This week’s review is Exo’s debut (or 3rd single, however you want to look at it!) “Mama”. From the futuristic space alien theme to a grungy, pop/rock sound, it’s pretty fair to say that Exo are musically and visually going in a different direction to other SM artists. To read my review on the song, the video and the dance, please read ahead!

THE BEGINNING

Everyone has known about Exo for a while. And when I say “a while”, I actually mean months. SM released probably a record-breaking amount of teasers to hype up their debut and also released two prologue songs. Now, before I get down to the actual review of Mama, I have to talk about how they were marketed. The whole “teaser” situation was terrible – there were so many videos that quite a lot of people became bored. All of my favourite artists belong in SM so I was anticipating their debut, but I was also growing frustrated at the slow pace of their debut. I mean, why were they taking so long? The first teaser was promising, showcasing one of the members dancing to a very slinky, almost Blues-type song. I was at first wondering if they were going to release teasers of every single member individually (all 12)  which would have been fine by me; that way every member would have shone and fans would have been able to see their talent and charisma. However, it became apparent that it is Kai who is SM’s favourite in the group, as he appeared in a staggering 11 teasers out of 23 (excluding prologues). That’s just under half, whereas the other members range from appearing in just 1 teaser up to 5 at the most. Now bless Kai, it’s not his fault, but I was increasingly becoming annoyed that I just didn’t really know who the other members were because it was just basically Kai, Kai, Kai, Kai, Kai and some more Kai, and I felt a bit bad and sad for the other members who just seemed to be left in the dark while Kai was left to do all this work. They had something to give, too!

And then there was “What Is Love” and “History”. I was surprised at What Is Love, because up until that point all the teaser songs seemed to have that rock/hip hop edge, whereas this was a completely different genre. After getting my head around the 360 degree change (and initially being disappointed that the first full song we hear was a bit of a safe “typical boyband song” bet), I had to hand it to Exo for being so diverse musically. This is where the TVXQ comparison began amongst fans, because they are also very diverse in their songs and yes, What Is Love also reminded me of “Before U Go” just like many other fans. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think What Is Love is still a beautiful song and to be compared to their sunbaes – who, may I add, have the biggest fanclub in the world and were one of the first Hallyu Wave stars – should be nothing but a compliment and honour, especially in such early stages before they even made their official debut. Plus, after all those teasers showcasing dance and martial art skills and posing for the camera and barely any singing, it was great to hear some vocals for a change – after all, that’s what being a singer is about, the voice! So after all this time it was refreshing to hear their potential.

However I didn’t fully understand all this “prologue” lark. It would be fine if it was maybe a one minute clip of the song, but because it was the full song the whole prologue seemed to have lost it’s meaning. For example, in a book you get the prologue first which is just a taster of the book, a small section to start you off, then you have the beginning, middle and end with an epilogue to round things off. So why on Earth did they end up making “History” a second prologue? It makes zero sense. You don’t get two prologues! I appreciate the effort, but it was all done wrong. This was also a full song that featured all 12 members with a complete music video. Second prologue or second single? It’s no wonder people were confused. The thing is, What Is Love and History are two very different songs, with the first one being a nice, slow and gentle ballad, and the second one being more upbeat and funky with a poppy sound, but bad marketing can turn people off regardless of how good the song is. Teasers are there to reel you in and get you excited but a lot of people lost interest way before the first prologue was even uploaded on YouTube which I think is sad, because I do think that these are good songs and the fact that their music is so diverse means that they have the potential to reach a wider audience. I hope SM learn from this and never do it again!

THE DEBUT

Their debut, however, was captivating and different to the KPop tunes out there at the moment. From the dancing, to the songs, to the CGI, I have to say this song and music video was pretty darn cool. I’ll give you a low down section by section.

The Song

Just how cool is this song? It has Latin style chanting (I know I’m not the only one who thought of O’Fortuna when it first started) complete with powerful vocals and even some scary rapping. A lot of KPop music is typically poppy or has an electronic dance sound to it, but this song is grimey and strong, complete with an orchestrated sound partnered with heavy drums and a steady, foot stomping beat. The fusion of classical and modernised music really brings out the feeling that what you’re about to hear is pretty epic, and when you combine that with the long powerful notes it heightens the music and just makes it sound that much bigger. Kai’s rap surprised me when I first heard it, but I immediately loved it. I haven’t heard SM do something like this since TVXQ’s song “Triangle” (although if they have done something like that more recently please point me in the right direction) so although you can probably count numerous similarities between EXO and TVXQ – the concept of classical meets rock has been done before so yes it is recycled (what isn’t these days?) – but this kind of style hasn’t been around for a long time so it’s refreshing to see something like this in the charts, next to all the comebacks which are more poppy, dancey or soft. Overall it’s quite a dark sound and definitely different to What Is Love and History. EXO once again demonstrates their versatility and this time it definitely paid off.

UKP Rating: 4/5

The Dance

SM has so many great and addictive dance routines under their belt, and this one is no exception. It’s sharp and powerful, and their dance skills are amazing. It can be hard to see in a music video where all the scenes keep cutting and changing, but their skills are obvious in the History dance practice video because they’re so in sync, and I really think that in that respect, they’re right up there with Infinite. The dance break is the best part – I know everyone wants to attempt that fast leg move! However I do prefer the History dance over Mama because it seems more complex. Not that I think learning Mama would be easy, and a complex dance doesn’t always necessarily mean it’s better than a dance that’s not so intricate, I just feel that after seeing History’s choreography Mama was a step down. Only a very, very small one though! I still think the dance is very good, but think History is a bit better.

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UKP Rating: 3.75/5

The Video

Well. Now I know why other SM music videos (*cough*SuJu*cough*) have been rather lacklustre recently. A lot of money has been invested into EXO – not just for their teasers but because of the prologues and because the amount of special effects in Mama is just a bit unreal. Of course SHINee got some share of SM’s money because they actually ventured outside an oddly lit room for their comeback single “Sherlock” (and oddly lit rooms seemed to be a recurring theme for SM last year, including other artists such as TVXQ and SNSD), but it’s clear Super Junior definitely pulled the short straw when it came to Mr. Simple and A-Cha and EXO got all the big bucks. I am aware that some people are saying EXO are replacing Super Junior and what I’ve just said isn’t about that at all – it’s just a shame that it’s obvious a group is favoured more than the others. I know SM had to really pull it out of the bag with EXO and make it as epic as possible but it did come as a sacrifice to other groups which I don’t think is fair. Yes, the other groups are established and therefore don’t have as much to prove but if you don’t put the effort in then it’s going to reflect badly on the group. Just sayin’ SM!

However, the money invested in EXO meant a rather good music video. Yes, the oddly lit room was still there (seriously how many does SM have?!) but there was also the space wasteland (green screen of course), creepy smokey black place with weirdly lit pillars (yeah, that really was the only description I could come up with), and an empty grand building (a proper set?!) etc etc…the use of different locations make the video that much more interesting to watch. Does it make sense? Mmm…not really…but hey. The effort to branch out of weird white rooms is there and this should only be encouraged! Aside from various locations and special effects on these locations, the members also have special powers like being able to produce water, break the ground, create fire, the ability to transport Death Eater style and the ability to create/withstand a sandstorm…yeah, I didn’t really get that one either but the effects were cool all the same! Basically, each member has their own unique power and they each share a similar power to their individual counterparts in EXO-M. They all have individual symbols representing that power as well. How do I know this? By the way the story is badly told at the beginning.

Okay, so it was meant to sound epic. You’ve got the typical low narrator voice which fits perfectly fine when trying to tell a story, but the English…I mean…kudos to SM for thinking about this internationally and having the narrator speak in English and using Korean/Chinese subtitles, but wow. Who wrote the script? Eat Your Kimchi weren’t wrong when they reviewed this for their KPop Music Monday were they? “When the skies and the grounds were *something* legend…” not only is it difficult to understand the story because of the way it’s written, but sometimes it’s hard to understand what he’s saying too. So, to save a lot of head scratching, all 12 members basically lived in the same tree, then some evil thing came along and the 12 member group was split into 6, the “legends” (EXO) split the tree in half – don’t quite understand why- and now they all live parallel to each other which is clearly shown at the end of the video. I understand that this is all because one group is Korean, one group is Chinese and that they’ll release the same songs at the same time but in different languages…however, that story needn’t have been such a headache! On the plus side, the animation is really pretty! So, thumbs up for that at least.

Going back to the set locations, I feel some suited the mood of the song more than others. Basically, these white rooms need to go! Everything else was fine apart from that.

Another thing that bothered me were the adverts that are embedded into the video. There is one thing I have to say about this: WHY?

Swiftly moving on from that, did anyone else see the amount of product placement going on? The EXO ring (which I wouldn’t mind having by the way…just sayin’), the logo on the street pillars plus the EXO belt Kai is wearing, the EXO jacket…they definitely want you to know their name! Sometimes product placement can be really annoying, random and pointless, but I think it blended well with the video so no complaints from me.

All in all, you can tell that a lot of time and effort was put into this video so credit where credit is due. The choreography was great, the mixture of futuristic chrome and coloured outfits were great, the special effects were great…but the storyline was very hit and miss. I get what they’re getting at, but it could have been executed a lot better. That is all!

UKP Rating: 3/5

Conclusion

After all that, I was still impressed with the song and their debut as a whole, regardless of some of my complaints! Considering the fact that not a lot of thought went into various SM videos last year, it was great to see that this year they were making an effort to change, plus it was a great song choice to capture everyone’s attention. So thumbs up from me!

UKP Rating: 4.25/5

How Well Would It Do In The UK?

As much as I love EXO, I am not sure how successful they would be here. I think the music video – especially the story at the beginning – would be considered too weird and the whole EXO-K/EXO-M too confusing. As for the actual song as well, it may have some moderate success but think it could be a little too eclectic for the UK market. It’s not very “first time friendly” – it’s not a typical club song that you can rave to or enjoy regardless of the language, I think it might be one of the songs where, if released in the UK, it could be quite divided like Marmite.

UKP Rating: 2/5

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Freya is the founder of UnitedKpop, steering the ship since 2011. She is a full time graphic designer with lots of love for her two cats. You can see Freya's portfolio at freyabigg.co.uk