Though members of EXO have kept busy with solo projects and sub-units, it feels like forever since we’ve been treated to a full comeback from the group. Their new album, ‘Don’t Mess Up My Tempo‘, has a wonderful title, promising a playground of shifting percussion and dynamic energy. This tone contrasts with the subdued “Ko Ko Bop“, which led the campaign for their last full album. As a huge fan of EXO’s music since debut, I’ve been crossing my fingers for a comeback pitched somewhere between the futuristic drama of their 2012 material and the glossy funk-pop of their 2015 singles. Perhaps I set my expectations a bit too specific.
When it comes down to it, “Tempo” is an easier song to appreciate than fully lose yourself in. I applaud its willingness to paint outside the lines of common pop song structure. This brazenness pays tribute to SM Entertainment’s long history of genre-mixing and complexity. My favorite SM song of all time is (probably) TVXQ’s immortal “Rising Sun“, which owes much of its appeal to a “Bohemian Rhapsody“-esque web of shifting textures and melodic themes. On a surface level, “Tempo” utilizes that same technique. The problem is, none of its pieces are quite as gratifying as they should be. Barring the extended acapella bridge — a ballsy move, for sure — the song never finds its footing for more than a few moments.
“Tempo”’s pre-release roll-out has been centered on a motorcycle theme, and that turns out to be a perfect analogy for the track. Most of “Tempo” feels like the moments when a motorcycle is revving up. Its instrumental sputters and lurches in preparation for take off. But despite some funk-infused hip-hop verses, the track’s potential is continuously thwarted by a chorus that inhibits the energy with a repetitive hook and chilled out, future bass inspired production.
Not every song has to have a huge, megawatt chorus, but with a title like “Tempo” I expected something a little more robust. Its verses are stronger, calling back to the group’s “Love Me Right” days with an added dose of funk bass and sharp percussion that shines welcome spotlight on the group’s rappers. The pitch-shifting vocal effects don’t feel necessary (they were used better in Red Velvet’s “Red Flavor“), but that aforementioned bridge helps compensate for the belt-it-out vocal firepower that the first two-thirds of “Tempo” lacks. What the track is missing, then, is the kind of instant-classic melody that has characterized EXO’s best work. You can throw all the genre-bashing, momentum-shifting tricks over the surface, but if they’re not enhancing an already-strong song, there’s a limit to how far the final product can go. Then again, “Ko Ko Bop” proved to be a slow-burn grower last year. I could see this doing the same. There are simply too many fun little production flourishes lurking within all the insanity for “Tempo” to fade from memory anytime soon.