Chances are, even if you didn’t know it at the time, you’ve seen the members of the legendary K-Pop group EXO before. Their musical prowess speaks for itself, but even beyond that, their careers have taken over TV, fashion, celebrity culture, and more in the past year.
Maybe you've seen rapper and multi-instrumentalist Chanyeol, 27, shaking hands with Zendaya at Paris Fashion Week. Or perhaps it was breathtaking dancer and rapper Kai, 25, cracking 7th place on British GQ’s Best-Dressed Men of 2020 list. Or singer and composer Lay, 28, becoming Calvin Klein’s first-ever Chinese global ambassador. You might’ve watched rapper and youngest member Sehun, 25, on Netflix’s detective program Busted, or glimpsed leader and vocalist Suho, 28, waving from the red carpet as an honorary ambassador of the International Film Festival & Awards Macao. These are just a few of the places and memories that stamp the proverbial passport of EXO’s lives this year.
It’s been an equally powerful year musically for EXO too. With two members — Xiumin, 29, and D.O., 26, — currently completing their mandatory military enlistment and Lay promoting in China, the remaining six members of EXO have explored their own individual musical identities in 2019. Power vocalist Chen, 27, released two solo albums that chronicled love and heartbreak through mature, heart-warming ballads, while Baekhyun’s groovy solo album, City Lights, broke the highest monthly sales record for a solo artist in South Korean chart history with over 500,000 copies sold. Sehun and Chanyeol teamed up this summer for the debut of EXO-SC, EXO’s hip-hop sub-unit, while Baekhyun and Kai joined forces to “jump and pop” in SM supergroup SuperM.
As Chen tells Teen Vogue, this year has been “a time for EXO to reflect” on their past, present, and future as they reunite to promote their sixth album Obsession.
It’s December 4th, 2019, and the six members are dressed in thick, woollen, neutral-toned sweaters and trenchcoats to protect themselves from the arctic winds billowing throughout Seoul. There’s a warm camaraderie to their interactions as they laugh amongst themselves and take sips of their iced coffees. The atmosphere feels comfortable and familial, born from an understanding of each other’s mindsets and quirks that has been learned organically over the group’s career.
“It’s been seven years since we debuted and we’ll be hitting eight years next year; that’s a long period of time,” Chen says. His humble, calm demeanor is a balm for the rest of the group who cling to his introspective thoughts. “We reflected on our past journey and tried to make improvements in this new album. It’s been a grateful and fun time.”
This desire to continuously push boundaries both musically and creatively has been at the crux of EXO’s identity since their debut in 2012. Originally split into two groups, EXO-K and EXO-M, EXO performed their shared discography in both Korean and Mandarin in an effort to appeal to two major music markets simultaneously. The groups came together in 2013 to release their debut album, XOXO, and the album’s repackage released later in the year saw EXO’s popularity hit a fever pitch with the funky, dance-pop single “Growl.” Since then, each of EXO’s last five albums have sold over a million copies in South Korea alone, earning them the title “quintuple million sellers.”
The group is not only a staple in South Korea but across the globe too. From performing in front of the world at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics to becoming the first K-Pop group to have their faces projected on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, EXO has stamped their name in the annals of pop history with their devotion toward their music, fans (called EXO-L), and each other. As they’ve matured over the years, that dedication hasn’t wavered.
“In our early years we just played together, whereas now we’ve grown up and matured,” Baekhyun replies. The singer’s personality is brighter than his shining white hair, and he thrives on the reactions to the jokes he makes throughout our chat. “We share a lot about where we’re headed in life, what we want to do for the upcoming album, and discuss how we can come together closer as a team to improve our teamwork.”
That tight-knit teamwork manifested itself in multiple ways throughout this year. From congratulating each other on Instagram like Lay did for Baekhyun’s solo debut to Xiumin and Sehun emceeing Chen’s solo album press conferences, the members have made it a point to support one another with every milestone they achieve, both individually and as a group. It also took center stage as the group embarked on their fifth world tour, Exo Planet #5 – The EXplOration, this July.
Part of the decision to go on tour, according to Suho, is because it makes the fans “happy,” which in turn makes EXO happy; this treasured time spent with fans also one of the reasons why the group worked tirelessly to release their new record in between their jam-packed personal schedules.
“Since the year EXO debuted, we’ve released an album every year. We’ve never skipped a single year,” Suho answers. With attention-grabbing ruby red hair, the leader holds himself with a quiet confidence and classic charm. “Even though it wasn’t a formal promise we made, it’s been a tradition to release an album each year, even if that means we have to make the promotion period short. Everyone’s been having hectic schedules, but it’s very meaningful for us to spend the end of the year with the fans.”
Heavily rooted in the group’s constant state of reinvention, the concept for Obsession sees EXO face off against their evil, superpowered doppelgängers X-EXO. Superpowers have been a common thread that has tied EXO’s music video multiverse together since their debut single “MAMA”, with each member utilizing their own signature power ranging from Chanyeol’s pyrokinesis to Kai’s teleportation abilities. When X-EXO arrives ready to destroy the planet in the group’s music video, the result is an explosive, superhero-style brawl between good and evil that leaves viewers enthralled.
In the lead up to shooting the music video, EXO emphasized the importance for both of their characters to have their own distinct, contrasting identity. While EXO dressed in weathered, straight laced black cargo pants and berets as if ready to march into war, X-EXO celebrated their eccentricities with jewel toned hair colors, white eyelashes, and uniquely cut clothing that bridged the gap between menacing and seductive.
“Our main focus was to draw a big contrast. All of us thoroughly discussed with our makeup and hair artists to bring that contrast, almost to the point of exaggeration,” Chanyeol says. He’s as jovial as his bubblegum pink hair and is openly expressive with his emotions, which light up his face whenever he speaks. “We tried to make X-EXO look very dark. EXO, on the other hand, was the good, righteous EXO like what fans have seen in the past. They came easy and naturally.”
“Like Chanyeol said, we discussed thoroughly with the makeup, hair, and costume team so that you could see the contrast right away,” Kai continues. Conscientious and thoughtful, Kai surveys the older members before answering so he doesn’t interrupt them. “Our attitudes also play a key role because they add to the strong visuals. Since it was a video, we all tried to make our performances convincing. X-EXO showed something that EXO had never done before — something mischievous.”
Amongst the members, X-EXO wins in a landslide over the team they liked the most.
“X-EXO had a stronger visual impact,” Baekhyun explains. “Personally, I wish that we made the plain EXO look cooler. That would have been right, because EXO was supposed to be the revolutionary army against X-EXO! I feel like they were visually weaker; I wish we had expressed more passion as EXO.”
With every album, EXO releases a bold title track that shatters the current K-pop paradigm, like the sinister “Obsession” or the reggae, EDM hybrid track “Ko Ko Bop." The remainder of the tracks on the albums typically allow EXO to explore new genres and make them their own, which range from hip-hop dance tracks like “Ya Ya Ya”, which samples ‘90s vocal trio SWV’s “You’re The One”, to heart-fluttering ballads like “Butterfly Effect."
Kai’s favorite track on the album is “Jekyll," which he loved from the first listen. “It starts off like a sweet R&B song, but the chorus suddenly changes into this shouting, which I think is in line with the duality expressed in the album,” he says. “I immediately thought that we could show a very different type of performance for this song — I can’t wait to perform this on stage and show the fans.”
“I like “Obsession” the most,” Sehun answers. Although under the weather, he makes a point to attend the interview to support his older members. “It was good enough to make the title track, so it’s my favorite.”
Chen picks the dreamy “Groove” because: “I love all the other tracks, but this song made me wonder if I could pull it off when I first heard it because it was such a different genre. It was challenging while recording it, but I love the result. It’s one of the songs that I feel most attached to.”
Chanyeol also fell in love with “Jekyll”, but is also partial to the similarly haunting reggae track “Trouble”. “The song came out to be great; I think we pulled it off pretty well,” he says happily.
“‘Day After Day’ for me,” says Baekhyun. While the other members have been discussing their favorites, he’s been silently exchanging silver rings with Suho. He nicks Chanyeol’s wire-rimmed glasses and puts them up his face backwards, reveling in the laughter he receives. “The song reminds me of a certain type of weather. I like songs that remind me of something — a song with a theme or story. ‘Day After Day’ does that for me.”
“I was going to say the same,” Suho says, shocked. A mischievous grin spreads on Baekhyun’s face. “Stop it,” he teases.
The room is whipped into uncontrollable laughter as Suho jokingly grasps the collar of Baekhyun’s sweater, as if he’s about to wrestle the other singer mid-interview. Suho’s faux fury only makes Baekhyun’s smile grow wider and he lets out a loud ahh, ahh! before Suho lets go.
“It reminds me of rain!” Suho complains, but a smile is working its way across his face too. “That’s because the lyrics have the word ‘rain’ in them,” Baekhyun dryly quips. “Choose something other than ‘Day After Day’,” Kai urges in between laughs. “Day after tomorrow? Two days after tomorrow?” The laughter doubles.
In the end, Suho chooses “Baby You Are." “The song uses band sounds and I really like the sound of the guitar,” he answers, before replying in English: “The intro is the best!” He flashes an assured smile and gives a thumbs up to further prove his point.
“The intro is your part!” Chen lovingly chides. “It’s because you sang that part!”
The most emotional track on the album is “Butterfly Effect," which is a direct callback to the group’s 2013 song “Don’t Go” (which literally translates to “Butterfly Girl”). The song, according to Chanyeol, was selected as a way to thank fans for their unwavering support over the last seven years.
“After viewing the different universes portrayed in EXO’s albums, you’ll be able to see a connection between Obsession and our previous records,” Chanyeol says. “In songs like ‘Don't Go’ and ‘Butterfly Effect’, there are butterflies that resist the Red Force [the canonical evil force mentioned throughout EXO’s music videos] and protect EXO. To us, these butterflies represent our fans, who are always beside us no matter what. They are why and how we exist.”
He continues: “Because of our fans — through their love and support — we are able to overcome any difficulties [we face as a group]. This is probably one of the biggest messages that we wanted to share on this album.”
Prior to their debut seven years ago, the members’ goals for the future were heavily built upon their dream to debut together. Chanyeol recalls that, before they were ever officially called EXO, each member was bonded together by a “common goal to create good music as one” as well as their frequent discussions while training to “work together for a very long time."
“At the time of our debut, we had achieved nothing and everything was up in the air. We talked about working together for a long time, hitting number one on the chart, winning awards, and more,” Kai replies, tone contemplative as he leans closer. “Personally speaking, when we eventually achieved all those goals, I realized, yes, winning awards and being successful is important, but more importantly being able to perform happily as an artist is what mattered the most. There were times when I obsessed over our sales record, stages, and something tangible, but now my goal and dream is to be a happy artist, being satisfied with what I do.”
At the end of Kai’s answer, EXO breaks out into a hearty round of applause. Kai bashfully shines on the encouragement with a soft grin. “He’s like a supervisor,” Baekhyun teases. Chanyeol concurs, “He’s like a CEO!”
Looking ahead, EXO’s goals for the upcoming year aren’t the grandiose, tangible achievements of their youth, but rather to keep the promise they made to each other all those years ago: to make music together for a really long time. “I’m wishing all the members’ health and happiness [in the future],” Chen says.
“Being able to perform for a long time as one, being able to meet the fans for a long time…” Kai reflects. “That’s the most important.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue