EXO Return With Sophisticated Pop Comeback on ‘Don’t Mess Up My Tempo’ (REVIEW)
Released November 2, Don’t Mess Up My Tempo is EXO’s fifth studio album and includes the comeback single, “Tempo,” released in both Korean and Chinese. In one month alone, the album amassed over 1.1 million pre-orders, making it EXO’s fifth album to sell more than one million copies and earning the group the title of “quintuple million sellers.” The album also marks the return of member Lay to the group—he can be seen in both the Chinese and Korean music videos of “Tempo,” but his vocals are featured solely on the Chinese version of the song.
It’s been nearly a year since the group’s last Korean release, Universe, but that doesn’t mean EXO hasn’t been busy. This year saw the group make their Japanese debut with Countdown, as well as conclude their fourth world tour, EXO Planet #4 – The EℓyXiOn. In between, the members showcased their other talents: Baekhyun, Chen and Xiumin released two albums as EXO’s sub-unit, EXO-CBX; Chanyeol took the fashion world by storm and composed songs; Lay released his third solo album, NAMANANA; and Kai, D.O., Sehun,and Suho acted in multiple dramas, films and stage productions. Now, finally reunited, EXO proves they are still at the top of their game with Don’t Mess Up My Tempo, an album which explores various musical genres yet still retains a sense of regality and ethereality that is iconically EXO.
Kicking off with a spiky synth riff and Chen’s effortless vocals, “Tempo” is a mixture of hip-hop and dance that dares listeners to keep up or risk falling behind. Lyrically, the song is a one-of-a-kind love story between two people who teeter on the precipice of dating, but haven’t officially revealed their affections. The track features lawless production that seamlessly blends double-time choruses into slow, pitch-dropped verses that leave the listener unsure where EXO will take them next, but its greatest twist lies in its a capella bridge, which places Suho’s airy vocals at the forefront backed by the group’s knockout harmonies. A thrilling joyride from start to finish, “Tempo” is a comeback single that is as fresh and unique as EXO themselves.
In true EXO fashion, the music video for “Tempo” is beautiful yet cryptic, with Baekhyun being the key to understanding its meaning. It begins with a singular member on a motorcycle driving into a red cloud of dust before breaking into eye-catching choreography. The members find themselves trapped in another maze not unlike the ones featured in “Overdose” or “Lucky One.” By assembling a puzzle, they’re released and make their getaway, yet Baekhyun returns. Whether he is the masked motorcyclist from the beginning returning to save EXO, or just too tempted by what lies within the maze is unknown, but the video for “Tempo” will undoubtedly launch countless fan theories with its enticing, open-ended storyline.
Produced and arranged by LDN Noise, the retro intro of “Gravity” is reminiscent of previous release “Power,” before diving headfirst into an electro-pop sound that balances funky refrains with poignant lyrics. It is one of two songs on Don’t Mess Up My Tempo in which Chanyeol helped compose lyrics for, and paints the members unable to accept a painful breakup, declaring that no matter where their lover goes their heart will be drawn to them like gravity. “You said I was your future, am I now just your past?” the members lament. “You said you loved only me / That your heart would forever stay by my side / So I gave you everything and then now you are leaving me?” Baekhyun, Chen, and D.O.’s vulnerable inflections in the song’s chorus perfectly capture their feelings of heartbreak, making “Gravity” undeniably relatable.
A light whistle opens “24/7,” a song that, thanks to its soft vocals and sparkling synthesizers, feels destined to be played in the wee hours of the night. Despite what the members’ sweet falsettos may suggest, the song’s lyrics depict the heartbreaking feeling of loving someone wholeheartedly even though they treat you cruelly. Sehun and Chanyeol steal the spotlight with their rapping, which adds a unique dimension to the dreamy track. "You know everyone tells you you're too cold, thinking you're too good for everyone else," Chanyeol chides. "You know it's not nice, so you want to fix it," Sehun adds. "You're not cold, you're just bad to me."
R&B tracks like “Bad Dream” are the perfect playground for EXO, who get to not only show off their vocal ranges, but also slay everyone with shiver-inducing harmonies. The song opens with a dreamy guitar riff and light drums that set the scene before transforming into a rhythmic, synth-heavy power ballad. The meaning of “Bad Dream” is easily understood once reading its Korean title: “후폭풍” literally translates to the second blast in a nuclear explosion, but is commonly used as a way to explain the flurry of texts received from an ex several months post-break up after they’ve realized they’ve made a mistake and desperately want to get back together. In the case of EXO, this realization comes to them in the form of a bad dream, but instead of breaking out their phones, they agonize over the understanding that their lover has moved on. "I said goodbye thinking that was the only choice / Putting an end to it, someone please just stop me back then,” D.O. resolutely sings. “Even if I say that wasn't how I really felt, your heart is probably all closed off now."
Each track on Don’t Mess Up My Tempo experiments with a new genre, invoking a new feeling within the listener. “Ooh La La La” carries the torch passed down by fellow groups Super Junior and NCT 127 with its soft Latin flair. With lyrics and composition by Chanyeol, “With You” is an up-tempo love song dedicated to the group’s fans, EXO-L, asking them to promise to stay with him even when the fame fades away. Urban pop track “Oasis” highlights EXO’s determination to succeed together no matter the difficulties that lie ahead: “Past the red desert we find an oasis," the members sing. "And we go even further, on this road with a long way to go / Runnin', I'm runnin', chasing the sun."
Don’t Mess Up My Tempo is chock-full of crystalline, sophisticated pop songs that show EXO’s hunger for success is one that cannot be quenched. Whether it’s a Latin-infused pop song or an electro-pop bop, they absorb the heart of the music and easily adapt to make it their own. They’re constantly evolving not only as a group, but musically; each song on the album contains a twist that pushes the boundaries of conventional pop music. With seven years under their belt, they continue to trail-blaze the way for the future of K-pop with effortless finesse, glittering harmonies, fierce rapping and next-level choreography. Just don’t mess up their tempo.