A Lukewarm Defense of EXO-SC's 'What a Life'
A self-indulgent attempt to illustrate EXO-SC's hazy Hollywood dream world.
2019 has ushered in a plethora of changes for “Nation’s Pick” supergroup EXO and it’s fluctuating member line-up. Members D.O and Xiumin are currently completing their mandatory service in the South Korean army, lone Chinese member Lay is on a run of solo projects and concerts in mainland Asia, subunit EXO-CBX members Chen and Baekhyun released solo albums of their own earlier this year—it’d be an understatement to say the group is spread thin and wide across the entertainment spectrum as of lately.
Among this vast web of activities, we find EXO-K’s towering rap duo, Chanyeol and Sehun, embarking on a unique solo journey of their own, predictably dubbed EXO-SC. Following in the footsteps of their main unit, EXO-SC’s What a Life debuted Top 10 on both Billboard's World Albums and Heatseekers Albums charts, two charts EXO has been well acquainted with over the years. They’ve even managed to snag an unexpected music show win on KBS Music Bank’s August 2nd broadcast, despite being unable to promote What a Life traditionally due to their EXO Planet #5: EXplOration tour having already been underway.
Still, there seems to be a general feeling of disenchantment with this subunit, their title track, and ultimately the entire album that's honestly lost upon me. Perhaps it all comes down to subjective personal tastes, expectations being (understandably) high or misplaced, or fans longing for the familiarity of EXO's full roster & lineup, but my love of all things "chill vibe" just refuses to let slander of this album stand unchallenged.
So let us attempt to finish painting this picture of Hollywood living SC started, shall we?
What A Life plays out like a movie in six songs, each track a specific scene starring you and the dynamic duo as you explore the finer sides of Hollywood-type romance. The two flawlessly swap roles of rapper and vocalist on every song, exhibiting years of improvement for both as they comfortably present their personally penned slice of blended genres and laid-back lyricism. With the blessings of K-Hip Hop royalty Gaeko (a la the actual Dynamic Duo) and Gray, expressive production from Devine Channel, Mike Dupree, and Chanyeol’s own Studio 519, this sonically pleasing array effortlessly transports you into the newest representation of EXO’s musical diversity.
"What a Life" sets the standard of luxury and relaxation that carries through the entire body of work, taking you to the opening scene of the stereotypical good life Chanyeol and Sehun are about to catapult you into. In the music video, you’re both literally and metaphorically standing before the open gates of sunny Los Angeles with the duo graciously taking you along for the ride. There’s vintage cars, giant mansions, fancy yachts, and plenty of expensive champagne to share with their eccentric entourage. Flexing to the point of hypertension, our two protagonists look all too accustomed to the classic staples of fortune as they act out their perfectly crafted Hollywood fantasy with you marveling in the passenger seat. The lyrics are as carefree and privileged as the visuals, featuring the twosome contemplating cross-country flights to unknown destinations as easily as the wind passes through the palm trees. “I work as if I’m playing,” they boast, so jovial it’s hard not to believe them. They’re young and famous, running wild with the hefty wallets of someone’s distant rich relatives, friendly hands stretched out to welcome you on their adventures. Before you know it, you're partying around the pool with your new picture-perfect socialite friends, knocking back Jell-O shots with shared artificial decadence. Within this fantastical peek into their lives as international superstars, it’s easy to wholly believe “life is good” and your sensibilities should be left at the gate when this ear-worm comes to sweep you off your feet and into the night.
"Just Us 2"
Our second single tiptoes in like a gentle wake-up call. You realize it's a day (or maybe two?) later, and the cheerful piano introduction is calling you out of bed and into the warm light of the afternoon sun. Chanyeol’s opening bars are only slightly tinged with the glamorous peacocking of yesterday. No longer interested in wallowing in the over-the-top wealth of "What A Life," he’s looking for a new backdrop for today’s adventure, somewhere unknown and untraceable where you won’t be pestered by paparazzi. “Where should we go? Where should we sleep?” he croons out curiously, sounding almost bored of his surroundings, itching to spend time with you in a different setting. Money’s no option, of course, and only the daunting question of how to spend your time together is ahead of you. Gaeko’s voice comes in like a hopeful beacon on the chorus, mentioning that after all that high-profile partying all he could dream of was the simple sea that laid just out of reach below the penthouse villa. Sehun reassures you that it’s okay to be posting your time together online, encourages you to invoke that natural envy in us all when viewing a friend's vacation. Unlike Chanyeol, he’s still shamelessly relishing in the excessive and the expensive. However, there’s something lingering in his reassurance. “Under the stars, we shoot our own movie.” Right under his desire to enjoy the pleasures before him, he’s looking for more ways to extend this captivating break from reality with you. In playing the part of Summer Boy, he’s getting just as lost in you as much as you are in him. “At this very moment we are one,” the very waves he dreamed of can barely compete with the height of his infatuation (or “the decibels of [your] love,” apparently... hint hint wink wink). Where "What a Life" ends with efforts to impress and dazzle, "Just Us 2" finds Chanyeol and Sehun settling comfortably at the point where summer flings unexpectedly become summer loves.
"Closer to You"
The third & final single brings us in with a softer piano and notable bass line; the tone is still playful but we’re no longer on that quiet beach watching the waves with a perfect stranger. We’ve moved into the next night, action rising as you find yourself back among their lavish living squad at yet another party, but there’s a big difference between the man you first met and the one silently taking you in from the other side of the table you’re sharing. The pleasures of your company are clearer to Chanyeol as he compares you to pretty actresses, talented singers, people he’s usually spending his time with. His gentle conclusion that you rival those kinds of people throws him off. He’s quieter than you've ever seen him and clearly more interested in getting you alone than spending time with his friends. It’s suddenly too loud and he wants to hear only you. “I can’t take my eyes off you, you shine too bright; I can’t stop listening to you,” Sehun admits, a little bolder than his reserved partner. He’s clear in his declaration that kissing you is all he’s got on his mind. The duo share the chorus in suggestive harmony as they realize they’re far from sober and so are you, “we can call a designated driver...we can leave together.” Every sharp turn is an opportunity to get closer in the back seat, nervousness rising only to be soothed by mutual desires to close the gap between you two in a tipsy haze. “The sky is spinning, wish it would spin a little more,” the younger cheekily sings, wanting the liquid courage of the moment to last for the entirety of the ride. “The stars in your eyes are shining, let’s go to a cozier place,” Chanyeol accompanies. By the end of "Closer to You" there’s no longer space for subtle suggestions or light teasing between the two of you, just heavy petting away from the curious stares of anyone who could judge you for moving too fast... well, except your Uber driver.
"Borderline" is the indisputable second act of this Hollywood love story as we take a big step over the line between playful flirtation and damning infatuation. The infectious Soca instrumental is the perfect backdrop for this change from the gentle, romantic mood of the previous two tracks. There’s a noticeable urgency here, a quickened heart rate smoothly riding the danceable drum beat as we dive headfirst into some heavy emotions. Sehun opens this track, seemingly rushing to express himself as you begin to put up walls you hadn’t erected before. The last few days have been a carefree romp, and suddenly he’s feeling you pull away, contemplating the end of your relationship before it’s even truly begun. “Be troubled about eternity later,” he begs, “do as your heart says.” Lines are no longer blurred between you two, no gray area to be found as the duo boldly confess. “I love you, need you, want you,” they say, clear as day. The innocent, careless fling is over for them. Still, the insecurity rises above the hasty façade; while admitting they’re in love with you, they only ask if you like them, at least. Your friendship has been wonderful, but Chanyeol says he no longer wants just that. The desperation in their words and their need to be understood is stifling, the repetition disarming. “You’re drawing a line, I’m busy erasing it... I cut the line, you’re busy tying it back again.” Where they nearly cross the line into disrespecting your resistance, they reveal this frenzied response isn’t coming out of thin air, it's in response to your excuses to end the affair. Chanyeol tells you he’s not like the men you’re comparing him to, men who have broken your heart before. You’ve always been careful with your heart, and here you were nearly handing it over to a near-stranger. Furthermore, this stranger had the nerve to be judging you for your protectiveness. “You’re complicated, you think too much.” You’d be offended if you didn’t realize he’s only desperate to rid you of that fear, remove any doubt in your mind that this isn't more of the same. While Chanyeol is pushing for those boundaries to be removed entirely, Sehun seems to pull back a bit from his opening stance, seemingly willing to compromise. “Let’s do that later,” he says of maintaining the friendship you've built. For now, just for a minute, even just a second, he’s asking you to trust him, let him lead you deeper into the waters of what you’ve experienced together. They’re passionate, damn near frantic in this song. Everything about the scene pulls you in, begs you to believe our romantic heroes when they say—too sweetly to truly sound arrogant—that nobody will love you the way they do. And against your better judgment, you’re willing to believe them for now and stay another night.
"Roller Coaster" meets us on the other side of the wave finally crashing over us, serving as a lively climax to our story. The relaxed tone has returned, albeit a little more playfully explicit. Chanyeol delivers his first lines with an evident smirk, urging you to get your all-day pass to... some sort of amusement park? Well, apparently there’s a carousel as well as a roller coaster, so let’s say... carnival? Either way, he’s warning us to be wary of other roller coasters, advising we not be so quick to—ahem—ride any old coaster we come across just because there’s a line. “You look pretty even when you’re shaking,” he says softly, offering his wrists to hold if you’re scared. In case the jest of the song is still lost upon you, the lyrics only get more flagrant and suggestive from here. After the intensity of "Borderline," it’s nice to hear that you can just sit back and let the inevitable “explosion” come to you, assured all the necessary precautions have been taken to make this the safest ride around (we don’t have to talk about South Korea's serious condom issue, do we? I sure hope we don’t). “Express yourself, scream louder,” the duo encourages. There’s no need to hold back any feelings anymore, this is the time to truly enjoy yourself. “I’m ready, all day, all night, going up and down quickly.” This is the kind of coaster you just wanna ride again and again, as they promised. At this point, you’re even kind of annoying Sehun as you ask to go another round. But hey, he’ll be “open all night,” he says, he’d be a fool to not lead you back to “the world of fantasy” you’re expecting.
While EXO are no strangers to suggestive lyrics, especially in self-written tracks, a song this unmistakably sexual in nature, for lack of a better expression, hits different. The subtlety of Korean colloquialisms within main unit tracks is almost nonexistent within Sehun’s lyrics, opting for more obvious, universal double entendres instead. Or... the song really could just be the cliche, obligatory scene in every romantic comedy where they ride a roller coaster at a carnival...
This song is just about roller coasters.
The album concludes with "Daydreamin’," arriving at the impasse all summer romances seem to reach. The echoing 'footsteps,' the prominent use of electric guitar and looming violins, the somber attention brought to the people walking by as you pause to take in the scenery—every bit of the introduction transports you to the final scene of a whirlwind Hollywood love story. At times it’s been hard to distinguish fantasy from reality, the last few days passing like a daydream you haven’t been shaken from yet. The descriptions are simple and vague, spoken so softly it lingers on whispers. “A dream that you don’t want to wake from,” Chanyeol describes perfectly. It’s unclear if he’s actually experiencing the last moments of your summer romance or dreaming the entire ordeal in anticipation of it. The skyline is a little too pristine, you two seem to be floating above those around you, aimlessly strolling along the boardwalk to nowhere in particular. As you pass the café where your eyes first met, Sehun notices your sudden shift in mood, your smooth voice halting into stutters as you try to form words. Were the memories you created together not as precious to you as they are to him? He wonders if he should ask what’s on your mind, and as he decides against it, the weather unnaturally changes around you. “I can’t even remember the warmth of the hand I grabbed,” he says as he realizes he’s awakening. Chanyeol returns as if he’s inside your head, aware he was both beside you as you slept and present in a world where he had more time with you, where the summer never ends. “You’re still looking strangely insecure... you say goodbye as if you’re moving away.” As real as the dream may have seemed, he knew he could only convince you it was for so long. Even after waking up, conflicting feelings of wanting to return to you plague Sehun's mind to tears, both afraid and hopeful he’ll have the dream of your last sunset troll again. “This was the last time,” he says sadly; the last line in the last song of your love story.
The final track has a noticeable length difference, carrying on into the distance like the final score of a romantic comedy where the guy doesn’t exactly “get the girl” in the end. Instead, he’s left alone in the airport terminal after kissing her goodbye, kicking cans down streets he walked with her, avoiding restaurants where they shared meals, and the side of his bed she laid on for what seemed like an eternity. The song ends in the exact same way it begins, with Sehun singing Chanyeol’s opening line as the same ping pong-like footsteps fade away—a sonic representation of the duo’s perfectly balanced back-n-forth throughout the album. Where "Daydreamin’" leaves us with heartbroken protagonists after a dramatic lead to the end credits, "What a Life" loops us right back into the fantasy of their Hollywood lifestyle. “System shutdown, click.” It’s time for the movie to start again, the cycle repeating itself both artificially and organically, somehow. Time for a new sunrise in a new destination, a new set of rules to break and a new set of strangers to wow with riches and notoriety. “I feel like something exciting will happen,” our characters declare once again, ready to take on the adventures that lay before them in the deceivingly glamorous streets of Los Angeles. They’ll party recklessly, spend money carelessly, and eventually fall into bed with another summer beauty, running through the motions of what feels like love at top speeds. Two friends on a seemingly perpetual vacation, stumbling in & out of movie scenes and love stories for as long as their bank accounts allow...
“What a life,” indeed.