Unfairly or not, comeback tracks by top-of-the-pack artists like EXO will always be held to a higher standard. K-pop moves so fast, with each month stuffed full of releases big and small. Within that framework, there are a handful of acts that command attention across the entire k-pop spectrum. This sets expectations sky-high, but throughout the years EXO has done a solid job delivering on that hype. For the most part, their singles feel like momentous occasions, providing a mega-wattage, impossibly polished burst of energy that cuts through the noise. Last year’s Lotto was an odd exception, grating with its overuse of autotune and unspectacular arrangement. New single Ko Ko Bop is a step up in quality, but doesn’t feel like the big pop moment most would expect from Korea’s leading group.
Rather than stick to a proven formula, EXO have traveled way out of the box to delve into a reggae-inspired soundscape. This genre is more inclined to paint a laid-back mood than deliver a dynamic conversation-starter of a song, and that tendency is the most surprising thing about Ko Ko Bop. It’s hard to dislike the song’s languid flow, but that same chill sense of melodic ease makes Ko Ko Bop a bit of a non-starter. Those looking for the punchiness of Love Me Right or the icy drama of Monster will find little of those qualities this time around. From its understated verses to the loose, simple chorus at its heart, Ko Ko Bop doesn’t feel like it’s trying all that hard to be much of anything. In a way, that unfettered quality is kind of admirable, but I’m not sure it’s the best choice for a title track.
Rather than stick exclusively to reggae influences, Ko Ko Bop also pulls in noisier hip-hop elements that sound as if they were borrowed directly from label-mates NCT. The escalating post-chorus breakdown is annoyingly jarring the first time through, but ingratiates itself with further listens. It’s better used during the freewheeling instrumental break just before the bridge, which would have been even more effective if the producers had enlisted a more prominent percussion section. But that’s the frustration hiding around every corner of Ko Ko Bop‘s hypnotic instrumental. There are many moments that are good, but few that feel spectacular.