K-pop is many things to many people: It’s a purring economic engine for South Korea, a baffling cultural phenomenon for some music fans, and a lifesaver for teens in search of dance music and earnest, just-sexy-enough young men to fuel their fantasies. EXO are one of the genre’s innumerable prefab groups. Their economic acumen is clear: They doubled their impact early on by releasing songs in both Korean and Mandarin. But EXO are also supported by a small army of talented songwriters and producers who have crafted some of the most beguiling, niche-filling pop on the planet.
EXO saw instant success with their 2013 debut, XOXO, and their third album, 2016’s EX’ACT, was so hotly anticipated it exceeded half a million preorders—no small feat. The dark hit “Monster” gave fans deliciously cryptic, stalker-esque lyrics to obsess over, but it’s just one of many kinetic songs, including the dreamy R&B-esque “Cloud 9” and “Artificial Love,” a knotty, funky dance track that wouldn’t be out of place on a Justin Timberlake album.
The songcraft here is frequently spectacular—and that’s because of one of K-pop’s better-kept secrets: EX’ACT’s stable of producers and songwriters includes some of the best in the business. Among them: the production duo LDN Noise; Dwayne Abernathy Jr., who’s worked with Anderson .Paak, Dr. Dre and Janet Jackson; and Timothy Bos Bullock, who worked on a little album called Lemonade that was released around the same time as EX’ACT. These are heavy hitters, and their influence has helped EXO transcend—some might even say shatter—their prefab roots.