Hey, everyone! I know it’s been a while, but I’m back with another Annotated Listening! This time, I’m reviewing EXO’s first sub-unit, EXO-CBX, and their debut mini-album, “Hey Mama!”.
A show of hands: How many of you are feeling this one from the reigning kings of K-Pop? As a self-declared Chen stan, I came away pretty satisfied with this mini-album. I can’t say I care for it more than EXO’s original music, though, but it does provide a fun departure into styles that wouldn’t necessarily work for the nine members as a whole.
The One [3:29]
+ I doubt I’m the only one, but at this point, I don’t need to read the liner notes of SM’s releases to know when I’m listening to a LDN Noise production. LDN Noise has taken over the airwaves of 2016, and their reign isn’t letting up anytime soon. With that said, I will admit that some of the tracks they worked on recently haven’t done a lot for me; “All Mine” by f(x) and “Lotto” by EXO are just a couple of examples. On the other hand, LDN Noise has also provided complete home runs to balance out those duds, which include the likes of “Red Dress,” “View,” and “4 Walls” by Red Velvet, SHINee, and f(x), respectively. So where does “The One” fall among this mix? For me, it’s somewhere in between.
The opening banter between Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin in “The One” hints at a playful intro track, a-la something Super Junior would record, but the song doesn’t get 15 seconds in before the guys are relegated to perform on overdone EDM stunts and clichés. I understand that SM is up to their neck in EDM right now, and the company has, more or less, churned out badass electronic dance music I’ve enjoyed listening to. But there are times still, like with this song, when there’s a disconnect between the group performing and the beat.
Like I’ve mentioned on the socials before, this again feels like the group – in this case, EXO-CBX – is only here to make the beat sound good rather than the two elements functioning in harmony, and it’s noticeable when the song hits pockets of emptiness. For example, the first verse is notably weak and hollow. Perhaps it’s meant to sound that way, stylistically, but it lacks impact, and so I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t translate very well in the live stage either. Later in the song, at the 2:40 mark, the breakdown practically screams, “Hey! Listen to my cool electronic interlude! There’s nothing actually climactic about it, we just stripped away the vocals, but yo isn’t it just the coolest!” The K-Pop aspects and EDM foundation never quite gel together on this one, but luckily, EXO-CBX is EXO-CBX, and they still kill it on “The One” whenever possible.
For instance, I love everything about the second verse. It just flows so much better. Baekhyun sounds amazing here, and when the song speeds up, Xiumin’s rapid-fire lines that follow play really well against everything else that’s happening. Chen, of course, sounds great, though I think he’s had better moments on an EDM track than this (“Years,” specifically).
Overall, I have a more positive response to “The One” than a negative one. The instrumental is a bit phoned in for me, as there’s nothing special about it to my ears, but the melodies and interesting twists and turns keep it afloat enough for me to want to listen to it again.
Hey Mama! [3:20]
+ Let’s talk about the members for a second.
You have Chen, known powerhouse singer, Lord of Haus of High Notez, and the clear lead vocalist of this sub-unit. He gobbles up quite a bit of lines in this mini-album, or at least all of the lines that you’re going to remember. Then there’s Baekhyun, whose rich timbre and weighted singing acts as something of an anchor in the vocal line. He’s the glue. He neutralizes the group and dominates a lot of the meat in this sandwich. And finally, we have Xiumin – sweet, sweet Xiumin – who is thrown in here for funsies and not much else, honestly. Xiumin could be considered the “rapper,” but then Baekhyun also “raps,” sooo …
What I’m trying to say is that all in all this is a solid combination, even if Xiumin falls a bit short. Each member plays their part. No one really goes too out of their comfort zone, except for maybe Baekhyun, who tackles different rhythmic phrasings and tonalities here that he doesn’t normally in the original EXO lineup. One of the best examples of this combo in prime action is, of course, with their lead single.
Simply put, “Hey Mama!” is fantastic. There really isn’t much about it that I dislike or would want to be done differently. Each member shines in their unique way, though I will say that if anyone got the short end of the stick, it’s Xiumin. While he has his moments on “Hey Mama!”, like at the beginning of the second verse, he is quickly overshadowed by the two other voices he’s competing with. One section in particular that finds Xiumin getting swallowed whole by one of his teammates is from 2:55 to the end of the song. Xiumin is singing the lead in the song here, but you also have Chen going awf with ad-libs. He gets lost completely for a second there, and it happens quite often; not only with this single but in other areas of this mini-album. It can’t be easy to stand out next to such formidable singers like Baekhyun and Chen, but I think Xiumin performs valiantly.
Rhythm After Summer [3:29]
+ “Rhythm After Summer” is the strongest song off this mini-album, and it’s in large part to how well all of its elements gel together. Unlike “Hey Mama!”, it also justifies Xiumin’s talent as a singer. He’s not just up in this bitch for transitional purposes. He sounds so good! He might not belt his face off, but his timbre makes a beautiful pair with Chen’s voice.
One of the highlights in “Rhythm After Summer” starts around 2:20. There’s a clear shift to an airy, melodic build up here that involves some angelic singing from all three members. It’s blissful as fuck and if I could change anything I just wish Xiumin took most of this chunk of the song for himself because I think he has a nice falsetto and I could definitely use more of it.
By the way, I find it funny that Baekhyun has to sing a bit higher to stabilize the vocal line in this song, which is out of the norm for him. I’m pleasantly surprised, actually, by his flexibility throughout this project. Baekhyun is one of the most talented dudes in K-Pop right now. I know I’m all about Chen and I could go the fuck off about him, but I have to give credit where credit is due. Baekhyun continues to prove that he’s more than capable of taking on any style of song and nail it. This mini-album is evident that he’s comfortable enough to push himself as a singer, and I think it’s paying off.
+ The overall vibe to this mini-album is groovy, lite-disco with a splash of electronic nuance, and “Juliet” continues that train of thought beautifully. Of all of the songs on this mini-album, I think this one hits closest to an original EXO mid-tempo rather than something designed for a sub-unit. I can almost hear the rest of EXO singing “Juliet” and, honestly, I wish I did. Could you imagine D.O singing parts of this?! Fuuuuck.
– There had to be a filler track, right? Not that “Cherish” is a bad song or anything, but I just don’t find it memorable or as strong as the rest of this tracklist. They could have maybe attempted another EDM track to balance out “The One,” OR even thrown in an a cappella number. I would die a happy death if I could hear these three singing a cappella at least once in my life.
In Short: Hey Mama! – The First Mini Album is a collection of groovy songs sung by some of the strongest male vocalists in the game. If you’re a fan of any one of these EXO members, you’re going to enjoy the fact that there are more lines distributed among them.