Baekhyun: Bambi - The Third Mini Album
Anyone who's known me long enough understands my on-again, off-again relationship with EXO. More off than on. I've never gotten the hype. This isn't to discredit them as a great pop group. A fine addition to the annals of SM's pop royalty. However, they haven't done anything musically that separates them from anyone else on the scene. Beyond having a fandom that gives ARMY a run for its money on several occasions, EXO isn't a musical paradigm or enigma. SM saved their experimental side for SHINee and f(x), their musical elitism to their legacy groups, TVXQ and SUJU, their innovation for the NCT project. Not even the drama is exclusive to EXO, reaching peaks in older groups in ways that are both frightening and fatal. EXO just doesn't stand out to me.
All that to say, when it comes to the members, I couldn't even tell you who the are (beyond the ones who left, and even they haven't done anything worth note to me). There's D.O. (who we'll get to when he releases his long-awaited solo EP) and Kai (whom they've relegated to the typical problematic commentary about his comparatively darker skin). I only finally signaled Baekhyun out of his multitude of band members when D.O. left to fulfill his military duties and the only vocal to speak of who remained was the one I always thought was a the youngest member. Thus I figured he'd have a relatively typical pop tenor. To find out this man not only is not the youngest member, but has a range that rivals the only other legitimate singer in the group... Yeah, not expecting that.
TVXQ from the beginning was always very fond all of their juniors. EXO was no exception. You can actually sense the care and mentorship in Baekhyun's tone and range. (There's an obvious connection to Shim Changmin in tone and delivery.)
I did listen fleetingly to Baekhyun's first EP and heard maybe a track or two from his second. But I was not at all prepared for Bambi. This young man has a voice that sits so deeply in the R&B pocket you'd think he'd injected Usher and Ne-Yo's discographies directly into his brain. More on that later. Musically, the producers were very intentional. Composing songs meant to highlight Baekhyun's strengths. Sultry, smooth, understated as far as production goes, but very much leaning on R&B conventions. Not too beat-heavy, never pushing further than midtempo in order to give Baekhyun's notes enough time to elongate themselves and truly explore his technical proficiency.
The music certainly plays on my adoration of R&B and to some extent soul. That being said, in their desire to ensure that the music doesn't do too much to overpower the vocal performance, Bambi hits one note and stays there. (Albeit it's a pretty great note: comforting and nostalgic.) However, I commend the producers and songwriters for allowing Baekhyun the space to play with the more sensual depths of his low tenor/baritone while still highlighting the impressiveness of his higher register.
Dissecting the songs themselves, it's what you'd expect from someone sitting primarily in R&B. South Korea's R&B elite also have obvious influence on the album. Tracks "Amusement Park" (heavy nods to Crush) and "Privacy" (conventions very similar to Deanfluenza's production). More direct ties to R&B from the States and Europe pervade the first half (title track "Bambi" and soul-tinged "All I Got"). Again, one note tonally, but damn is it impressive.
All this, of course, comes together with Baekhyun's vocal performance. Again, I hear Changmin's influence, particularly in his softer nasal delivery and most certainly in the fullness of his falsetto. A full-bodied sound that's all the more impressive when considering that Baekhyun's tone never cracks between his lower and upper registers. There doesn't seem to be any real strain when he flows from one end of the scale to the other. It's most noticeable in tracks "Bambi," "All I Got" and "Cry for Love." He's forced to go from soft, breathy low notes (playing up the sensuality inherent in the genre) and sweep almost instantaneously to a more emotive falsetto, fully, open notes that don't sit in his throat, thus there's no real strain, no obvious cracks. (I do realize this could all be studio magic. SM, after all, is all about portraying perfection. Just let me choose to believe this is all down to technique, okay?) The musical break toward the end of "Cry for Love" is one of the most technically immaculate vocal performances I've heard from an idol in quite some time. Baekhyun uses his melisma to dance up and down the scale without a break or a breath (first from his low tenor to falsetto, then back down again, reaching a bit lower to the upper edge of his baritone). It is frightening just how controlled his voice is.
Bambi is the perfect vehicle to fully explore the maturity and technicality that Baekhyun possesses. The EP has one goal: give listeners the full scope of his vocal mastery. While this probably won't push me to listen to EXO, Baekhyun certainly has my attention. His is a talent that seems wasted in a group of more than five members. I wonder if he'll push himself musically and give himself half a chance as a solo artist in the future (providing SM lets out the creative leash a little bit).