Exo: “Tempo”


The K-pop Bop that everyone is sleeping on: "Tempo" by EXO.

November 12th, 2018 | Evan Balikos 

I'll start this out as predictably as possible, I am a moderate fan of K-pop.

Korean popular music is one of the most pliable genres in today's modern pop tournament. Simply put, K-pop does whatever it wants, as long as it makes label giants like SM and YG money. This means groups are able to take on popular genres like EDM, trap, hip-hop, dancehall, techno, rock, and more. However, the main draw for me is their seamless weaving of those genres all into one pop medley, and this is why this month's featured song is "Tempo": the (technically) title-track from EXO's fifth studio album, Don't Mess Up My Tempo.  

For this review, I want to focus on the diverse, capricious, and explosive musical aspects of this fantastic dance song. It's controlled chaotic nature is as alluring as it is commendable.

First, watch the video:

Wow, that was something, huh? So, nevermind all the artsy cinema shots and abstract denotations of plot (there's apparently a whole backstory for the group that is all rather vague), and lets get into the mechanics of this song. 

[NOTE: All of these lyrics were taken from the song's annotations page on Genius.com. The accuracy of this information is up to debate.]

The exciting synth lead that starts the Intro is so propulsive. The addition of the acapella section and soothing snaps to group member Chen's part sets the stage for an unpredictable arrangement.

[Intro: Chen, Baekhyun]

I can’t believe기다렸던 이런 느낌 (oh)

나만 듣고 싶은 그녀는 나의 멜로디

하루 종일 go on and on and oh

떠나지 않게 그녈 곁에

Yeah uh

Then there's the sudden transition into the chorus. The switch-up in rhythm is jarring--a slow, patient R&B stance warps into a bouncy hip-hop section perfectly paired with an admittedly hilarious squeaking bed noise. But it works! Though divisive at first, the noise will eventually melt into the background and you will marvel at the distinct way that this snail of a beat transforms into a tiger. 

[Chorus: All, Chen]

Don’t mess up my tempo

o들어봐 이건 충분히

I said don’t mess up my tempo

그녀의 맘을 훔칠 beat uh

어디에도 없을 리듬에 맞춰 1, 2, 3 uh

Don’t mess up my tempo

멈출 없는 이끌림 oh

The post-chorus wipes the sound slate clean, delivering a punchy house beat and a dangerously funky bass line (This song is professionally engineered to get you dancing).

[Post-Chorus: Xiumin, Baekhyun]
매혹적인 lovely

없이 좁혀진 거리
불규칙해지는 heartbeat

잠시 눈을 감아 trust me (woohoo)

The modulated vocals contrast the bounciness of the chorus well; the darkness in tone and the spacey key tones that flutter around the bass create an enjoyable section to dance to and also create the bedding for Verse 1. 

[Verse 1: Sehun, Chen/Sehun, Chen, (Baekhyun), ((Chanyeol))]
밖으로 나갈 채비 미리 해둬 Are you ready? ((look))

오늘은 내가 캐리 도시 사이의 케미 (aw)

이미 나와 놓곤 뭐가 창피해 ma boo (ah)
어정쩡 어버버 필요 없다고 ((coming out))
챙길 없으니 손잡아 my lady
가는 길마다 레드 카펫 런웨이인걸
발걸음이 남달라 (swish)
지금 속도 맞춰보자 tempo aw

Here, we get that "Uptown Funk" bass-line coupled with the members' suave rap verses and a few adlibs. This is great because several of the members get a chance to perform, even though group member Sehun has the largest and most prominent lyrical section. This, however, is the challenge of delegating sections for a K-pop group with 9 members. 

After a hype-worthy ad-lib, that excellent synth lead arrives from a distance and rides so wonderfully on the ongoing percussion. In addition to this change-up, the group member Suho is now doing his best impression of a contemporary R&B artist--complete with a predictably cheesy babygirl--but he's nailing it.  

[Pre-Chorus: Suho, Suho/Baekhyun, Chanyeol]
Baby girl
아침을 설레게 하는 모닝콜
매일 봐도 보고 싶은 맘인걸
지금부터 나와 Let’s get down
모든 것이 완벽하게 좋아
So don’t slow it up for me

Also, there is some robust vocal layering taking place with other group members Baekhyun and Chanyeol. It's a party of ecstatic exclamations that want to just get down, and those clashing hi-hats in the percussion section create a brimming effect of anticipation. The departure from this explosive funkiness is heralded by the member's robotic

So don't slow it up for me. 

[Chorus: All, Chen]
Don’t mess up my tempo
들어봐 이건 충분히
I said don’t mess up my tempo
그녀의 맘을 훔칠 beat uh
어디에도 없을 리듬에 맞춰 1, 2, 3 uh
Don’t mess up my tempo
멈출 없는 이끌림 oh

Another kick, another great transition. It feels even more earned now that the song has characterized itself and allowed its performers to breathe life into it. 

[Post-Chorus: Baekhyun, Chen]
주윌 둘러봐 lovely (oh oh oh)
없이 좁혀진 거리
너에게 맞춰진 heartbeat
하고 싶은 대로 teach me

Back to the Post-Chorus. Things remain mostly the same here, excluding the inclusion of a nice little section for Chen to riff a little bit. 

Verse 2 brings back the funk, and along with it, some earned braggadocious flair from group members Chanyeol, D.O., and Kai. 

[Verse 2: Chanyeol, D.O, Kai]
Uh (whoo) 
여긴 구역 Don't test me (oh yeah)
혼자 있기 어색하다면 보내줘 message
Now you got me flexin’ (flexin')
주윌 둘러봐
보는 들러리들 위대한 개츠비 (Hold on)
(Wow) I’m doing alright baby girl you don't know (you don't)
치워 머리 위에 물음표 (what?)
사전에 없는 L.I.E
너는 이미 자연스럽게 맞추고 있어 tempo

The virtuosity in this song is astounding. Great vocals performances and rapping too. You don't to have to be fluent in Korean to be able to commend Chanyeol's performance here; his flow and energy compliments another great verse.  And again, this return to the Pre-Chorus is marked by another exciting adlib in the "whoo!" genre. 

[Pre-Chorus: D.O, Suho, Chen, (Baekhyun)]
Baby girl (baby girl)
어깨에 살짝 기댄 그대의 (기댄 그대의)
아련한 향기가 다시 맘에 ( 맘에 baby)
소용돌이치며 몰아친다
이대로 영원하고 싶다
(So don’t mess up my tempo baby)
Don’t slow it up for me

The snap-back into the Pre-Chorus is so fiery--the producers probably considered including a whip sound effect. There's even more energy this time, as members are doubling down on their ad-libs with floating vocal riffs and a various harmonies; some cherubic ooos are fluttering in the background too. Those dynamic hi-hats come back in full-force, along with a strangely fitting Spanish guitar lick. Playing with the theme of their song, there is a sudden drop that occurs once Chen says Don't slow it up for me. 

Here comes the dance breakdown. This section is guided by that familiar synth and clattering bouts of trap drums.

[Hook: Kai, Chanyeol, Baekhyun]
Don’t mess up my tempo
Don’t mess up my tempo
Don’t mess up my tempo
Don’t mess up my tempo (whoa uh)
Don’t mess up my tempo
Don’t mess up my tempo
Don’t mess up my tempo

You can definitely hear the Travis Scott influence in the distorted vocals. Baekhyun's Timberlake riff also compliments this capacious interlude with a little bit of swagger. In a way, this section of the song is its greatest achievement, because after going through the motions of hip-hop, funk, house, and contemporary R&B, it decides to linger on the power of its main instrumental lead and give the members some time to nail the hook in.

The bridge is another welcome change in formula; its another dose of R&B, this time tinged in Boys II Men soulfullness.  

Bridge: Chen, D.O, Chen/D.O, (Baekhyun), ((Sehun))]
눈을 바라보고 말해
나의 귓가에만 닿게 (whoa yeah)
나만 사랑한다 말해
나밖에 없다고 말해
이상 흔들리지 않게) (oh oh oh)
절대 뺏기지 않게) (oh oh oh)
누구도 건들 없게) (whoa)
곁에 너를 지킬게))

What sounds like a piano from a silent film pushes this section off a cliff.  We've come full circle, as this interlude mirrors the acapella singing of the intro and creates that feeling of wholeness in this musical journey. The layering here is excellent; there is a literal sound garden that is planted with the members' impressive vocal skills.  

[Interlude 1: Chanyeol, Suho, Baekhyun, (Xiumin)]
Dum dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum dum
마음이 느껴지니 (느껴지니)
나를 감싸 안은 유일한 나만의 savior
(Oh oh oh oh no) 
모두 그런 바라보게

The 2nd part of the interlude sees Chanyeol, Suho, and Baekhyun taking a crack at Chen's opening line, as he remains in the distance. 

[Interlude 2: Baekhyun, Suho, D.O, (Chen)]
I can’t believe
I can’t believe
I can’t believe
기다렸던 이런 느낌 (이런 느낌)
나만 듣고 싶은 그녀는 나의 멜로디
하루 종일 go on and on and oh
떠나지 않게 그녈 곁에

Chen holds an impressive long note as the song transitions into one final all-too-brief chorus. His charismatic ad-libs  and the members singing along with him really makes what is just over 20 seconds feel like a lifetime's worth of bombastic energy.  

[Chorus: All, Chen]
(Yeah yeah yeah)
Don’t mess up my tempo
따라와 이건 충분히
(Don’t mess up my tempo baby)
I said don’t mess up my tempo
완전히 다른 색의 beat uh
(My tempo hoo hoo)
어디에도 없을 이런 완벽한 1, 2, 3 uh
완벽한 1 2 3 yeah)
Don’t mess up my tempo
멈출 없는 이끌림 (no)

At times, it feels like the producers for "Tempo"- are engineering three different songs. There are sections that are distinctly hip-hop, like the chorus and the dance breakdown, but there are also experimental house beat breaks and R&B vacations splattered all over the mix. The result of this allows for some clever organization in the arrangement, where sections of synth or pieces of percussion can be inserted and taken away with ease. 

Most K-pop groups will take one genre and use it to their advantage, like BTS with rap or Red Velvet with contemporary R&B, but EXO wants to have their cake and eat it too. I'm not sure what "Tempo" is about, but I do know that its multifaceted mixing and the impressive mechanics in the members' performance makes it stick out from your average dance-pop song. The song exemplifies the successful notion of what K-pop does best: taking what's familiar with a traditional pop audience and transforming it appropriately for a Korean pop group. It not only creates great pop music, it creates interesting pop music; I'm hungry for more.