When it comes to execution, no one does it quite like SM Entertainment (SME), whose penchant for the highest quality audio output you could listen to has shown in spades throughout their journey to musical domination. This week, EXO (sans Lay, regrettably) returns with their fourth studio album The War, and if this isn’t being touted as one of the most polished albums to drop all year, it sure as hell ought to be.
The album opens with the surprisingly elegant “The Eve.” This chill jam is inspired by mid-2000s R&B, with subtle hints of Justin Timberlake at the dawning of his solo career. “The Eve” is beautifully produced and does a successful job of world-building for the rest of The War.
“The Eve” takes its time adding layers of gratuitous build-up — from a trembling guitar riff to a muffled drum kit — each contributing to a cloudy backdrop that serves as EXO’s launching platform into sultry vocal bliss. The boys are as careful with their timing as the song’s instrumental, with the likes of Baekhyun, Chen, and Chanyeol lightly treading through their lines without ever compromising the overall pace of the song. Pace is a huge element in this album. The steady approach in “The Eve” foreshadows the precision with which EXO tackles the music on The War, as the rest of the album isn’t so much in a hurry to its destination as it is focused on unwinding the threads that lead us there. This much is true in the treatment of the album’s crown jewel, “Ko Ko Bop.”
Relatively speaking, “Ko Ko Bop” is perhaps EXO’s most relaxed lead single in their history. It’s not necessarily their slowest (we have their Christmas releases for that), but definitely the most self-indulgent in terms of momentum. “Ko Ko Bop” falls back quite a few notches in explosiveness and instead channels the unruffledness of reggae music, the skin in bones of this single, to allow EXO a little more air space in which to breathe. That makes way for members like Suho and Chen to embellish the song with airy timbres, while Sehun and Chanyeol contrast that with interjections of aggressive syncopation. The marriage of hip-hop and reggae is organic by nature and its blend of it on “Ko Ko Bop” works effectively well. If you think back to 2014, 2NE1 toyed with much of the same ideas in “Come Back Home,” striking a lot of the same bullet points that you hear come across in EXO’s latest single.
Up to this point in EXO’s career, members not named D.O., Baekhyun, and Chen had very little air time, but that changes tremendously on this album. The suave EDM track “What U Do?,” for instance, ushers in nearly every member in EXO’s roster by a significant amount, intensifying the dynamics of the group’s vocal line ten fold. The crispness of Baekhyun’s singing, the resonant smoothness of Chanyeol, and even the deep hollowness of Kai’s voice are all present and uniform on “What U Do?”. This uniformity reaches its next level on “Forever,” as EXO takes the edginess of last year’s hit single “Monster” and unpacks it through vigorous stylistic changes.
“Forever” is eerily empty on the instrumental end, which EXO use to their advantage to bust out melodic phrases to fill the void. From unexpected chord changes to darkly painted rap verses, “Forever” is a romance story seen through the lens of a disturbed heart. Another disturbing yet intriguing track is the cacophonous “Diamond,” which its producers have decided is the out-of-the-box experimental project on The War. It is certainly genre-fluid, in that it’s difficult anchoring it down anywhere on the musical spectrum; it’s EDM, but it’s also hip-hop. Then it’s oddly “middle eastern” with a kick of theatrical rock. “Diamond” is the detour through the forbidden forest you were told to stay away from, but man is it one helluva trip once you’re in there.
The War on the whole exchanges rapid-fire up-tempos for middle-of-the-road tracks that are as equally powerful without going overboard, and for a group whose back catalog includes the likes of “MAMA” and “Wolf,” this refrain is a refreshing way to display their talents. A song like “Chill” is smart in capitalizing on current rhythmic trends, yet it’s infused with those signature EXO twists and turns that render the final product a slick and unique reimagining of what R&B could sound like.
SME has never been afraid to take bold risks in turning music inside out. Just go back to their earliest work with TVXQ to newcomers like Red Velvet and NCT and you’ll hear how unabashedly they are with their deliverables. The War is yet another example of what it sounds like to tackle music with little regard for convention and standards. Only this time they’ve done so without overwhelming the listening experience, providing EXO with some of their smoothest music to date.
Genre: Dance, Electronica, R&B/Soul, Rap/Hip-Hop | Release Date: 7/18/17