"XOXO", thank heavens, is a focused, technically competent album that is able to show off the group's strengths, all while giving them enough room to breathe, and to come into their own. And that's what I think a debut release should be -- that's what I think EXO should've began with. They are (were?) a rookie group, and while I don't agree with the "they're rookies and they should be excused for all their mistakes" mindset, I do think that rookies need material that will enhance all their strong points, not overpower them and leave them struggling to catch up with the song. Yes, EXO is being pushed as this "super group", but at the end of the day they are people with strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of the rookie period, in my opinion, is to play up those strengths, not strain them. And I still think "MAMA" and "Wolf" were more straining than they were helping.
The rest of this album though, is an absolute joy to listen to. Though generic around the edges, and dynamic in terms of quality, the rest of "XOXO" achieves what it set out to prove, and does so with a slowly-building, but visible, identity, and some genuinely gorgeous songs. Each of the tracks has proven something, and almost all of them have dispelled many of my initial issues and doubts with EXO as a musical entity, which made listening to this even better.
"Baby Don't Cry" is gripping to say the least. As a whole it's gentle, quiet at times even, but it's also very well-done. When I first heard it I was a bit underwhelmed (and also hung-over with frustration because of "Wolf"), especially because this was the song I was waiting for the most. First because I loved it in the teaser last year, and second because I found out that Andrew Choi wrote it (he may be boring at times, but he has good taste). I was proven wrong quickly enough though, because by the time the chorus hit I was sold. "Baby Don't Cry" is a gorgeous song on it's own, as notes on a score it's convincingly graceful -- that melody is enough to carry the entire song, and the arrangement slowly builds up and doesn't falter once it reaches its peak. But beyond that, as a recording, as a performance, this song is the epitome of what I want from EXO -- a song that is strong on its own, technically and aesthetically strong, but which also leaves room for the performers to bring a part of themselves to the performance. It's tight, it's sure of itself, but that conviction only makes it easier for "Baby Don't Cry" to let EXO take the reigns. A confident song is not afraid of what the delivery might do to it, so it has no reason to overpower the performers. (as was the case with "Wolf")
Personally though, "Don't Go" was the song that made me genuinely smile the first time I listened to the album. It's so effortlessly gorgeous, despite being slightly generic. The melody is stunning, so much so that it was all I needed to be convinced. But apart from the gorgeous melody at the surface, "Don't Go" has a grace to it that's almost impossible to miss. It's very gentle, yes, but it's not flat -- again, it's sure of what it is and what it's capable of. The vocals are very rounded, very full, which can also tend to get boring at times, but in the song's case that roundness is countered by a crisp and equally gorgeous instrumental, which makes use of piano, a heavy but crisp percussion loop, and thin synth loops. "Don't Go" is proof that gentleness does not mean weakness or a lack of conviction, and that EXO are more than capable of pulling that off.
I liked "3.6.5." when I first heard it, and I think this is the song on the album that's there for the sole purpose of being pretty. The same goes with "Peter Pan". That's not always a bad thing, because to me, okay filler tracks are better than badly-executed good ideas. "3.6.5." sounds like a One Direction song at times, but as a song it's not half bad. It's perky, it's lively, and convincing. "Peter Pan" may be borderline cheesy, but under the cheesiness the melody is genuinely pretty, the piano line laced with the drum line is potentially goose bump-inducing, and that electric guitar in the background gives the song some kick. Unlike other albums which slack off during filler tracks, "XOXO" doesn't -- you can still hear the conviction in the performances, and the songs themselves do have their quirks. They're pretty songs, and even if they're not the strongest on all fronts, they're not ashamed of what they are.
It took some time for me to warm up to "Heart Attack", but now I adore it. It's a step up from the monotony of "Black Pearl", which also makes it a step up in terms of dynamics. They're slightly more evident in "Heart Attack", but at the same time the stark contrast between the monotonous and dynamic of "Black Pearl" creates more friction, which "Heart Attack" has less off. I like it for what it is though -- it flows very well, and in all the right places. In this case, the auto tune serves more as embellishment than a mask, as it should. It makes the song trendier, but I really, really like that it being trendy wasn't an excuse to slack off on the details of song itself. The dynamics are well-delivered, as shown by that gorgeous middle 8, the verses are intense in a livelier way, and the chorus is that nonchalant kind of explosion that can easily turn into arrogance, but which stays nonchalant and effortless in "Heart Attack".
"Baby" follows in the footsteps of "Baby Don't Cry" in being that R&B mid-tempo, complete with boy band harmonies. And while it's not as striking as "Baby Don't Cry", it's a gorgeous song carried by another subdued by technically strong melody. This is one of the songs on the album that I would go out of my way to listen to again, because while it's also similar to the two "fillers", the melody is strong and interesting enough to carry the song beyond the "just pretty".
After listening to "XOXO", I no longer doubt why they're being pushed as a "strong" group, because the album has shown me that they are capable of standing on their own, I only disagree with their choice of lead singles. I think a common theme in the album is that a lot of the material isn't necessarily ground-breaking, but not only are they the better kinds of generic, they're also well-done. By giving them something like "the classics", EXO are delivering the rudiments, the foundations, and therefore showing off what they can, and can't (but more so what they can), pull off. We all start with the foundations, and "XOXO" is EXO doing just that, and doing it successfully. The album has already shown small, but audible, signs of identity, despite a very "classic boy band" repertoire.
My favorite: "Black Pearl"
Song(s) I'd listen to again: "Baby Don't Cry", "Don't Go", "Let Out The Beast", "Heart Attack"
My least favorite: "Wolf"
The final verdict: 4.3/5