Hype is an unwieldy force in that one must know how to use it in order to reap its rewards. Recently, Korean pop powerhouse SM Entertainment challenged the conventions of debuting a group by utilizing a ridiculous amount of hype as a tool to reflect the caliber of its content.
For those who missed it, SME released 23 video teasers over a three month period, aimed to introduce the members of EXO, their music, and their image.
The upside to their teasers? The exposure of EXO. The downside? The over exposure of EXO, which was done in an untimely manner and without consistent actual exposure to the members of EXO (with the exception of pretty boy Kai). It was effectively ineffective, especially when the teaser videos began teasing redundancy over actual substance. The only movements that became significant were EXO’s pre-debut releases, “What Is Love” and “History” – or – the prologue singles.
The thought process behind SM Entertainment’s uncommon debut strategy came from good intentions, but the precision was lacking. After all, EXO is a boy band releasing music, and SM’s tactic lost focus when it failed to adequately highlight the musical value of its product. In this case, when the power of hype was meant to introduce us to something new and exciting, it eventually trapped us in a box of exaggerated familiarity and high expectations.
Today, EXO walks among us, as they debuted last week with their first mini-album, “MAMA“. Ironically, the general expectation about “MAMA” was that it wouldn’t live up to the hype, and it aptly meets that expectation.
“MAMA” is pompous, flashy, and farce, kind of like the Lannisters in “Game Of Thrones“. And while SM Entertainment is flashy in its practices, their promotional push came across over the top in EXO’s debut mini-album, thus leaving very little room for EXO to actually deliver on par with their own hype. It was like we were promised a car for our birthday, but knew that we would only be gifted with the key.
The album’s main thrust is its high production value. It’s the album’s most glowing quality, and interestingly its shortcoming as well. On the one hand, the production is tight, like most SM productions are; the vocal treatment on EXO is beautifully engineered in diverse layers and crisp harmonies, not only to accentuate the rich tonalities of the member’s voices, but to pierce through and balance out the “epic” body of the instrumentals. But consequently, this exact production also comes across extremely compressed and undynamic.
“MAMA,” the title track, is a classic SME barrage of sound a la DBSK‘s “Triangle” and Super Junior‘s “Don’t Don“. The cult chants that start “MAMA” give it a sense of grandeur in its first measures, but they gradually become intrusive and down right excessive by its last. There are plenty of opportunities for the song to gain scope, but instead it caves in on itself as it progressively introduces heavy details (pseudo-screamo) to an already weighty track. In the end, “MAMA” is more of a suffocating take on DBSK’s “Rising Sun” with a quarter of the intensity.
The rest of the mini-album ping-pongs between good and underwhelming. “Two Moons” is a classic K-pop-hop track in that it functions as the playpen for EXO’s rappers to roll in. The song is not particularly bad, but its full value as a rap song peaks at a Disney level.
“Machine“, however, is one of the better moments on the album. Had promo tracks been decided differently, it would have been nice to see “Machine” welcomed on stage as a yin to the yang of “MAMA” (relevant note: “mama” is uttered more times in “Machine” than in “MAMA”). “Machine” is SM pop music at its very best. The song chimes in with gritty nuances, followed by a succession of off-beats and static-y synths played in triplets. It gives the illusion that all of its components are oddly misplaced, but they swiftly find their way to each other in the chorus, and just as quickly disassemble themselves by the second verse, Autobot style.
The best moment in this half-baked album comes by way of “Into Your World“, a ballad. Surprisingly gentle, this song is EXO’s most innocent example of their talent. While it’s sung completely by Baekhyun, D.O., and Su Ho, something about the execution of “Into Your World” feels whole. There are quiet howls and whispers playing in the background that, for the first time in this album, attempts to extend the listening experience beyond its one dimension.
“MAMA” is an over-compressed mini album that leaves very little breathing room for the ear. The quietest moments are sandwiched against the loudest, causing a very intuitive friction to occur as each song unfolds, revealing muddier material to wade through. It’s a tiring mini-album. Even when played at low volumes, “MAMA” feels like a restless caged animal clawing to break free. But the mini-album’s truest faults lie with EXO, who give very spurious performances on nearly every track.
There’s a high level of artificiality woven into the DNA of EXO. Rather than creating idols, SM built machines with really accurate Yoo Young Jin mouthpieces. EXO and their music were designed without heart and life, and what was looked over is the fact that EXO are a bunch of kids. They are a bunch of kids being pushed into incongruent territories on this album, when EXO are clearly not ready yet to take on the molds of perfection that were set for them.