EMPATHY (2021) by D.O. — killing expectations with kindness
July 26, 2021 — EMPATHY is released.
After years of being an EXO member and an outstanding actor, D.O. opened his first act as a soloist. It was quite a rough path for his fans, who waited long years for his songs, even if he was also such an important part of EXO’s vocal line, and also for the ones who followed the South Korean group since 2012 and watched them reaching the point of enlistment and hiatus. D.O. had a reputation to be an unpredictable person and so he surprised everyone with an enlistment in 2019 — before some of his older fellow members even talked about theirs, — when his popularity as an actor was already overtaking his idol persona. The public seemed to struggle to recognize that D.O. and actor Doh Kyungsoo were the same person or simply that an idol could be such a professional and talented actor. His varied dramatic and comedic roles, his private ways, and his down-to-earth perspective conflicted with the expectation towards Idols as well. Reserved, humble and well-connected, the actor-singer was constantly praised for his behavior and dedication. One would say that he was bounded to succeed in any area, but in the music industry, being well-known does not translate into success or critical acclaim.
To quite understand EMPATHY as an album released by an idol, a critic must know how this industry negotiates this kind of product — it is naive to see music and art as unrelated to money and business. Not any idol is supposed to be a soloist outside of their group, even if their fans often desire it. Some decide to try new things, such as acting, tv entertainment or to become the face of a brand; but most are not really deciding things. These decisions belong to many people and they aren’t shared often — one or another idol speaks on this matter briefly. There is even the case of idols that beg his fans to help them, to intercede, to pressure and there is the case of those that don’t even have to, since their fans do it themselves with trucks, mass complaints, and other strategies. SM Entertainment, the home to EXO and fans, is crowded with artists to the point of overlapping releases, so it’s no surprise that they have complaints coming from their artists and the public when it comes to giving fair opportunities and diverse platforms to their groups and soloists. They seem to craft certain careers very early, shaping Idols to take specific roles in the public eye — “a concept”.
D.O. met success very early as one of EXO’s main vocalists. The group exploded with “Growl”, to this day still very popular, and maintained themselves on top despite losing members not much after that. The group seemed to be designed for the Chinese market with the two units (EXO-K, singing in Korean, and EXO-M, singing in Mandarin Chinese), but they became a sensation all around the world. Right after the group rose to the top, D.O. started acting in a TV Drama that was also a success. He continued to act and perform, juggling group, drama, and movie schedules, and both activities paid off — he was praised for his good acting and his group’s popularity was still untouched. As he collected awards for his acting and his group’s activities started to decrease, D.O. was now known as Doh Kyungsoo, the prince, the soldier, the boy riding a bike.
And then, in 2019, he enlisted. As a private person, there is very little to know about D.O. compared to other idols. He presents himself as a simple person and tends to answer in a concise and short way, being often reticent about himself. His fans are talented at finding information about him, but he doesn’t seem interested in oversharing — an understandable choice to those who are familiar with the Idol Industry and its dark sides. He enlisted as a cook and that was no surprise, due to his deep relationship with eating, cooking, and food in general. Considered consistent in his words, he tends to show affection to fans by advising them to eat.
But well, you may ask, isn’t this a review of his album? Oh, yes. I told you, it is a rough path and quite long, but art doesn’t come from anywhere — it comes from an artist. To better describe this album, I must be sure you know whose voice you listen to, who hides behind the lyrics.
EMPATHY was informally announced as D.O. returned from the army. He warned his fans that he was working on an album, which created a furor since he had only a couple of songs under his Idol name. It’s common that main vocalists get to sing OSTs, collaboration tracks, and single songs from the company’s projects. SME in particular has a project to showcase their artists, named SM STATION, in which D.O. got two songs released, plus two other OSTs from his acting projects, a small number to entertain fans for about nine years. The official announcement only came a few months later and the date was set. The curious part was that Doh Kyungsoo, the actor, was already confirmed to be filming two movies and participated in an EXO’s special album, released in June.
In the short span of seven months, from January to July, D.O./Doh Kyungsoo was filming a movie, recording and filming a group comeback (album + MV) and a solo album of his own (album + MV as well). The group release was not promoted in music shows or had any type of group showcase since two members were absent due to enlistment. When the album was announced, the fans didn’t expect the solo album to have the same fate, but in the end, it seemed that again D.O. would follow a different path from his fellow Idols — the album was dropped with no public appearances or live performances. Fans complained about the lack of promotion, merch, and information, as they realized that nothing would follow after the BTS content was released.
But, at least, EMPATHY.
The mini-album contains eight tracks, including a Spanish version of one of the songs and the English version of the title track. D.O. showed great pronunciation skills in EXO’s cover of Sabor a Mi and he covered Justin Bieber’s (Boyfriend, Love Yourself) and Bruno Mars’ songs (Billionaire), besides singing the English version of his group’s song For Life, and it was expected that he would showcase his language skills in his album. The album gets the label of Acoustic, so the protagonist here is his voice/vocal ability, reminding the public of the reason why he’s the main vocalist of a highly praised vocal group.
It seems that many nonfans were surprised with the ‘simple’ choice made by D.O., who stated that this was the genre that he wanted to try and quite always appreciated as a listener. Considering his vocal tone and famous runs, many wanted him to sing RnBs like his station song Tell Me What Is Love or simply try something a bit more similar to EXO’s brand. The members who preceded his solo had very expected genres — Chen was offering the deep, soulful ballad that his voice is so suited for; Baekhyun was switching diverse styles being a flexible and capable singer and performer; Suho released melodic rock that had aesthetic tones and a peaceful artistic aura, and Kai embraced dance and RnB with a modern and sexy approach. Nonfans (and some casual fans) waited for what could be the face of a new soloist, expecting it to be as loud and highly produced as some of their acts, and got, instead, his simple, humble and sincere folk. It generated mixed responses at first, of course. In Kpop’s world, more is more. Fans gather to analyze dance movement’s synchronicity, the (actually normal) existence of voice cracks and weak performances, judge their budget, the song drops, the producers, the intricate concepts as they were judges in a reality show. It is a never-ending competition in every aspect and the one who makes more noise wins. Or maybe the one with the biggest numbers.
EMPATHY (2021) is exactly a reflection of what D.O./Doh Kyungsoo has been the past years. A sincere, quiet, and feel-good kind of album that surprises you with details. Just like the singer, there aren’t many adornments here. Doh Kyungsoo walks around wearing all black clothes, old bags and caps, no jewelry, and a clean face and that’s EMPATHY for you: a crude, but a real piece of art, that offers you exactly what it says it would. Good songs based on voice and good interpretation, mostly.
It is also pleasant visually, in its portrait of blue skies and yellow flowers. D.O. is wearing simple clothes in a homely atmosphere, the backyard, a kitchen, or a living room. It sells simplicity, coziness, and warm feelings, and well, the songs match it well. The first song is the title, Rose, a short and cute song about a love fool on verge of confessing. There’s a feeling of nostalgia and young love, of enjoying love for what it is — a state of joy. The English version is even more surprising in this point, with lyrics that were truly appreciated by a foreign fandom that normally isn’t very nice to English versions. The chorus is catchy and the lyrics play with unexpected sounds (kn-ooooo-w and r-ooooo-ses) and puns (I may not have a fancy car but I fancy you), making it a delight to the ears.
I’m Gonna Love You is a duet with Wonstein, whose raspy voice suits the song and pairs with the soft singing of D.O. It’s the one who received domestic interest, being spotted in charts, and even being nominated to music shows, despite being a B-side. It’s soft and it has a rising chorus that gives the listeners a bit more than quietness. The instrumental is not just a background, but a nice company to the voices. My Love reminds me of long lo-fi playlists; it seems that the real genre in this album is nostalgia, after all. It’s a slow, quiet song that evokes the sea sight and late-night thoughts, being by far the most ‘aesthetic’ of the album. Dad follows and it’s your typical ballad, except maybe by the fact that is the one where his experient singing shines the most. There’s no space on stage for anyone but D.O.’s outstanding vocal ability and it deserves a standing ovation.
Just as Rose, I’m fine is written by D.O. You can see the parallels, as he defines here his artistic tone: simple, pleasant, and professional. He plays with his voice and words, sings in English and Korean as if the languages were just the same. The lyrics are soft as his voice and it gives the listener the impression of a warm breakfast, a quiet holiday, or a simple morning with a loved one. And, you may excuse my bias here, he saved the best for last. In a surprising choice of song, D.O. presents Si Fuera Mía, a perfectly executed Spanish love song. You see, that’s a difficult choice. Korean ballad singers could possibly miss an important aspect of Hispanic/latino ballads, which consists of a touch of sensuality even in deep sad songs. Love is sad, but love is good, the feeling is there even if it hurts. You’re not there simply to cry, you’re there to feel the love as well, both sides of pain and longing, never forgetting that where there’s passion, there’s fire.
And he nailed it. His pronunciation of the word besitos tricks anyone into believing that this is, in fact, about seducing, wanting, not about longing. The chorus, however, reminds the listener that there’s something missing, that he’s not able to reach. It’s an experience shaped like a song and, until the end when he recites the lyrics, he draws the listener to stay, to devote their wholehearted attention.
The album ends like that, asking for more, but never overextending its welcome. It is nice, soft, aesthetic, crude, varied, and sincere. It represents the persona D.O./Kyungsoo has crafted for himself despite his Idol status. He poses himself as an artist and not at all the performer of someone else’s concept and idea; he’s offering his words, his choices, and his intention to connect with his global fans. After all, empathy is about connecting, dropping down the masks, and showing the true self, despite the expectations of others. As D.O. said himself, trying to make everyone satisfied is a waste of time. And, as I would say, a waste of artistic freedom and authenticity.