Review: EXO’s Baekhyun Embraces Dark R&B Immersion On ‘City Lights’
The South Korean singer’s debut EP shows he knows exactly what he’s capable of and he isn’t afraid to let it show
When EXO member Byun Baekhyun, better known mononymously as Baekhyun, announced he would finally be making his solo debut, we all took it for granted that he would deliver excellence–he is after all, one of South Korea’s best vocalists. What we didn’t see coming however, was the path he would take. Baekhyun’s penchant for romantic ballads is forgotten as he makes a complete immersion into dark and heady R&B. With music churned from high-profile producers like AOMG’s Cha Cha Malone, R&B genius Colde, celebrated American producer Darkchild, R&B production team The Stereotypes and more, the K-pop star’s debut EP City Lights has already established itself as a worthy contender for R&B album of the year.
Produced by Korean artist Dress, the lead single “UN Village” is a strong opener with complex and smooth R&B melodies. Baekhyun takes his time to build up effortless and intricate vocal runs but it’s still just a small taste of what his voice is truly capable of. Things pick up a bit on “Stay Up” with Malone delivering his signature sexy trap on a slightly more up-tempo beat, plus a chorus that allows Baekhyun’s voice to soar. The track also boasts a short but fiery feature from prominent rapper Beenzino, who is much in demand since his recent return from mandatory military service. “Betcha” is playful and a little more old school thanks to its early 2000s R&B styling from The Stereotypes. There’s also a fresh kick of attitude from Baekhyun here which adds the right amount of edge to it all. “Ice Queen” steps into more familiar territory with slow R&B arrangements similar to what EXO have previously done– this is courtesy U.K.-based LDN Noise, the production duo behind the group’s mega-hit tracks “Monster” (2016) and “Gravity” (2019.) It’s a pretty track, but definitely not a stand-out moment and the only time City Lights falls short of a surprise.
Written by Colde and produced by Darkchild (known for his work with Mary J. Blige, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber), “Diamond” is undoubtedly the best track on City Lights. The rapid melodic transformations as it seesaws from funk to trap also makes fantastic use of Bakehyun’s ability to change keys seamlessly and harmonize with his own falsetto.
Menacing and almost operatic, bonus track “Psycho” stays true to its name and adds dimension to the EP with its harrowing darkness. Baekhyun shows off his vocal range with the haunting, high-pitched background refrain of ‘game over’ which echoes throughout the track as well as various adlibs that cruise from high to low-pitched. The synths are gritty, almost stepping into future bass territory but managing to keep things grunge with dashes of electric guitar. “Psycho” stays in one’s ear long after it’s stopped playing and it’s a powerful note to end the EP on.
Dark, sexy and complex, City Lights shows off a side of Baekhyun we’ve only glimpsed before in certain EXO releases. He’s proven that he understands exactly what kind of artist he is and what he’s capable of, therefore he’s unafraid to be seen in a brand new light.