From her breakout appearance and eventual win on the first season of Produce 101 back in 2016 to her much-celebrated solo debut with ‘Birthday’ in 2019, Jeon Somi has long solidified herself as the one to watch in the K-pop world. Following the handful of other singles she’s put out in her almost three-year-long solo career, a full-length project from one of K-pop’s promising female soloists has been long overdue.
A musician’s debut studio album is an especially pivotal milestone for any looking to make their mark, as the first and best opportunity to etch out a signature style and sound. Expectations have been indisputably high for Somi in the days and weeks leading up to the release of ‘XOXO’, but in spite of her talents, hard work and all the hype, the stars have not aligned for the singer on her debut album.
Headlining the eight-track ‘XOXO’ is its lead single of the same name, a BLACKPINK-esque pop anthem. With its use of minimalist trap instrumentals and a layered chant-like hook, ‘XOXO’ is structured and executed like a track made specifically to chart high on the Billboard Hot 100. And it’d be no surprise if that’s exactly what this ridiculously catchy song achieves, what with its well-placed rap verses and an earworm of a chorus that’s sure to land well with a wider audience.
Despite that, it has become increasingly clear YG Entertainment composer Teddy Park – who also founded The Black Label, which Somi is signed to – is fresh out of ideas and has chosen to play it safe on ‘XOXO’. The producer has long fallen into this comfort zone of foolproof but boring pop anthems, which works as a double-edged sword for Somi as the album plays on, the familiar songs quickly growing repetitive and uninspired.
Following ‘XOXO’ on the tracklist is the Giriboy-assisted ‘Don’t Let Me Go’, yet another cookie-cutter pop number where tinges of hip-hop meet spry pop rhythms. It’s a track that’s mostly only memorable for the rapper’s impactful but brief verse, as well as a charming back-and-forth outro between the two musicians.
Thankfully, there are moments on ‘XOXO’ where some of Somi’s personality actually shines through. On the pop rock-inspired ‘Anymore’, the Canadian-Korean idol takes listeners on a trip back to the early-2000s. It starts off muted with a stripped-down guitar instrumental before quickly erupting into a peppy, full-throated chorus: “You used to be something like a beautiful daisy / But now you’re like a rose with your thorns how you hurt me / Do I ever cross your mind anymore?”
There’s also the album’s fourth and last new song ‘Watermelon’, which is as refreshing as its name suggests. Here, Somi crafts sweet lyrics with producer 24, comparing love to a watermelon (“So hard to get at first / Yes it’s hard to get before I open my heart / Then all of them are sweet and good”) against a backdrop of bouncy, clanging synths, creating a debonair confessional that shines light on the singer’s potential. But the kicker here is that neither of these two tracks were worked on by Teddy Park.
The biggest issue on ‘XOXO’ is that half of its already condensed tracklist is made up of all of Somi’s past releases. That’s right – everything from her 2019 debut single album ‘Birthday’ to pre-release track ‘Dumb Dumb’ have been included in ‘XOXO’. While Somi’s (admittedly sparse) back catalogue has no doubt helped to establish her as someone to watch, it’s hard to see the positives of including songs fans already know over fresh tracks, especially when you take her infrequent music output into account.
On a debut full-length record that should rightfully allow Somi the autonomy and capacity to flesh her sound out even further, it’s disappointing to see that the space that could have been used to mould Somi’s style and sound, as well as set the stage for the future, has been so criminally underutilised. It’s even more disheartening to think that Somi is now six years into her career (if you count her appearance on Sixteen as the start), and we still don’t know who she is as an artist.
Somi has already proven that she has staying power and the immense musical talent to back it up – but that can only take her so far. Despite all its flaws, ‘XOXO’ at the very least still puts forward a sliver of foresight into her artistic future on ‘Watermelon’ and ‘Anymore’. We can only hope that with more time (and hopefully a producer with more variety), Somi will be able to develop her signature style and eventually translate that into a body of work that is befitting of her abilities.
- Release date: October 29
- Record label: The Black Label