D.O. – ‘공감 (Empathy)’ review: excellent acoustic pop confessionals with a golden voice

After nearly a decade of playing his part in the K-pop boyband EXO, singer Do Kyungsoo finally claims his much-deserved spotlight with his first solo project

It’s no secret that D.O. – real name Do Kyungsoo – is a remarkable singer with a stellar voice. Since he made his debut as the main vocalist of the K-pop boyband EXO in 2012, a solo music career has undoubtedly been on the cards. But instead of hastily going down his pre-destined route, D.O. turned his attention first to acting, where his breakout role in the popular K-drama It’s Okay, That’s Love landed him countless offers in film and TV productions. Nine years on, and after having fulfilled his two-year compulsory military service earlier this year, D.O. is finally kicking off that long-awaited musical journey.

While his fellow bandmates Baekhyun and Kai have opted to experiment with trap and R&B stylings typical of male K-pop soloists, D.O.’s weapon of choice, however, is an acoustic guitar. It’s a sound he felt most “comfortable” with, he’d revealed earlier. “Since it’s my first solo album, I think I focused on doing music that I wanted to do,” the singer said in an interview, per Soompi. But the almost bare-bones production across ‘공감 (Empathy)’ also seems deliberate and purposeful. Unlike EXO’s standard maximalist pop bangers, D.O.’s solo efforts – whether it be his contributions to a soundtrack or collaborations with others – have always offered a much more stripped-back setting to focus on the singer’s velvety vocals and the lyrical moments instead.

Every song on ‘Empathy’ is built around an acoustic guitar melody and it makes the listening experience seamless from start to finish. It’s also a sonic continuation of his last single, ‘That’s Okay’, which he released as a parting gift to fans in 2019 on the day of his military enlistment. If no one had known any better, that song almost feels like an essential prologue to the heartfelt story he tells here.

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As its title suggests, ‘Empathy’ is abound with intimate tracks centred around love, each with the aim to peel back the layers of D.O.’s mysterious physique. He starts it off with ‘Rose’, a chirpy self-penned romantic ditty that’s equal parts whimsical and nostalgic. “Don’t go too far away,” he croons. “Just stay where you are / My baby every day in my heart.” It’s a surprisingly ​saccharine tune, especially from a man who for the most parts of his career has utilised his big voice on grand ballads.

There’s also an English-language rendition of the song, which turns out much better than expected. When it comes to a translated version of a Korean track, the result could go two ways: it’s either a completely awkward disaster or a satisfying counterpart (BM’s ‘Broken Me’ a good example of the latter). Thankfully, ‘Rose’ is safe from the cringe, mostly due to Swedish songwriters Benjamin Ingrosso and Emanuel Abrahamsson, whose creds include Zara Larsson’s ‘Lush Life’.

But the most unexpected entry out of the eight tracks on the mini-album isn’t D.O. singing in English, but in Spanish. Though this isn’t the first time the singer has casually flexed his multilingual tongue – he’d previously performed the Spanish classic ‘Sabor a Mí’, written by Álvaro Carrillo and popularised by Los Panchos, during a concert in Mexico with some of his EXO members a few years back. The final song on the EP, ‘Si Fueras Mía’ comes as a bonus track and an alternate rendition of the album cut ‘It’s Love’.

If the original Korean version is a blushing portrait of a man quietly yearning for love and to be loved, then its Spanish transformation is a passionate declaration of falling head over heels for someone you can’t have, but you don’t care either way. Instead of stealing heart-fluttering glances and exchanging shy smiles, on ‘Si Fueras Mía’ D.O. plunges into romantic daydreams about sharing “little kisses filled with love”. “Oh, if only you were mine / The places I would take you to / To see you happy and to see you smile / There’s nothing I wouldn’t do,” he professes over warm plucked strings.

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When he does flirt with other genres however, like the R&B-inflected ‘I’m Gonna Love You’ with MSG Wannabe rapper Wonstein, it’s all done tastefully. Slow-burning tracks like ‘My Love’ (which features a co-writing credit from Day6’s Jae) and the smokey ‘I’m Fine’ are also gems in their own right. But along comes ‘Dad’, a tear-jerking ode to the father figures in our lives. Taking a page from Ed Sheeran’s book of piano hits to reproduce his own confessional ballad, D.O. reflects on his relationship with his dad as he expresses his gratitude to the one who’s raised him before their time runs out. In one heart-tugging line, D.O. sings, “We’re always looking at each other and trying to be together, Dad.” It’s touching yet at the same time wistful, a song that’ll no doubt strike a chord with anyone who struggles to show their affection towards their parents.

It might have taken D.O. nearly a decade to release his solo album, but ‘Empathy’ is certainly well worth the wait. It’s an excellent, unblemished body of work full of emotions from one of the most underrated K-pop vocalists of this generation, and hopefully it signals that D.O.’s musical journey is only just beginning.

Details

EXO D.O Empathy
  • Release date: July 26
  • Record label: SM Entertainment
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