A sensuous Casanova waltzing on darklit concrete to the gentle Greek prince of your dreams, he wants nothing on him but you yet all he wants to do now is envelop you in a soft embrace, a Yin Odile to a Yang Odette, the smell of a flower to the taste of peaches - and much more.
EXO’s ballerino extraordinaire (or clumsy bear), Kai, has always been a shining symbol of duality in the K-Pop sphere, ever since he debuted. In EXO’s lore itself, Kai is the key himself. And how so? He has the ability to teleport and connect the two worlds the original EXO were split into, and thus, is declared the harbinger of duality. He is a possessor of two antipodal personas, the coquettish playboy Kai, and the shy but incredibly caring Jongin. What happens when the personas, instead of clashing, emulsify into the smoothest of buttery vanilla notes? His second mini-album, “Peaches”, is born.
1. Peaches - Gleaming arpeggiating synth notes herald the arrival of the new Kai, whose earnest and light Baritone notes dance along to the said synths, cooing words of adoration to his mate on the other end. Trap percussion makes the track levitate in swathes of airy trance synths; the dreaminess unlike anything that has been heard in R&B in mainstream K-Pop before. The heavy amount of reverb makes the affair all the more transcendental and romanticizes a peaceful existence in a realm untouched by anything antonymous to divinity, much like Kai’s desire to escape into a “jungle where (he and his lover) wander together”. Whilst the track introduces a soundscape that is utterly idiosyncratic in K-Pop, its mellowdramatic sensibilities make it seem a bit drained of energy at parts, making it appear as somewhat of a straight parallel line, lacking in any peaks and troughs….the line is still pretty, however, and that’s where the track’s strength lies. The track introduces the mini’s trend of repeated fade-ins and fade-outs which allow room for some dynamics to happen in the otherwise more static production. The track has been through nineteen revisions and it shows; the end result is a bit overpolished. Regardless of that, the track still holds its own and manages to be a, perhaps even more potent successor to “Mmmh”.
(On a side-note, his falsettos in this track are otherworldly and do a magnificent job at promoting the meditativeness that the track tries to encapsulate.)
Rating - 6.5/10
2. Vanilla - An instrumental masterclass, weaves countless different instruments into an Indie-R&B delight…..whose main strength lies in its subtlety? Now that is not something you would expect from a top K-Pop boy group member going solo, and only for the second time. Art-Pop is not common in the mainstream K-Pop sphere, and especially not among the male artists of the genre, and “Vanilla” is a track that is highly progressive among its peers.
Dizzy buzzing synths lead to Kai’s voice multiplying and harmonising with itself with the aid of a vocoder and MIDI drums forming a rhythmic motif whose charm lies in its esoteric nature (the drums are used in Hyperpop, largely, and SM’s proper introduction to those was seen in æspa’s “ænergy” for the first time; for them to be used in a track as laid-back as “Vanilla” in the way they are used, is quite the creative choice), the track builds up a bit, not much at all, yet manages to capture your attention throughout with how creatively it introduces snare samples, background vocoder vocals, a piano, a guitar…..it is a garden of musical delights, one can almost visualise how these diverse instruments harmonise with each other on a bed of heavenly chords, and that is not imagery that you can expect from any other K-Pop track. It is a bit too enchanting as a track, and for it to end with a trombone outro that does not resolve and, hence, ends it with a sense of urgency, leaves you wanting more, much more. It did not feel like three minutes and twenty-eight seconds at all.
(“Vanilla” is waking up from a rejuvenating siesta, sonified.)
Rating - 9/10.
3. Domino - Well, this was quite the shocker after the first two’s restrained meditativeness; it is as if a switch flipped and you ended up in a groovy Hip-Hop bassline with Kai’s voice an extremely low; he sounds inebriated, uncontrolled, and wild, and that is awfully satisfying. It is a callback to the Kai from his debut mini and in the purest way possible, it sounds dirty, and that is exactly what makes the track a win. It absolutely throws you off-guard. In comparison to its complex, sophisticated, and angelic sibling, “Vanilla”, it is simplistic, groovy, and dare I say, akin to an incubus.
Rhythmically satisfying as well, the chorus features Kai’s throwing in radio-static vocals as adlibs, turning the chorus into a conversational format between both the Kai’s vocalising with each other, adding to the danceability.
Kai’s performance on this is nothing short of on-point; it is interesting to note how versatile he can sound in one track alone, navigating between his usual middle range and relatively unexplored (in music) lower range, to the point he sounds like two different people in the same track. It is the K-Pop equivalent to Beyoncé’s “Partition”, especially in the way the booming bass progresses and dominates, making it a party-ready banger.
(On a side-note, it is interesting to note that the track involves a producer by the name of “Benjamin Shapiro”; hopefully not the one I am thinking of.)
Rating - 8.5/10.
4. Come In - As soon as I saw “makeumine works” on the writing credits for this one, something of heightened caliber was expected, and it was delivered as well.
(On a side-note, they wrote/co-wrote “Artificial Love” off “EX’ACT” (EXO), “Ghost” from “Delight” (BAEKHYUN), “What I Want For Christmas” off “For Life” (EXO), “Sweet Dreams” off “Blooming Day” (EXO-CBX) and “Kokobop” off “The War” (EXO), among notable tracks.)
They have a penchant for writing melodically satisfying synth-laden music and for Kai to have such melodically-rich music on a mini centred around what is essentially mellow-gentle R&B (sans the wrecking ball that is “Domino") is of utmost importance; it leads to cohesion, adding to the earnestness Kai is trying to achieve through this mini.
This track is akin to the (not-so-)glitchy melodic R&B that tumblr started treating as an aesthetic from 2014, but with production that is better realised. The melodic line is quite repetitive, but when the melodic choices are this well-done, it is more of a blessing.
Expertly playing with panning between the ears, it serves as an extravagantly stimulating listen, despite being on the more minimal side.
The bass and the whammy R&B synths interweave to cocoon your ears in a blanket of sweet security, which makes it a typical Serotonin boost of a track.
Since the track adopts a tone of reassurance and a promise of safety throughout, in terms of lyrics as well as melodic progressions, it makes a convincing successor to the impudence of “Domino”.
Rating - 8/10.
5. To Be Honest - This one is reminiscent of EXO-SC, especially with the continuous guitar ostinato in the back and how positive it sounds throughout.
The track, despite having the melodic genius of makeumine works, falls short, especially because its musical twin, “Come In”, does what it does, but better.
That being said, it is the best of the lot so far, lyrically; Kai asks for honesty in a relationship shrouded by a smoke of ambiguity that manifests in his love interest’s actions and gestures and the entire track is an ode to how he wants the gap between them to be closed with honesty, which tends to be a relatable issue for many, more often than not.
His slightly nasal, gravelly Baritone expresses it all with much desperation, and for an idol that does not focus on vocals, that level of expression via the voice is impressive.
Despite that, the track does have its shortcomings, especially one of being overly monotone, which can make it fatiguing to listen to in the long run.
Rating - 6/10.
6. Blue - There is not much music theory to talk about this track, or genre-wise either, other than the fact that Kai did lo-fi. Finally.
This is not about pretty girls, potential love interests, or anything that exists outside of Kai physically; it is about his own struggles with loneliness. With the onset of COVID, it seems as if even he felt the need to talk about an issue that has been pressing down on people’s minds for a while now.
It talks about being tired, mentally, and is a complete shift from Kai being the caretaker/initiator in the other tracks to being the vulnerable one who is in need of support and security, which makes it the most personal track on the album.
EXO solo projects usually end with the most personal tracks of their respective sets and turn out to be the emotionally potent ones.
As he sings about hiding his feelings from people, the bittersweet ostinato guitar adds to the uncertainty of the situation and the consequences it has on his feelings.
A choir of his own voice coos in the back, he mournfully sings of loss of identity as a piano outro ends the track with no positive resolution.
(It is tracks like this that make me want to cry. Why do all the “Blue” tracks turn out to be such tearjerkers? Taeyeon, I’m looking at you as well.)
Rating - 8.5/10.