A Retrospective: Did EXO’s KAI Make the Best Solo Debut of 2020?

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January 12, 2021
Read Time: 4 minutes

Thoughts and feelings on a solo debut nine years in the making

 

 

According to this page on Fandom (not typically the most credible source, but easily the most complete), at least 138 K-pop artists made their debut in 2020. Among them, 56 were soloists—and within that pool, 38 are members (or former members) of idol groups. As a survivor fresh out of the 2020 whirlwind, I believe this particular subset of musicians deserves its fair share of recognition. In the midst of the shitshow last year turned out to be, they was a steady source of bops and bangers that helped me stay afloat. As I fluttered from MAX Changmin’s long-awaited dance-pop track Chocolate to Wonho’s first mini album post-Monsta X to Lee Suhyun’s Alien, I found myself not only surviving, but enjoying at least a little of the good 2020 spared.

 

Among this abundant pool of solid singles and mini-albums, I’ve found myself particularly hung up on one late 2020 release. Despite what my Instagram stories and the copious amounts of Wonho you’ll find there might tell you, it’s unfortunately not his mini-album that I’ve kept on heavy rotation. As far as solo debuts go, the one that’s moored itself into the deepest recesses of my brain is KAI’s of EXO.

 

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EXO is on a roll with their solo activities, having unlocked that sweet spot in their careers where sub-units and individual releases happen multiple times a year with minimal drama involved (by K-pop’s standards anyway). With Suho and Chen having dropped EPs prior to their military enlistment, a new Baekhyun single lined up every few months and Lay doing his thing in China for over four years now, the second half of 2020 was ripe for the next member’s solo debut.

 

 

Perhaps it’s the slick dancing, the sloshing water or the throwback to EXO’s debut era superpowers (KAI’s was teleportation, which he does almost dizzyingly here), but watching the music video for Mmmh reminded me of EXO’s first pre-debut teaser. Released in 2011, the teaser features KAI stepping out of a car in an outfit I can only describe as amusingly magician-esque, losing layers and dancing to a plucky bass line and his bandmate’s voice. While in the past, the world had caught glimpses of KAI—or perhaps more accurately, Jongin before he became KAI—the release of this teaser was arguably what marked his first public reveal as EXO’s center. He goes on to appear in 13 out of 23 teasers before the group made its official debut.

 

 

This era of overabundant teasers and heavy exposure, which birthed headlines like 23 Teasers Too Many: Has SM Ruined EXO Before Their Debut?, was also a crystal-gazing moment that wordlessly assured he would get to fly solo eventually. 

 

Nine years later, we got just that. 

 

KAI’s eponymous EP is a minimalist, six-track exploration into his strong suits, and is solid proof that you don’t have to be a group’s vocalist to debut solo and stick the landing. 

 

 

When I say the EP makes the most of KAI’s strengths, I mean all of them. Take the title track, Mmmh, for instance. Its live performances are pretty much a checklist of all the awards KAI would win in an alternate universe, where awards like Best in Body Rolling and Best in Abdominal Muscles exist. There’s also his inability to make an outfit look bad, even if it’s a wildly unexpected cowboy hat-cutout sweater-patchwork cargo pants situation.

 

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Beyond the visual appeal of it all is an admirable, if not charming, crack at an R&B release. While KAI isn’t the best vocalist in terms of technique, his voice has a pleasing raspiness that can easily carry a good three-minute listen. His lines often serve as a palate-cleansing punctuation in EXO’s songs but, in his own sonic space, his lower register builds a stable foundation for him to spotlight performance-oriented aspects like choreography and expression. Objectively, the hyper-repetitive hooks and abundance of half-spoken, half-sung lines make Mmmh a safe choice for a title track. But personally, these were precisely what made it the right choice for KAI’s debut.

 

The remainder of the EP finds footing in a similar formula. Uncomplicated melodies and whispery tones make up for the absence of K-pop’s typical roller coaster build to a high note-laced finale. Nothing On Me is a tasteful transition from Mmmh to the rest of the EP, introducing the heavier bass and thrumming beats that recur throughout. Amnesia and Ride or Die are the most ambitious tracks vocally but, between the two, Amnesia and its hypnotic refrain is a clearer display of KAI’s faculties. Apart from their shared R&B foundations, the obvious common thread between all six tracks is the fact that the artist could undoubtedly perform the heck out of all of them. We’ve only seen Mmmh and Reason live, but still, I’m certain. Watch any KAI fancam and tell me I’m wrong.

 

In its entirety, KAI’s self-titled EP is good upon first listen, even better performed, but an even more gratifying experience for fans who’ve been around since his beginnings as EXO’s center dancing to My Lady. It’s an ode to growth and my favorite display of a 2020 lesson we all learned the hard way: knowing one’s strengths, limits and how to run with them.

 

 

Art Alexandra Lara

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