For not putting out an album in over two years, veteran group Exo have had quite an interesting year. For one, center and main dancer Kai abruptly enlisted in the military mere months before the release of what SM Entertainment promised would be Exo’s first album as a full group since the members began enlisting in 2019. Less than a month later, members Baekhyun, Chen, and Xiumin all sued SM to terminate their contracts over claims of the company withholding payments and forcing them and other artists to sign “slave contracts.” The lawsuit was quickly dropped, with the three releasing a statement that the issue was resolved and they would remain under SM Entertainment. 

Despite these hurdles that suddenly threatened Exist (and to some extent, Exo’s own existence), the album is a solid and joyous work. That’s especially true considering its rarity: a full-length album featuring Exo’s whole group vocals. Like the members themselves, Exist never takes itself too seriously.

Much of this is thanks to the group’s longevity and success, which they show they’re comfortable both basking in and rebelling against across the album’s nine tracks. Sometimes they lean into their frivolousness to just the right extent, while at other times they take it a smidge too far. It may not be their most groundbreaking work, but that doesn’t mean it’s their most basic. Upon first listen, Exist is deceptively simple, but peel back the layers and listen to each member’s vocal delivery, ad libs, and harmonies, and it’s easily one of the group’s best vocal showings to date. 

Opener and title track “Cream Soda” sets the equal parts irreverent and mature tone for Exist in one fell swoop, using said “cream soda” as a more-than-obvious metaphor for their carnal desires through blatant lyrical comparisons and even more overt visual signifiers in the MV. While it’s clear that “Cream Soda” doesn’t have the same level of brash intensity as other classic Exo title tracks in terms of musicality, it still carves out its own trademark Exo-isms in a satisfying sonic package. There’s the necessary falsetto-heavy chorus, flawless vocal harmonies, hefty beat, and sly adlibs, while the horn and electric guitar instrumentals add an unexpected edge and rhythm to an otherwise straightforward melody. Even though the track largely moves in circles around its verses and chorus up until the bridge, and leaves little to the imagination lyrically (“A taste that shook my everything/I need all ya cream soda”), it still leaves listeners with exactly what it promises — a craving for more. 

While “Cream Soda” seeks (and fails) to hide behind its brazen metaphors and musings about attraction, other tracks on Exist take those messages a step further. “Private Party” is easily the most blatant on this front, spelling out the idea of a “private party” to an overtly literal level (“Touch my body/Our own private party”), bed squeak sound effects included. The sound effects add to the track’s cheekiness, although sometimes threaten to halt its flow, which is especially aided by its fast-paced, trap beat.

Meanwhile, bass- and synth-heavy “Cinderella” and straightforward R&B track “No Makeup” fall on the other side of this spectrum, instead latching onto age-old lovesong tropes (“I love you with no makeup on/So take the makeup off”) in their lyrics almost to the point of superficiality. In the end, however, their weighty vocal moments lend them a much-needed serious edge. 

Similarly, “Love Fool,” which affectionately speaks to the thrills of newfound attraction and a brewing crush, gets this balance just right. The lyrics are anything but coy, continuing Exist’s steady trend of Exo singing of their desires bluntly, only here with more tender undertones (“Even if you overflow in my hands, it’s not enough/I want to give you my everything”). Twinkling synths and a funky beat also add a bubbly contrast to the rest of the album, while the constant back and forth between sliding and staccato vocals throughout the chorus makes “Love Fool” feel as though it’s evolving until the very end.

“Another Day,” which immediately follows, also keeps the upbeat momentum going with quintessential Exo harmonies and reverberating synths. Closer “Let Me In” settles things down, lowering the tempo while cranking up the members’ vocal talents to their highest possible setting (falsettos, harmonies, and ad libs included) to form what feels like a dark and heavy — but still glittering — cloud.  

Other tracks on the album don’t get that balance exactly right, which is to be expected considering how many components Exist strives to keep level all at once (vocals, experimentation, and brazen lyrics and themes). “Regret It” combines a lot of interesting elements from new jack swing and R&B, but its largely muted instrumentals place it further under the radar compared to the rest of the album. The rhythm switch up introduced by Chanyeol is also jarring at first, but is ultimately saved by a stunning vocal arrangement to close the track. Pre-release single “Hear Me Out” is another safe, laidback selection — by far the most on the entire album. Still, it features a solid groove and the type of ‘90s R&B spunk that Exo always get right, but it doesn’t quite have that extra level of ‘oomph’ to send it over the edge. 

On Exist, Exo remind us how brightly their talents shine, even after years since releasing an album as a (technically) full group. Although a seemingly simple and straightforward album, Exist has plenty going on underneath its surface. From its mature overtones and R&B undertones, to the unmatched vocal moments that carry it to completion, Exist reminds us that Exo are quite literally here to stay. 

(Korea Herald, YouTube. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3][4]. Images via SM Entertainment.)