It’s been seven years since EXO arrived with 2012’s MAMA EP, and since then the boy band has spent much of its time atop of the South Korean music scene, with hits like 2013’s “Growl” and 2015’s “Love Me Right” setting them up as a dominant act throughout much of Asia. Last month, they unveiled their sixth LP, Obsession, ending the year — and the decade — with both a new sound and a hint towards what the future will bring for the men of EXO.
Fronted by a lead single also dubbed “Obsession,” the 10-track album is bookended by Korean and Chinese versions of the song, which turns the group towards hip-hop-inspired sampling and an intense Auto-tuning, blending their more typical R&B and electro-pop styling with musical elements that at first seem anachronistic and jarring. But it’s the perfect way to set up the story they’re trying to tell.
For EXO, the majority of their musical releases have been tied into fictive narratives revolving around the members and fantastical, sci-fi plot lines, ranging from the extraterrestrial to the supernatural. For Obsession, which peaked at No. 198 on the Billboard 200 chart dated Dec. 14, EXO presented oppositional sides to themselves through a series of teaser images and videos ahead of the album’s release, setting up an epic battle between EXO and their X-EXO clones, which played out in the music video for their single. The song’s apparent disjointment on first listen is meant to go alongside the visual elements, representing a dialogue between the two warring parties.
“Honestly, when we look into a song we think about what kind of performance will work and whether a song will fit the kind of performance we want to put on,” Kai tells Billboard. “So when we heard this song, we thought it was a really good fit in the sense that for the Auto-Tune it matched the idea of the two different EXOs, EXO and X-EXO. The Auto-Tune kind of gives us the vibe of communication between the two different parties having a conversation, so it was a very specific move that we took.” He said he thinks EXO will win the fight, eventually, “Because anytime you watch a movie or read a comic the hero does win. X-EXO is temporary so they’re going to disappear anyway.”
The idea behind the storylines that EXO utilizes to promote their music is to better get their music across to fans — known collectively as EXO-L — and also to better relay content in the age of digital media, where visuals are just as important as audio elements. It’s been something the group has been utilizing since their earliest days, and each member has supernatural powers associated with them that often are featured in their branding. “We’re not just a group that sings and dances,” says Chanyeol. “For people watching us, of course they know the storylines are fake. But like watching a movie, it’s another way for people to fall for us more deeply. It gives people a back story about how we were formed. Our storyline isn’t just incorporated into our music or videos, but it’s incorporated really well into our concerts as well. We do feel that it really allows people to become properly immersed.”
Kai and Chanyeol are two of six EXO members that participated in the album, alongside Baekhyun, Chen, Sehun, and Suho, following the enlistment of Xiumin and D.O. in South Korea’s military, fulfilling the country’s mandatory draft requirements, and Lay focusing on a solo career in China. The six other, younger, members are expected to similarly enlist and take temporary hiatuses from the industry in the near future.
The new dynamic has given EXO’s members opportunities to explore different sides of themselves, and Chanyeol says that it’s also opened their eyes to how they work together and cover for one another in case of any issues. Each member “has to pull their weight so whether in singing or dance, there are parts that won’t be hidden,” he says. “It would be a really big problem [if we made a mistake] because it would be really obvious.” For Suho, who serves as EXO’s leader, the diminishing numbers makes him reflective. “The fact that we’re unable to perform with all the members is a little bit sad, so when we look at old videos we do feel like, ‘Oh, there are a lot of members in the group’ and we’d like to come together as a full group.”
As all able-bodied South Korean men are expected to take time off from their lives to fulfill the country’s draft requirements, EXO knows it will be seeing more such changes in the near future, and the act will likely not look the way it once did for sometime. But rather than dwell on the past, the men of EXO are looking towards the future, and 2019 saw many of them work on alternative projects, where it was releasing solo music, such as Chen, Baekhyun, Xiumin, and D.O., or working with new units, like Sehun and Chanyeol’s EXO-SC and Baekhyun and Kai in SuperM, along with numerous other professional activities. “We’ve received so much love for our units and solo projects, but at the end of the day the most important thing is the team and group’s performances,” says Baekhyun. “The fact that we’re able to show all these different sides to us also allows us to show different sides of EXO as a group and show how diverse we are, and how each of us have our own talents.”
When asked how they feel about their career over the past decade and what they hope for the future, Chanyeol responds that the members of EXO feel that they’re focusing on the present and facing each moment on its own. “To be honest, when we do interviews when we’re working we realize that as a group we’ve become very comfortable. Rather than us having to go out of our way to go do something, it’s become very natural for us. It’s grown with time and come naturally, this sense of maturity.”
Though EXO and X-EXO battle it out over the Obsession album, the duality of the release is also reflected in the members’ struggles to explore their identities as individuals beyond the act: how to be both a member of EXO and a man in his own right. As EXO have grown in their career, they have also grown up: youngest member Sehun debuted as a teenager but is now 25-years-old. Unfortunately ill on the day of the interview, he was silent throughout much of the discussion and his health hung over the act like a cloud, with frequent references to how, as they get older, they need to take care of themselves better. “These days, seeing that our physical health is part of our workload, I feel that a healthy life, health in general, is very important,” says Baekhyun. “Rather than thinking about more of what we can do to grow as a group, I feel that we all have begun to focus on seeking individual happiness. Right now, a lot of our focus is on how each person is able to find their own happiness and health, and use that when we come together as a group to move in the right direction.”
Suho echoes this, saying that their branching out as individuals beyond the group is a way to take care of themselves as individuals after years of focusing on the collective well-being. “In the past, EXO’s schedule didn’t allow a lot of individual talents to be focused on but starting from the beginning of this year we were given the time to really focus on ourselves, whether it was internally or externally. It’s not just us as a group, but I think everybody needs that kind of self-care. It was good for everybody.”
Even as they focus on themselves, the group is still the focal point of EXO’s identity. “We came together, got very close, and without the passion that we had as a group I don’t think we would have made it as far as we have come,” reflects Baekhyun. “When it comes to being satisfied, as people I think that we’re never 100% satisfied.” This passion towards improving and always seeking something closer and closer to perfection, but recognizing that is impossible and that there is always something more to be done, is emphasized by the members’ responses when asked what their obsessions are: Kai says he’s a workaholic, and Chanyeol says his competitive nature is to the degree that it could be considered an obsession. (Meanwhile, Baekhyun’s obsessed with games, and Kai jokes that Sehun is obsessed with alcohol, as it is well-known he’s one of the group’s members who enjoys drinking.)
One place where Chanyeol at the very least is satisfied in is EXO’s music. “When it comes to our music, I’m 100% confident that we release quality music,” he says with pride. “It’s almost like we’re not following trends but we don’t fall back behind either.” He and Sehun tried to push their artistic side in a new direction with EXO-SC’s What a Life EP in July, and there was a bit of a negative response from some fans over the title song’s music video, which featured the pair partying it up with female dancers. But he says it’s all good, as there’s no moving forward without trying new things, and it’s always good to hear differing opinions. “We wanted to do something drastically different. You could say it was so completely different from what EXO typically releases. It was a very dramatic challenge for us, and even though there was some backlash from fans, for me personally it was a big motivating factor, that I need to show more new sides and that there are many new challenges to take on.”
It’s important to EXO that their audience takes in all the different sides to themselves that they have to offer, and Chen says he hopes that listeners recognize that there’s a difference between an artist releasing a single and an album. “If you listen to the whole album beyond ‘Obsession,’ you’ll recognize that all of the songs are good,” he says; his personal favorite is “Groove.” “I feel that there is a tendency that people just listen to the title track, but it would be really great if people can listen to the whole album because every song is really great.”
Moving forward, EXO knows they’re shifting into a new era of their career, but they express a desire to always remain as one. “I hope that EXO is able to continue just the way it does right now, but beyond the group I hope that each individual member is able to find his own happiness,” says Baekhyun. “We may not go on music performance shows all the time in 10 years, but we hope that we can release albums here and there. In that we can all live our own lives and come together, happily, as a group.” He pauses, and adds with a wry expression, “I think that in 10 years, hopefully we’ll be able to release something like a ballad or an R&B-heavy song where we can just stand around rather than dance.” Other members quickly jump in and refute this though. “That’s not EXO’s thoughts, that’s Baekhyun’s thoughts,” Sehun says with a laugh, while Chanyeol adds that he hopes EXO is “a very cool group” 10 years down the road; Kai adds that he would like to continue dancing as long as his body allows for it.
“As time passes, like our members, our fans are going to start pursuing their own lives as well,” says Kai. “As they fall into their own lives, when they suddenly have a thought of EXO, I hope that one thought that comes to their mind is, ‘It was a really good memory being their fan.’” Suho echoes this, repeating “A good memory” in English with a nod of his head. Baekhyun agrees with this desire for their time together with fans to be thought of warmly, but follows up with the suggestion that the idea of being a memory, while heartwarming, is limiting. “I really hope that we aren’t a group that is remembered as a group that’s part of the past, because when you think of that you think about these groups that don’t really promote and they don’t really do anything as a team. I hope that, whether individually or as a group, we continue to promote and that the name of EXO can continue to grow.”