When you’re down two members thanks to mandatory military service, what’s a K-pop boy band to do? Answer: Bring out your evil clones and craft an album drawing upon their unsettling energy.
With the release of 2019’s Obsession LP, EXO went further into the dark, daring territory they touched upon in past B-sides such as “Artificial Love,” introducing us to X-EXO and adding atypical sounds to their deep discography before diving straight into feel-good funk and ballads. With assists from a global coterie of producers and songwriters who brought reggae, Bossa nova, ’90s R&B and Gap Band-inspired funk to the table, EXO perfected their formula and highlighted both sides of the EXO moon.
Below, learn what went into the band’s latest LP from the producers and songwriters who worked on it.
Dem Jointz: We all know the original record was called “Spend It All,” right? [The original meaning was] “If you really want this, then prove it. If you’re really about what I’m about, then put in the work.” I love to oxymoron my music to where it’s like, you’re talking about love and hope for tomorrow, but then the music sounds like sorrow and anger. Gotta give them that contrast sometimes!
It was a demo record that I created, I produced, and wrote and co-wrote with Stalone and Asia’h Epperson. We were working on a project that didn’t complete, so it just end[ed] up being a demo that’s pretty much just sitting around. I always loved the song, so when we got a chance to press play for SM Entertainment, we played that song and I guess that’s the jam that they fell in love with. I’m assuming they always wanted to cut that record. So they had it for a while [since 2016]; I think they were trying to figure out who was gonna cut what and the structure of everything.
The beat that I wanted to create, I definitely wanted to have a piercing sample of some sort that repeats over and over and over again — I didn’t necessarily know what it was gonna be. The “I want you” part is what I was really looking for. Didn’t know that it was actually gonna be “I want you” — I just wanted something to be piercing and repetitive, and then I’ll make the track over that. That’s how I actually started the song. So Stalone actually got on the mic and just said “I want you” — I think she actually said “I want you bad,” but I think we just cut the “I want you” and then created a beat off of that. I just went on and created a loop and then created the whole song around that.
“Obsession” — that’s not based off the hook or the chorus. It was based off of a foundation of [the] sample. The main part that I fell in love with initially was the verses in the pre-chorus. Of course, I knew that I had to change it up and go somewhere else — “Let’s go ahead and figure something else out in terms of the hook, let’s get more musical on that side” — but that didn’t happen until we set the foundation of what that beat was.
I placed a record with EXO a couple of years back called “Cloud 9,” so I’m familiar with them based off of what I’ve done with them in the past. So when they told me that EXO was cutting, I was like “What? Yeahhh!”
The last record was dope, but it was cute. I felt like, “Let’s do some bad boy shit,” you know what I’m saying? “Let’s crack windows.” That’s what I would like to see in terms of what my music is doing, especially if we’re going after a single. I wanna break windows, I wanna jump off roofs.
During the verses and the B section, there’s a rhythm-type grungy guitar loop. It’s not even to where it really has too much of a melody, it just [growling noises] — it just does something like that! But you know how certain instruments, whether it makes sense or not, sometimes give you a feeling. Those are the things that you can’t ignore — if it gives you a feeling, it’s probably supposed to be there. During the rhythm of that track, it probably gives everyone that same feeling it gave me when I created it. It didn’t make any sense to me, but it felt good, you know what I mean?
It was definitely going to be grimy; it was definitely going to be dark. I think that, for the most part, if we’re looking for a big record, I always go to something that’s going to be hard-hitting, something dark, disturbing. Anything else that’s gonna be melodic or beautiful, we’ll add on top. I always wanna be grimy, I always wanna be muddy, I always want [my music to be] a real punch in the chest.
Adrian McKinnon: I wasn’t there in the initial stages — it was actually brought to me through some of the SM reps, and I remember they gave me some notes on what they were looking for in the song. So a lot of it was complete already — at least the idea that they liked. They sent me a partially complete version of the song, like with the verse, some idea of the chorus was there, and they just wanted to bring it home, so they just asked me to finalize it. So I did verse two, some of the bridge stuff, and a lot of those transitional portions and trying to get everything to gel together.
I’m a vocal producer most of the time. The way I usually work is I just analyze the song — what’s happening chord progression-wise, and in this particular case, what was the original melody already doing? A unique thing about EXO, a lot of the time with their sound you hear in other songs like “Monster” for example, a lot of their songs have a minor-on-major or major-on-minor blend. Like this song starts out really dark, but you’ll hear major chords pop up every now and again. That was just a matter of trying to take advantage of, “Okay, this is the theme, let’s play with that some more.” The melody in the bridge goes to a really warm major moment, because a lot of it was so dark, just to give that contrast — ’cause bridges are supposed to give you that contrast.
The transitions in between going from the verse into the chorus — that actually just had to reverse out. But when you go from the chorus into [the] second verse when the rap starts, you have these empty spaces. There’s a lot of collaboration between “Are we gonna leave this open or are we gonna try to put something there?” We ended up deciding on just leaving that open space for a second, let them dance it out — ’cause these boys can dance.
“Superhuman” was a song that had those thick chords on it, there was “Jopping” that had those thick chords on the bridge, and so at one point I was like, “Maybe I should not do this every single time to let the people know that I have more than just one thing.” And matter of fact, for “Jopping,” I had a cascading harmony situation — it wasn’t all one wall of chords. I guess it was changed at the end when they did the post-work; I had staggered notes to build-up that chord. Then for [“Obsession,”] I didn’t do it at all — I just wanted to do one lone, naked high note, ’cause everybody loves a good high note in the bridge. But they were like, “Hey, we need that wall of harmonies!” So when I heard the final version, those harmonies came through. I can’t take credit, ’cause it did sound good, but I can’t take credit for that. It was a good move on their part! That’s another thing about working with SM is you’ve got this team of people that really know what they want. But yeah, that one wasn’t me. [Laughs] I did that bridge, I had the one high note, and I was like, “Okay, they’re gonna love it!” But then when I heard the final, I was like, “Oh, okay, alright! No problem!” [Laughs]
Bobii Lewis: “Trouble” initially came together in Korea — I was in Seoul at the SM building. I believe it was November  or December; I just remember it being very cold. The vibe started instantly for me, because Jin had started with just the chords.
Jin is one of my favorite producers in the world, period, and I’ve worked with a bunch of different people from around the world. When I hear his stuff, I feel like I’m in his world. Jin knows with me, as soon as the chord’s great, I don’t even need drums, I can start writing, ’cause that’s what I instantly do first in the music.
With “Trouble,” the concept is the idea of the thing that maybe you shouldn’t be doing — like the cheeky or the naughty thing that you shouldn’t be doing. It’s about finding that girl that [doesn’t] mind their little bit of recklessness, their little bit of trouble.
I grew up on — we all grew up on music where, by the time you get to the hook, it’s like [sings the chorus of “I Will Always Love You”]. Whereas now, we’ve got understated hooks that are just as powerful. When I’m leading with that hook, the persona that they’re taking on… I’m looking at them like, “Huh, you lot are so cool, you got so much swag, so we don’t even need [you] to sing your heart away for the whole track.” As it comes to the hook, it’s half between a rap and a singing pocket — it’s almost like talking-singing. That way, they can be cool and swaggy with it, and they don’t have to look like veins are popping out of their neck just for you to like the hook. I just felt it would be a lot cooler if they were relaxed on the record. I just feel like it fits their characters, you know? Someone actually questioned me about changing some bits of the hook, and I actually fought for it to stay the way it was, purely based on the fact that I just didn’t want to overkill it by having some big vocal in the hook.
The way that I got into [K-pop] was when I was shown a couple videos and I was like, “Wow.” The quality and the effort that’s gone into this reminds me of the ’90s, when they used to put this into almost every act. As people started making less money, in the Western world, labels would be happy if you put out a video for a grand and paid the producer a grand and made loads of money. But with SM, I felt like, “You actually care about the longevity of your artists, and I can see that you’re going for the long haul.”
Karen Poole: It was my third trip to Seoul, to SM, and I went down for a writing camp there. I got put in the room with my friend Jin, who’s amazing, and Bobii Lewis, another co-writer who’s also from the U.K. When we first started it, we didn’t really think it was gonna turn out to be anything very good, because we were struggling a little bit. You know what happened, actually — when we finished [“Trouble”], we thought the song was great, but it just didn’t feel quite right yet. And then Jin went away overnight and basically reinvented the production. When he came back the next day, we were like, “Oh my God, it just sounds so great.” Then we came back and we were like, “Actually, maybe we should do this with the verses,” and “Maybe we should change up the flow a little bit.” We were in a different place with it, but when he came back with this production, it just flipped everything. Jin — he introduces things at certain moments in the production where we just feel — it’s quite arresting, it gives us a sense of we don’t really know what’s gonna happen next. [Laughs]
[In terms of songwriting,] Bobii kind of writes his verses by himself, and I was involved with the pre-chorus and chorus, and I had the idea of the title. It was total teamwork — we all had our say in the topline.
Bobii kinda does his thing. I’m such a fan of Bobii, so I completely trust him with how he approaches it. But of course when it comes to the parts where we need to be a bit more open, we need to create that earworm, that’s when I can then put what I think is gonna work. I’ve been writing music for years and years, and I’m very pop, so I bring a pop quality to everything. Then Bobii — he’s gritty, he’s edgy. And so that’s why it changes up a little bit in the phrasing for sure. That was kind of intentional, ’cause we knew we couldn’t just stay on that verse area — we had to open to somewhere interesting.
Jin By Jin: The track was written at [an] SM/Ekko Camp, and it was written at the end of , actually. [I’ve known] Karen and Bobii for years, and we’ve been working together [for] so long. Bobii and Karen [are] always really friendly — great friends. It’s very intangible energy in there for me that actually brings a lot of inspiration. Karen is a queen of pop — big ’90s pop star in [the] UK, and Bobii’s been really active in making strong stands in UK[‘s] urban scene. He’s very unique and very talented — he can sing, he can rap, and also, he has this really particular reggae influence. So having that sense with pop, urban, and reggae, I [felt] like we should bring those genres into one song. Of course when you listen to a lot of SM songs, it has to have some type of distinctive riff or sound, and in this case, it was a bass riff that starts with the intro. That bass riff is actually really hollow — it sounds really [lonely.] That bass glide makes all the sentiment of the song.
I just wanted to grab attention so that people actually can mimic the sound and then sing along with it. And if we [could] nail the theme in the topline on top of that four-bar loop, then I thought we were gonna be done [in] a short time. So that 808 bass glide — dun dun, dun dun — Bobii was freestyling on it. But the way he raps is quite different, because he puts the melody on top of what he’s rapping. Of course, there are a lot of singing rappers in the scene, but I think in this case, Bobii was more of a singer than rapper — putting more fast-paced melod[ies]. And then Karen comes with a beautiful topline in the pre-chorus, and then we just had to have an explosive part in the chorus. Step by step, it was [a] really natural process. SM really, really liked it, so they [held] it.
We wrote [“Trouble” in] a day, and then I took a half day to finish up production, and I kinda flipped the production a little bit more so that we have more distinctive parts here and there. So [the] middle eight — we call it “bridge” — was a little bit different, but I just wanted to have a surprising effect with the reggae twist. People were used to listening [to] this trappy vibe and draggy production up until [the] second chorus — I was just thinking, “What if I do the reggae guitar on top of it?” We left it alone — I didn’t put it into the section yet. But then when I finished the production and put the reggae part, it totally made sense.
EXO — in terms of the characteristics of their musicality, it’s very wide. As a producer, it is always a challenge, but still, it is always fun. When it comes to production, I always start with the “what if?” My first credit was [as] a film composer for film and documentaries and commercials. I like to use classical instruments here and there, so since the chorus was so epic and the pre-chorus was so beautiful, I was thinking, “What if I just used classical instruments here and there to make it more exotic and more epic?” [That] instrumentation was done in the later stage after the session, because it was more adding parts than writing the topline itself. That was another twist: the classical strings arrangement.
There are some sounds we recorded [in] real-time: some clap or snap sound, and then some type of talking sound, and I put that into the filter. When you hear the production, there’s a wobble sound in the background — that makes the groove. It was actually made with the recordings.
We divided [recording] into two sessions. I just wanted to capture each individual member with a different characteristic, because obviously every member has different roles. Chanyeol has been more of a rapper — he said this probably is one of the highest [notes] he hit when it comes to EXO songs. He’s got that husky voice — when he hit the chorus notes, I said to him, “This sounds great! You should do this more often!” It was actually coming from his chest, and he was really clear in that note. Chen — I think he just did two or three takes on that last note — the really high note, the ad-lib. When he hit the note [the first time], I was like, “Okay, we’re done! You’re good to go!” Chen actually insisted — “Jin, can I do one more, just for luck?” And then he did that, I’m like, “Okay, we’re done!” He goes, “Okay, one last one!” We did [it] three times, and I’m like, “Wow, you can sing, bro.” Baekhyun, he’s incredible. When he did the ad-libs here and there, it was incredible. Chen and Baekhyun all the harmonies — they didn’t know the harmony notes, they just listened to the harmonies there and they did [it] perfectly. Suho was incredible with his really soft voice, and his approach to the song was incredible. Sehun was bouncy, and he was trying to come up with [what-ifs] — “What if we do that and that?” We tried to keep that off-beat rap and off-beat groove, and since he’s a rapper and dancer, he wanted to create his interpretation of the song. Kai [had] really strong character — he tried to understand [“Trouble”]. [He said,] “I wanted to do more” — he wanted to really push. I’m like, “Dude, you did incredible, what can you do more?” “I don’t know, I just wanted to do more, do better!” All the members were so into the song, and we had a good time.
Kaelin Ellis: So this track came together around the month of May. I had a buddy of mine, Tay Jasper, who writes for EXO, hit me up. The first time I had hung out with him, I remember playing all these beats before a show, and so he was like, “Would you ever be down to do a songwriting camp or a placement thing?”
I remember hearing about [EXO] back when “Ko Ko Bop” dropped — I remember playing that religiously. I’ve definitely known about K-pop — I didn’t know about any of the groups, but EXO was like the only one that has this soul to it. So when I got the invite, I was like, “Dude, yes!” I dropped the phone. EXO has always been on my bucket list.
So the month of May comes, and he gets all these really talented singers and artists and other producers from all over the planet that he knew personally for a songwriting camp in Korea. Prior to the camp, I had made all these tracks and the one that they used for “Jekyll,” I remember I started that idea way back in January of . It just [was on] the back of my hard drive. Didn’t really think anything of it — it wasn’t even fully built. It just had the drums and this little melody, and I just thought it was a little annoying, so I just left it on my hard drive.
I remember it was the first day of the camp, and they were trying to get a couple of the A&Rs to listen to the music. I remember I played the beat from way back in January. I was like, “I’ll just save it up for the camp.” I remember I played it and EXO’s A&R comes in and sits down, and they have all the other people from SM sitting down, everybody’s in the room, so Jasper’s like, “Play the beat and play it early!”
I play the beat and EXO’s A&R — I just remember his face. His face lit up and his mouth dropped. I think I played the rest of the beat all the way up to the chorus and he was like, “Out of any of the music you finish, finish that one by the end of this week.” And then he walked out of the room.
I’ve made a lot of tracks before, but I didn’t think it was as good as the stuff I made before. I remember Tay was like, “Alright, let me at least lay down a rough version.” We were working on another song prior for the camp, but he had recorded a little bit of the vocal memo of it at the end of the night, ’cause we had stayed up all night working on this song before. He recorded the vocal memo and literally that was it for the rest of the week. We started working on a bunch of other songs after that, so we had totally forgotten about this song, to be honest.
My other homie Jordan recorded one other memo for the hook as well. And then I was like, “Alright, let’s just call it a night.” Literally the very next day we had all these other songs with a bunch of other writers that we were working on.
When I was working on the beat back in January — I have like two different versions of the same exact beat, but I remember I had never really written for K-pop before, so I remember I was creating all these ideas. And when I started working on this particular idea, I remember I had my TV and I was just trying to absorb the type of look when it comes to EXO and the image, and I was watching I think “Monster.” I remember just watching it, and I didn’t have any music playing, but I remember just watching videos of their mood and how it looked, and it looked very cinematic and very thrilling. I’m catching that they’re doing a lot of dance moves, a lot of movements.
Another inspiration that I used for it was — it was a lot of Michael Jackson too, as well. Michael, a lot of his tracks have that dark [sound], but then again it makes you want to scream and jump and shout sometimes.
What’s so crazy is a lot of the chords that I play, because I come from a gospel background, a lot of the chords that I hear are minors. Minors have this very dark and serious sound to [them]. That pre-chorus had this storytelling, but dark chord changes in the hook, and then it drops. In church, they have a lot of these chord changes, so I was like, “It’d be cool if I do something incorporating my church background into it.”
The last day comes for the songwriting camp, and we’re about to have a listening party where all the people from the A&R, basically the higher ups that manage the whole company, came in. I remember that same exact night, all the other song writers had finished their songs. I had ended up working on the song with another singer — his name is Aaron, Aaron Fresh. I worked on the song with him the day prior for literally 24 hours. It was the most exhausting day that I had experienced ever creating music, ’cause I’ve never worked on a song for a solid day straight, like full-on, top-down recording and all that.
Everybody decided to go back to the hotel and take a night’s rest so they can get up and be ready for the listening party. Tay was like, “I’m gonna be staying up all night trying to finish this last record.” I was like, “Which record is that?” He was like, “It’s the one that you produced, so I need you to stay here!”
I grabbed three Red Bulls and a bunch of water bottles and we ended up pulling up the track again. Jordan was also knocked out asleep, but he was gonna wake us all up and try and record it, so we spent that entire night while I was putting the finishing touches to the beat. Originally the song was going to be called “Bullseye,” but they changed it. That was the original hook. It had that shouting part — “dun, dun, dun, bullseye.” That was the original idea, but they changed it to “Jekyll” over the course of six months.
We stayed up the whole night. I didn’t go to sleep. I worked the whole night on the beat, and I was super exhausted. I remember passing out and woke up the very next morning, the singers and everybody came back and they’re like, “So how did the song go guys?” And we’re all feeding off of this energy — it was very unique working on that record. What was so crazy was this: We had this original bridge part written for the song, which was eventually rewritten and sung by Adrian. We worked on this thing for six months before it finalized, but that last night we were listening to it, it was crazy ’cause we listened to the record and we had this very interesting energy hit the room where it was like, this feels very special. Even Jasper, the way he recorded the vocals, the way we put the beat together, it just sounded like it was something very special.
Listening party comes. I was like, “Play them ‘Bullseye.'” And that was all she wrote. After that we ended up working on the song continuously. They wanted me to make the drums punchier, they wanted me to add more bass. I was like, “A’ight, cool, I’ll do that.” I was going through all my sounds with Jasper, just adding and taking away stuff and seeing what worked and what didn’t, but it’s not like a huge night and day difference between the original “Bullseye” and “Jekyll.”
The way [Aaron] ended [the original song] was on the bridge, and it ends with a body drop — “boom.” But they wanted to add one more hook on.
Even if they per say didn’t like the song, I was just glad that I was challenged by a lot of other songwriters, and they pushed me to be like, “Alright, let’s go over and beyond anything we’ve ever created.” And we pushed past our usual limits. I’ve never stayed up that late, and I don’t drink Red Bull! I literally diluted Red Bull just so my hands wouldn’t be shaking. I stayed up.
[“Jekyll”] signifies how exciting that songwriting camp was. It was a new energy that I think about every single day when I work on music.
Blair Taylor: We went in one morning and I had this beat, and Shin wanted to talk about bringing a world house groove to the table and trying to do something different that really K-pop I guess hasn’t heard before. So we had this beat, and Shin started to play these R&B chords on top, and I think from there it just started to take on a life of its own. We wanted something organic and I think that’s when stuff like the flute solo came to mind, and even the strings, you know, bringing that richness and something that can sound expensive. I think that was our whole angle. [Shin] and I, we’re both influenced by the Neptunes — we love Pharrell, and I think bringing that type of groove, that swag, and those obscure things, it just really hit home for us. The bridge, we again wanted to bring those chord changes — something that felt cool and different.
Shin Hyuk: One of the things that I want to emphasize is we’re trying to bring [a] kind of house groove mixed with a world music vibe, which is kind of new for them, too. When I heard the drum groove from the beginning, [I thought] it will be so unique if we can do this kind of groove with R&B chords — “How can we make it sound a little different?” When I was actually com[ing] up with the chord progression, I already start[ed] writing the melody.
We do [music] from our hearts, and one of the things that we’re really trying to be different about is using [a] flute solo after the bridge. After we had the verse to the chorus, we knew that we [felt] we should go for it. We were really dancing in the studio, we’re just like brainstorming — “Yeah, it would be so cool if we had some flute sound at the end!”
Taylor: I think it was easy because it mirrored the main melody that we already came up with. So the line came pretty easy, but the flute thing — yeah, it was pretty obscure, but yeah, that’s all Shin.
It was a really quick one — it was one of those days where you get in and things kinda just flow and you don’t really have to try too hard, and that was the beauty behind it. We knew we had something special, but we didn’t quite know that it’d take on a life of its own like it is and getting a great response.
Shin: It took us less than 30 minutes to write it, actually. It was really fun working together — Blair and me and Jisoo Park, who’s known as NIve — he’s our songwriter.
Taylor: Yeah, he’s awesome.
Shin: [“Groove”] wasn’t something that I ha[d] to pitch. We have this great relationship with SM, so it was like, “This would be kinda cool to send — let’s see what they say.” They seemed to like it — they always like something that’s different, that’s what I noticed.
Taylor: And the problem comes when you try to do something different. Just being free was the key to this one, I think. Building this track, I didn’t want to put too much in it, right? I wanted it to be cool, but I wanted every instrument to be meaningful, you know. When it comes [to] the strings or even the bassline and how it moves against those chords that Shin did, [it’s] not just a lot of clutter. We have a lot of percussion — a lot of drums, a lot of the world stuff comes into that in the hook. I think the main bed of everything is a Rhodes piano — it’s throughout the whole song, and I think the other main component outside of those drums and [the] Rhodes would be the strings. How they move in the hook and in different parts of the verses, and even the bridge, actually — we did it the whole way! And then — obviously can’t forget about our flute. For me, what I think is special, too, was there’s this bassline that moves — it contributes to the whole groove of the whole thing. Those make up the gumbo — I’m from New Orleans — but like a big gumbo pot.
Shin: What excites us is bringing new flavor to [the] K-pop market. I always think about what can be [a] fresh sound that K-pop hasn’t released yet.
Taylor: I’m new to the K-pop world; Shin is a veteran and Shin kinda brought me under his wing, and I think him allowing me to really think out of the box is where the special stuff comes [from], I feel. ‘Cause a lot of people are doing the same things, I think, and it can get redundant. I knew about EXO, and I knew how big they were, but I think for me going in, my headspace was different as if I would do something for an American artist, and I think that was a great thing.
NIve: We started the idea together — Shin is our executive producer of our company called Joombas, and he started off with piano chords, and Blair and I, that’s when we came in for the production and melody songwriting. I remember we were trying to come up with a chorus and I was like, “I just want to make you groove, babe,” and then that was the system for the song. [The] rest — it came pretty easy after we set up the solid chorus line.
I did the bridge and later on we added the rapping parts — Shin came in and he did the toplining for that.
The song itself, the production, and then the chords were just speaking [for themselves], and it makes you wanna dance to it. And the first word that came to my mind when I listened to the song is, “Hey this song is pretty groovy,” and I took that word. That word wouldn’t get out of my head, so I tried to give a life to the word by singing “I just wanna make you groove, babe.”
When I write songs for myself, it comes from my personal experiences. I talk about my emotions, my feelings. When it comes to songwriting for [other acts], it’s very important to understand their point of view rather than giving my point of view. I always think, “Would the song fit their character?”, or “Would the song fit their perspective? Would it make sense?” Since the beginning, [EXO] were really cool — they’re one of the coolest boy band[s] in K-pop, in my personal opinion. And they have [a] very classy side to them, too: song[s] like “Tempo,” “Love Shot.” EXO is [the] type of group who can digest any type of music, including classic[al]-inspired music.
“Ya Ya Ya”
Dem Jointz: “Ya Ya Ya” came together initially for a different act I was working on, and we completed the record. I was listening to it for probably not even a year and decided to send it on over to [SM.] I’ve always loved that record from the time I created it. I don’t think they sat on that as [they had] with “Obsession” — I think that was more of a no-brainer.
I started off with SWV — I have no idea how I end[ed] up listening to SWV and wanting to actually take something from that song [“You’re the One,” sampled in “Ya Ya Ya”]. I think that we were just listening to a bunch of different things, but sometimes I’ll get just a general idea of “I want a sample,” or “I wanna use some type of repeating element.” And that’s all I have. I don’t really have a plan in terms of how it’s gonna come out — you never know how the record’s gonna come out, how the beat’s gonna sound, or topline, or anything like that. You just have one idea and then hope that another idea comes from that one idea. In this specific instance, I was listening to that and then I heard it in terms of whatever this idea was, and I was like, “Lemme go ahead and take that part.”
[I wanted an] uptempo, modern feel — that [sample] was a ’90s tempo feel. I felt like the beat patterns can change based off of the time. Different type[s] of musical instruments, what would that sound [like] today? I don’t think I broke too much of the integrity of that record based off what I added.
When we go into the studio and we write these songs, I try to make it as general as possible as opposed to being gender-charged. Specifically talking from a girl’s perspective, trying to pursue the dude, or vice versa — we try to make it general. Not necessarily for the singer, but for the audience so that way everybody can relate.
“Baby You Are”
Wendy Wang: Mozella, Benjamin Ingrosso, and I had a writing session together in Los Angeles in January of 2019. The three of us originally wrote the song with Benjamin’s solo project in mind. After listening to his music, I prepared something upbeat and danceable for our writing day together. The three of us are fans of classic dance songs, and so I leaned into that for the production. In the first version of the song, I played funk electric bass and electric guitar. They were the prominent rhythmic elements, besides the drums. In the end, I decided to replay the electric bass part with a Moog synth bass, to make it a little more dance-y and pop. I thought it would be fun to juxtapose the synth bass with a strong acoustic element, so I played the acoustic guitar that you hear throughout the song. Overall, I tried to balance classic and new sounds and rhythms. When we found out that EXO was cutting the song, we had to write raps for it, so I called up my friend Allakoi Peete to try some ideas. For the rap section, I changed up the synth bass sound for something more in the 808 world. I wanted to keep the song’s groove moving while still differentiating it from the other sections.
The bass and drum sounds lend to the nostalgic sound in the production. The Moog analog bass synthesizer was used a lot in pop music from [the] ’70s and ’80s: Songs like “Flashlight” by Parliament and “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk really feature that bass synth. That same synthesizer can be heard in a lot of current songs too, like in songs by Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. There’s also a keyboard melody in the post-chorus that is played on the high keys of this same synth. And then looking at the drums, some of the sounds are from drum machines that were popular in many ’80s and ’90s pop songs. Also, the snare fills at the end of the lines are rhythmic ideas that are reminiscent of the ’80s and ’90s.
[For inspiration,] I listened to some funk jams that use bass synths. I also listened to some current pop songs to make sure it still sounded contemporary. Initially, it sounded more bright, like Chromeo or “Uptown Funk.”
Allakoi Peete: I was introduced to the track by my friend Wendy Wang — she’s the one who produced it. We actually used to play in a band together a long time ago, and we’ve collaborated here and there, but most of the time when I worked with her, I work with her on percussion ’cause I’m also a percussionist. But she knew I rap[ped], so she just hit me [up] out of the blue — “Hey, this opportunity came across, they need a rapper for this song I produced and wrote.” They needed a rap that fits the song, and they wanted something for a second chorus. She sent me that [email] around September 9, and she said they needed it pretty soon, so I sent her the verses September 10. The initial reaction was they loved it.
I went away on tour all of October and November, and I believe she hit me up in mid-October when I was in Japan, and she said, “They like it, but they said it was a little too hyper.” They wanted something a little more laid back. But I was busy on tour. So that week I got home, I wrote two other versions, and they liked the third version. I was lucky that I had the other two [versions] to compare it to; I was like, “Okay, I did this style, I did this style, let me try to even lay it back even more and play around with the rhythm a little more, and [make it] a little more singy.” And I think that’s what’s stuck — it just felt even more relaxed than the other two.
The track was a pop track, a funky pop track, and most of the rappers now are rapping on trap beats. And the examples they were giving me were… all the examples they sent me were over trap beats. So I was like, “Dang, how do I fit that vibe that they’re looking for over this track that’s a little bit more rock, pop, funky?” It’s almost like a puzzle, like a Rubik’s cube — “Can I solve this thing?”
It was a trip hearing it back. The original track was in all English — I didn’t know how they were going to do it. I didn’t know that they were going to flip it. They kept the flavor, the style, and a few English words, but they flip[ped] it. This is the most [a] song has been changed from the original demo out of anything I’ve written.
Andreas Öberg: This song was made [in] summer 2018 in Seoul at the SM Entertainment song camp. It was written by me, Daniel “Obi” Klein, and Charli Taft. The night before, we actually went to EXO’s concert in Seoul. SM, they had a lot of songs already, but they said they were missing this uptempo, disco-funk song. So we went to the concert and we got very inspired ’cause they had some older songs in that style in the setlist, so it was great to see the audience reaction. We were riding on that wave of energy we picked up at the concert.
When we work — me, Obi, and Charli — we actually start from scratch. We decide on what we wanna do and Obi starts laying down some drums, then usually I join in when we have a basic beat. I join in on some chords, on the keys, and on the guitar, and usually we work out the bassline together back and forth. Charli is also very good with chords, even though she’s mainly a topliner — she knows how to play well on the keys. And once we have a little bit of a chord structure, we start with the melodies and try to find a hook, something that’s really catchy — in this case, something the audience would sing along with. We envisioned this as a live performance track. That’s why that B hook — “A little bit of love, my love non-stop” — it’s a sing-along/shout part.
The original lyric had “love non-stop” even on the A hook [of the chorus] — “Girl you got my love non-stop, love non-stop.” That word was repeated way more in the original. Once we had that hook, we started developing the other parts, and Obi found a brass sample. The brass, it gives it an Earth, Wind & Fire vibe, the way the chord changed for that post-hook behind the shout. The rest of it — the keys, the drums, the bass, the guitar — it’s all played. The production is very organic. And then we use, as always, a lot of vocal layers, because we like that, and that’s a sound that’s very typically used by SM as well for many of their artists — lush vocals with a lot of harmonies and stacks. [The] classic SM sound is very inspired by classic American R&B — MJ, Stevie Wonder. I like that they’re keeping that musicality, those layers — give it a unique color. Western music today is very stripped down — very few layers, not that much information. It’s a sign of the times, I think. So I appreciate that we can still do some of this more arranged music — lot[s] of layers and harmonies and chords.
Daniel “Obi” Klein: We arrived on a Sunday to do a Monday-to-Friday camp in Seoul, and on this particular Sunday that we arrived in Seoul, there was a concert with EXO scheduled, and they had asked us beforehand if we’d like to go see the concert. So we just basically dropped the bags at the hotel and went to the concert, and that was a huge inspiration: We were in this 20,000 seater, and to see 20,000 [fans] screaming along with music, but also just seeing what works in the stadium. The very next day, we [went] to go in and work on an EXO song, so we decided to make a track that we imagined would sound good in a stadium — and it was the first song on that particular camp, it was in 2018.
Charli Taft: We worked with Andreas Öberg, who was our co-writer on this track. We’ve worked with him many times, so it was really nice to get together with him again and get back in the studio. It was the first song that we made [at] the camp, so the ideas flowed quite quickly.
They definitely wanted an uptempo, danceable track, and they were putting together the album at that stage. They want[ed] something pretty specific, but even when we get given quite specific outlines, we like to be creative as well.
Klein: The origins were “throwback,” like Gap Band, Michael Jackson, mixed in with some current Bruno Mars tendencies, and then whatever else we bring. But we had clear inspiration for it ’cause we knew it had to be something that was gonna be effective in a stadium.
Taft: When we talk to the label, they usually have an idea about whether they want it to be a more electronic type sound, or whether they want more live, vibey, organic instruments, and this one, they definitely wanted the live feel to be featured.
Obi comes from an R&B, hip-hop background, I like R&B as well, and Andreas is a jazz guitarist — you can probably hear the section that has the guitar solo. With being able to co-write with him, we drew on his guitar skills, [and] we made that a feature of it.
Klein: And we juxtaposed it with horns that would normally be featured in a funk song. There’s a specific part of the song that actually highlights those two very big differences. The guitars are live, the bass is, too. Andreas, he’s been our trusted ally the last four or five camps in Korea. All the guitars [are] by him and are played really tight.
Taft: I’m a singer, and Andreas sings vocals as well, so between the three of us, we layer the vocals up as well, so it sounds quite big.
They’re quite clever because they have a little space on the shelf for [a] writer’s sound, so they go to certain people for certain kinds of songs — they know what your strengths are and what they want from you, so they know that we do very U.S.-sounding stuff, and we do some retro-sounding stuff. When the fans engage on social media, they always say, “Oh, we can hear that you guys worked on this track!” It has a signature.
They really like sections that keep you on your toes throughout the song — they really like variation. That kinda fits with the way we work, ’cause we like to also explore different kinds of chord progressions that you don’t hear so much in other commercial music. It’s nice to draw inspiration from jazz, from R&B.
Klein: I think K-pop provides you sometimes with an arena where you can [put] a lot of different influence into one song and still make a cohesive piece of music.
“Day After Day”
Deez: It was written during a song camp hosted by SM in June 2019, with Mike Daley who did “Bad Dream” with me. The working process was quite similar to “Bad Dream”: Mike brought some tracks and we selected one, and I restructured the track and changed some chords, did some chopped vocal production, [and] did the toplining with Jeff Lewis.
This one was somewhat classic, sound wise. So I thought it was attractive enough only with the guitar play[ing] and the natural sound. [I] wanted to add some Bossa nova factor to have something emotional, and some urban R&B vocal factor as well.
All of the tracks Mike brought were amazing and rich, but [for] some reason, [I] couldn’t feel them 100% at that time. So once all the A&Rs went out of the room, I asked Mike if he had [a] rough track, such as [an] only guitar one. He played this track, and immediately in my head, the melody for the chorus was already completed at the listening of the first part. I was like, “Yes! This is the one!” and recorded the melody on my phone. That initial melody line was used without any main changes — I normally change a lot when doing the demo recording. Already knowing that emotion of [the] guitar sound and Jeff Lewis’ vocal helped a lot, I think.
I was surprised (again) by Chen’s vocal when I recorded his part. [The] recording of “Day After Day” was the very first recording of this album, and Chen was the first member who was recording. Normally when I do the vocal directing, I give the artist my direction of the production I made, but I told him to try to express his feeling after [he] listened [to] the demo. And when he was singing the first verse, I immediately felt that he had stepped up again. It was so natural. It was cold but warm — perfect expression of winter. Because I liked Chen’s recording so much, I even change[d] my original production a little to make it more fit to his vocal. It was that good.
Mike Daley: This track I work[ed] on with Mitchell Owens, who I usually do most of the K-pop stuff with, and this one was us just messing around with the guitar at first, ’cause usually EXO songs are like, super performance based, and they’ve got a lot going on. So this one, we’re just messing with some guitar stuff and jazzy R&B vibes and put a snap in it, and we’re both vibing out, so we just knocked out the track and didn’t really think much of it, but we did do it leading up to going to Korea.
When we got to Korea, I was working with Deez who I always work with out there, who’s always a big writer of EXO[‘s]. So I was playing him some aggressive and pop type of tracks, and he picked a few, and then then he asked me to play him something more musical, and I was trying to find something, and I think that was like the first or second one I played — I didn’t really know if he would like it or not, but as soon as we played it, he started singing to it, and then we arranged around a little bit how he thought it would fit better for a group so we could have verses for the members. We put a bridge on it and a little rap section at the end, and got it formatted out. That’s how it all came together — this is probably one of the simple[st] tracks I’ve ever done for EXO or even for SM in general. This wasn’t necessarily a record they were looking for. Deez liked the record, and it turned into something bigger than we all expected off just the initial guitar vibe.
The week before we went maybe even — maybe even about two days before — Mitch usually comes out and stays with me and we’ll kinda get down for about 48 hours and knock a bunch of ideas out. We have some ideas building before that, but whatever we have had been building we’ll work on in those two days, and then get a couple other ideas going. So I’m pretty sure we did that about two days before we went out to Korea. We did that in June — the end of June is when we went out there.
When I’m thinking ’bout [EXO], I’m thinking about their live show, so for me it’s kinda — there should be a song where they can break down and really sing, not have to dance so much and perform so much. It’s broken down — I think there’s only a live guitar, a live bass, and a couple drum elements to it, so it definitely would be [a] cool stripped-down concert song. I did a song with them a long time ago, “Moonlight,” that I saw live a couple times and it was really cool to see them take a break from all the dancing and sing [a] real musical R&B song, so I think [“Day After Day”] could add to the new wave of songs they have.
Mitchell Owens: This was on one of our prior trips, I believe [in 2019], to SM Entertainment. We get into the studio and they’re like, “We want a nice musical vibe, R&B influence, maybe some guitar,” things like that. So from there, me and Mike Daley made the track, and then Jeff and Deez went in on the writing side.
In South Korea, I think personally, they allow you to be more musical and allow you to be creative in other ways that you can’t be in the U. S. market. And so with that freedom, I just was like, “Okay, R&B. Let me not give them a simple four chord progression. Let me add a little spice here and there,” because I know that they appreciate a lot of those things over there more so than they do in the U.S.
That [Bossa nova bit] came from us listening to the track and me saying, “Okay, it’s been going in the same direction, let’s switch it up, switch up the groove a little bit, get the hips moving a little bit.”
Me and Mike Daley probably made this track in a couple hours, you know, getting everything down, everything ready for them to write to. And then after they finished writing and doing their thing, we went back and forth — “How can we match to their writing?” and stuff like that. But you know this is over a course of maybe 24 hours that we get it done, and of course there’s post-production, but we go out to South Korea on these trips and there’s not a lot of time for turnaround.
When you listen to a lot of the K-pop sound, it’s a lot of dance music and it’s hard synths and hard kicks and drums, but we wanted to give them something that they could lay back to, and give their listeners just a little something different. They are well-rounded singers and artists as a group, and so we wanted to give them something that’s just not [the] same formula, something that catches your ear, and something that you just vibe to.
That was actually me playing those guitars. Me and Mike Daley talk about this all the time — it’s like, “Let’s put some live stuff in there if we can!” I grew up in the gospel church, so I grew up playing a few instruments here and there, and so I love to bring the live feel when I can. It just humanizes it. There can be a sense when everything is locked to the grid as they would say, and locked to every beat and it’s perfect, but there’s something about when you’re playing live. Yeah, you can still be in time, but there’s just a different feel and a different sense from it that you get. That’s still why there’s live bands today. There’s nothing like that human feel.
Greg Bonnick: Hayden [Chapman] and I made the skeleton for the track in London and earmarked it for EXO; however, it wasn’t until we arrived in Seoul for our annual LDN Noise songwriting camp that we got a chance to work on it fully.
It was a late night session as we already wrote a song earlier in the day, so we had some food, came back to the studio, and then played the idea to Adrian McKinnon. We felt with the chords and vibe of the song, the three of us could write a really soulful, feel-good song. Something like we had done previously with EXO’s “White Noise,” which was a favorite of ours. The original demo was called “Angel of the Night,” and the lyrics were about a girl who came into your life, lifted you from the darkness and into the light.
[“White Noise” and “Butterfly Effect”] are both mid-tempo and have major “feel good” chords. “White Noise” is a little more aggressive and electronic, whereas “Butterfly Effect” has electric guitars, live elements to it which offer the lighter mood.
Adrian McKinnon: Greg and Hayden first played the track for me during a late session in Seoul. The first thing I noticed was how warm the track felt: soothing chord progressions full of majors that had a nice bounce to it. I loved it! It seemed like that warm feeling and the hour we started [working] on it were what gave us the direction for the demo, “Angel of the Night.” LDN Noise and I have worked on many songs together, so we flowed right into ideas quickly.
For “White Noise,” the first melody idea that stuck with me was the ascending scale into the chorus, a strong set-up for the chorus’ descending melody, which had longer, stressed notes that didn’t exactly land on the downbeats. The intent was to feel like a violin, or maybe a bit like crying. The concept in the “White Noise” demo, which we called “Somebody,” was about a person who was lonely and looking for that someone, but didn’t realize the one for them was much closer than they thought. As for “Butterfly Effect,” one of the earlier ideas we thought of was the “oh, oh, oh yeah, yeah!” chant in the post chorus. It gave that feel-good energy throughout the creative process. Additionally, the “Butterfly Effect” chorus melody rides the pulse of the beat differently in a way that gives the song more of a bounce. So altogether [it has] warmer, maybe more upbeat vibes.
I feel like overall the Obsession album does a good job of showcasing different strengths and hues for EXO, and I’m glad “Butterfly Effect” was included to present another color within that collection.