite way. The track starts off as a ballad (his first foray into this structure of song), backed almost entirely by a piano and his husky voice, until a spacey synth and a more intense beat kicks in over top as it nears its end. The song’s lyrics also add to its sincerity and groundedness, as Kai owns up to his “sins” in love while teetering between accepting his fate and asking for forgiveness, even if he already knows the answer isn’t in his favor. 

Even as Kai makes a point to test novel waters, he also flexes his ever-growing artistry by building upon the R&B sound he made his own on his previous EPs and elevating them to a new level. “Slidin’”, one of Rover’s standouts, along with moody “Say You Love Me,” are perfect examples of this. “Slidin’” features an edgy yet standard R&B beat and bass, further pulling listeners in with a continuous sliding harp scale and Kai’s smooth vocals. Even though it’s one of the album’s most straightforward selections, its slick production accompanied by Kai’s vocal tricks keep it fresh and contemporary. Similarly, “Say You Love Me” meshes R&B and hip-hop elements into a half-hypnotic, half-haunting melodic trance, with Kai’s fluctuating low, sensual vocals and high falsetto adding even further to the track’s intrigue. 

Whether nomadic rover or rover on a mission, Kai is not one to play it safe. His first mini album may have had its bombastic cohesiveness, and his second may have had a coquettish fluidity that only he himself can achieve, but his third, Rover, has an unwavering commitment to uncovering and reinventing both the old and the new, and successfully at that. Few artists can claim their devotion to stretching their powers beyond what they once may have considered out of their reach — and do it so well — as Kai. 

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius. Images via SM Entertainment.)