Album Review: EXO – For Life

Release Date: 2016.12.09

Tracklist:

  1. For Life
  2. Falling For You
  3. What I Want For Christmas
  4. Twenty Four
  5. Winter Heat

Total Runtime: 00:18:00

Recommended for: those looking for a holiday mood booster, medium tempo pop and R&B fans

NOT recommended for: hard hitting hip-hop lovers or people looking for upbeat dance tracks

EXO is back just in time for Christmas with their third special winter album and final comeback of 2016. It’s a comeback made as a gift for the fans: the boys won’t be promoting the title track or album on music shows but still wanted to give a present, of sorts, to Exo-Ls this holiday season. The For Life album features a diverse but fairly small track list of five songs ranging in genre from brooding ballad to holiday hip hop. It’s a bit of an eclectic mix, but Exo always deliver on a few great wintery tunes. So let’s check out what they have in store this year.

1. For Life

The first song on the album is the eponymous title track, “For Life.” It’s a very soft ballad, which isn’t unusual for the lead single of Exo’s winter albums, but it does a good job of distinguishing itself from past title tracks. The song utilizes the vocal talents of all nine members, though poor Sehun only gets a single shared line with Xiumin. In other words, if you’re looking for a rap breakdown in the bridge of the song, it isn’t going to be there. The first half of the song features a simple piano instrumental accompanied by each of the members singing their individual parts. The vocals are low and emotive for the most part, until the chorus where Xiumin effortlessly enters his higher range. The swelling of orchestral strings also makes entrance in the chorus of the song, adding some complexity to the otherwise simple backtrack.

It isn’t until the second chorus of the song where the vocal harmonies really hit, but when they do it’s phenomenally beautiful. The bridge of the song is the clear climax, with Chen belting out some impressive high notes. The track finally ends with an instrumental that gently winds down and D.O.’s soft vocals. As far as Exo winter ballads go, I would rank “For Life” above “Sing For You” but below “Miracles in December.” This most recent winter ballad is a more dynamic song than SFY but lacks some of the sparkle of MID, in my opinion. Exo have released a number of exceptional ballads in their career. And while I don’t think “For Life” matches some of these in memorability, the actual vocals presented are fantastic and the song is a nice, sweet listen.

2. Falling For You

Up next on the album is the second track, “Falling For You.” This pop-R&B medley is a fun little mix of rapping and vocals and starts of high energy right from the start. Chanyeol begins the song with his deep “Yeah’s,” punctuated by some melodic “Ooh-wah’s” from the other members’ background vocals. The members then take turns signing in the first chorus before Chen and Baekhyun switch off parts during the chorus. It isn’t until the third verse of the song where a bit of rapping from Chanyeol and Sehun finally makes an appearance, but it’s tastefully done. In any case, it doesn’t last for very long and soon singing reenters the song as the bridge slows down a bit. This track wraps up with one last chorus, a few “Ooh-wah’s” for good measure, and a very nicely harmonized ending line.

“Falling For You” is jazzy, with brass instruments in the back of song and a constant electric piano played throughout. There’s an oddly… bouncy quality to the song, and it certainly has a more uplifting sound to it than the track that preceded it on the album. I think the vocals and rapping were very appropriately balanced here, something I found to be somewhat problematic in a later track on the song. Overall, it’s just a feel-good little song. It’s not too fast-paced to be truly high energy, but there’s a definitely a catchiness still present. I dare you to not get those “Ooh-wah’s” stuck in your head after a few listens, because I know I did.

3. What I Want For Christmas

The third track of the For Life album is the R&B slow jam “What I Want For Christmas.” The Korean version of the song features just the vocal talents of Chen, Baekhyun, Suho, and D.O., which is fitting given that this is an entirely a vocal song. Lay swaps out with Suho in the Chinese version of the song, however. Though described by SM in the track list description as an “R&B ballad track” this song definitely has some jazzy undertones. The backtrack is slow but not particularly simple, with a jazz piano featuring over a number of softer instrumentals. The verses place an emphasis of the solo vocals of the Exo members, their voices clear and strong. However, when the chorus hits, the four members come together to sing in a powerful but slow harmony. This song in particular does a good job of alternating the simple, solo vocals with bits of the more impactful, stronger harmonies. There are no rap breaks to be found, just some soulful singing, and I couldn’t be happier. “What I Want For Christmas” is the type of song in which the inclusion of any kind of rap would only seem horribly out of place.

It’s definitely the most “Christmas-y” of the tracks on the album, and not just because the members sing “What I Want for Christmas” multiple times. There’s a certain holiday essence to it, and even the final notes of the piano that end the song sound somewhat reminiscent of a subdued version of “Jingle Bells.” But that’s part of the reason I love it. It’s the type of song I could easily imagine playing softly over the speakers of a coffee shop as the snow falls down outside. As a whole, this track features great vocals, a nice arrangement, and is altogether a keeper for any Kpop holiday playlist.

4. Twenty Four

Twenty Four… oh Twenty Four. What to say about this track. Put as delicately as possible, “Twenty Four” is the type of song you’re likely either going to hate or unironically dab to. I find myself somewhere in the middle, pretending like it doesn’t exist on some days and playing it on full blast on others. It’s a rather eclectic mix of aggressive rapping, sing-song vocals, and an almost discordant instrumental. If 2000’s Christmas music, Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” and Chanyeol’s hype-man voice had a love child, “Twenty Four” would be that baby. I like the concept of this song in that it took the members that didn’t feature in either the Korean or Chinese version of “What I Want For Christmas” and let them do a song together. However, the execution is a bit… strange, to put it lightly.

The song opens with what sounds like the clinking of ice cubes. An instrumental gradually increasing in volume can then be heard before Kai immediately starts singing the chorus. It’s an upbeat start to the song, and Minseok soon follows by singing “You’re my twenty-four” repetitively. I will say, I do enjoy Xiumin and Kai’s voices in the range of this song. It’s a little lower than usual, and while Xiumin definitely excels in his upper range, it’s certainly refreshing to hear him in a deeper sound. Kai, for me, has always sounded best singing lower and softer than some of the higher parts he’s sometimes given in Exo title tracks. When the first verse starts is where I start to take issue with this song. Sehun raps the first part, which is fairly simple and digestible. Then Chanyeol raps the last part of the verse in a way that is both aggressive and sing-song. If that sounds strange in writing, it’s because it sounds strange in the song as well. Then Xiumin sings the buildup to the chorus, which is nice. He is accompanied by Chanyeol’s vocals, which are also nice. The quirky chorus is played again before an even more forceful rap from Chanyeol. The song follows much of the same pattern before Xiumin eventually finishes the song by singing “Twenty four” in a near falsetto.

If you can get past how bizarre the initial first listen seems, the song is actually quite catchy. There are parts of it that are very good, and others that are simply not so good. It’s like the producer tried to put too many things into one song and then end result is just a little discordant. I personally find Chanyeol’s rapping to be a bit too forceful and aggressive in this track, almost jarringly so. And Sehun’s rap has admittedly sounded better in past Exo songs, though I thoroughly enjoyed Xiumin and Kai’s vocals. Nonetheless, “Twenty-Four” is an ear worm, and I bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. I can’t say I’m always in the mood for it, nor can a guarantee most people will enjoy it, but I won’t fully trash talk it either. I’m altogether really glad that these four members got a song together, and that the vocal line got their own. I just wish the sound and concept the music producers went for with “Twenty Four” had been a little different.

5. Winter Heat

The For Life album wraps up with the masterpiece of song that is “Winter Heat,” my obvious personal favorite on the album. This R&B track is a little bit whimsical, a whole lot of beautiful, and manages to balance rapping and singing in the cohesive mix that “Twenty Four” lacked. “Winter Heat” opens with a rather delicate but almost ethereal chiming instrumental and Kyungsoo’s buttery ad-libs. After a short bit of vocals, the song picks up pace instantly and jumps into a first verse that is a predominantly rap. Almost every member gets a short piece to sing in the chorus, with Chen and Baekhyun being given the more vocally challenging parts. There’s also an interesting part of the chorus where Xiumin and Kai share a quick back-and-forth vocal repertoire to a fast paced rhythm. The song manages to switch between the high energy choruses to softer verses with effortless fluidity. And this is aided in part by the return of the beginning of the song’s whimsical instrumental as a prelude to the second verse. The transitions just work in this song, something a have to commend the producers for.

The next verse is half vocals, half rap, in almost perfectly equal balance. After the second chorus, the bridge leaves quite the impact with the sudden change of pace and strong vocals. The instrumental is a mix of epic drumbeats and violins and stands out as one of the most memorable parts of the song. The bridge finally ends with robotic distortion of one member’s voice before the last chorus picks up. The instrumental falls away as Baekhyun softly sings the last line of the song, “Girl, you’re my winter heat.”

It’s a very distinctive song, and something closer to Exo’s sound in 2015 than I would have expected. Excellent production aside, “Winter Heat” just has a quality to it that demands to be listened to again and again, at least for me. All in all, it’s the perfect finish to the album and a standout in Exo’s winter discography as a whole. I could continue to sing it’s praises, but don’t take my word for it. Do yourself a favor and take a listen to “Winter Heat” instead.


In conclusion, I would call the For Life album a worthy addition to Exo’s discography and great wrap up to their busy year in 2016. It’s perhaps not my favorite of Exo’s winter albums but it features some songs that are definitely in my top 10 holiday Exo tracks. Vocally, the members have never sounded better. Their 2016 releases in general have done a great job in showcasing some vocals from members that don’t typically get large singing roles, and there is a definite improvement there. I wish I could say the same about some of the rap in the For Life album however. It’s never been a quality Exo excelled at, but in some past tracks (see “Artificial Love” and “Promise”) Exo have used rapping to enhance the song. Unfortunately, it’s not something I’m hearing in a lot of this album and, if anything, the rap pieces seemed to drag some of the songs down. I definitely found myself enjoying the tracks with little to no rapping in them the most. Cough it up to personal preference or actual problems with the arrangement of the songs, but that’s how I came away from it. That being said, I did hugely enjoy the For Life album as whole. Exo’s winter albums are a bit of guilty pleasure of mine and I will openly admit to listening to them even throughout the summer months. So if you’re into some jazzy R&B tunes, a nice ballad, and one questionable hip-hop song, this album might be the right one for you.

If you haven’t yet, you can give a listen to the full For Life album here:


Replayability – GREEN

greenTracks have a high replay value for those looking for a little holiday cheer or just some great vocals.

 

Cohesiveness – YELLOW

yellowratingreviewSongs range in genre across the album noticeably, though the theme and general sound remains constant.

 

Originality – YELLOW

yellowratingreviewSome tracks are unique and distinctive, while others are much less distinguishable.

Wasta
If there's a Baekhyun, there's a way.

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