On Oct. 29, JEON SOMI dropped XOXO, her debut album after two long years since she emerged on the scene with her first single, 2019's “Birthday.” This eight–track album has a mixture of up–tempo pop anthems to mid–tempo R&B–inspired love songs, yet SOMI struggles to find her voice throughout the album. On top of that, the record deals with themes of love, romance, and relationships, well–worn subjects in the music industry—but XOXO doesn't add anything particularly new.
For SOMI, her path to XOXO was a long journey. Recently rebranded as her full Korean name JEON SOMI to avoid confusion from other soloists such as Sunmi, the Canadian native, born as Ennik Somi Douma, was always in a weird middle ground of obscureness and fame. On one part, due to her mixed ancestry and K–Pop’s general disdain for non–Korean idols, she often isn’t respected due to her looks and the tomboyish image that she portrays. SOMI also released only three singles in a two–year period, not great for a developing artist trying to get her name out there.
On the other hand, SOMI is, indeed, a recognizable name in the K–pop world, due to her appearances in the reality competition shows, Sixteen and Produce 101. She didn’t make it into the final nine in Sixteen to debut as the now–popular girl group, TWICE, but it gave her enough name recognition to help her place first in Produce 101, allowing her to debut as I.O.I with ten other trainees. The girl group didn’t last, however, and SOMI ended up changing labels in 2018—choosing to pursue a solo career.
In 2019, SOMI released her debut single and XOXO’s first single, “Birthday.” The new soloist sings about celebrating herself as if every day was her birthday in this pop–rap self–empowerment song. “Don't look for the old me, baby / Because I'm reborn as a new me” goes the pre–chorus' translation, capturing SOMI’s charisma and confidence in the same way that allowed her to win first place in Produce 101.
With a long delay due to COVID–19, “Birthday” was followed by 2020’s “What You Waiting For,” the album’s second single. In the synth–pop track, SOMI laments an apprehensive lover, “What you waiting for?” She even takes the imagery of throwing one’s phone on the ground in anger into an interesting metaphor, “It's because of you / I end up hating my innocent phone.” SOMI notably has a writing credit on this song, an uncommon occurrence in K–Pop, contributing to SOMI's unique path.
The album’s title track, “XOXO” came with the album. “XOXO” is perhaps the best track in this short project, perfectly blending her cutesy style with her tomboyish attitude and empowerment message. “Feelin sorry for myself that I gave you half of me / Had enough / Don’t want it anymore even if you give it back,” SOMI seethes, highlighting her unique blend of charm and strength.
With all of these standout moments, a few factors threaten her to falter with the final product. “Dumb Dumb,” released as the album’s third single in Aug. 2021, is a colorful and sassy hybrid of a dance–pop track, where SOMI sings about how she and a love interest keeps playing dumb despite harboring crushes on each other. “Trying my best to put up a front to impress you / At the end, it's all for you” the idol sings in her lower register as if she’s challenging the listener to stop acting daft and confess their love for her. Yet, before a listener can even take her up on the invitation, the song is already finished, clocking in at a measly 2:27. As fun as the track is, it leaves something to be desired—in this case, a fuller final chorus and a complete bridge.
“Dumb Dumb” highlights XOXO’s main problem: inconsistency. We’re not always hearing SOMI’s true voice because she’s either hindered by weird song structure or because there are too many hands behind a track. In fact, all of the tracks include at least one producer that has previously worked with BLACKPINK, most notably TEDDY. On the surface level, there isn’t necessarily a conflict of interest. Just knowing that information, however, would explain why a few of the songs sort of sound like BLACKPINK B–sides. In fact, “XOXO” even references a lyric from “SOLO"—a song by BLACKPINK member Jennie, and also written by TEDDY.
It is in songs like “Watermelon” or “Outta My Head” where we hear more of SOMI’s voice. We hear her insecurity and blossoming love, with lyrics like “love is like watermelon / So hard to get at first, yes it's hard to get before I open my heart / Then all of them is sweet and good” or “My breathing gets rough, feels like I'm tipsy / Oh, babe, it's like this whenever you're around.” These lyrics, although simple, carry a lot more weight with her vocal performance and how she emphasizes every word she sings. These two songs are also self–penned, with no additional writing credit other than SOMI herself, and ring with extra sincerity. However, with such a short album, these moments are fleeting. With the other songs manned by so many people, it’s not always easy to hear SOMI’s true personality through the songs.
The other main problem is with the album format and release. There are only eight tracks, a tactic that was done with BLACKPINK’s blockbuster, THE ALBUM, and it seemed that the company tried to emulate the same formatting. The issue is that four of the songs were released before the project came out, leaving only four brand new songs. The final track, “Outta My Head,” was released as a B–side track along with “Birthday.” The large time gaps between the singles and additional B–side meant that XOXO feels more like a compilation album than an actual album, something one can imagine SOMI didn’t intend to do. It also doesn't help that every song has to do with love.
For the former part, THEBLACKLABEL (a subsidiary of YG Entertainment) might’ve had some part with the sporadic rollout, given that BLACKPINK also suffered from extended hiatuses and long waits between new releases. Although SOMI’s hiatuses were partially due to COVID–19, K–Pop is known for frequent “comebacks.” SOMI suffering from a delayed rollout makes the listening experience of XOXO jarring, but ultimately isn’t entirely the artist's fault given her lack of control over the release schedule. Also, the love songs in XOXO clearly fit the theme of the cheekily titled album. It’s just that XOXO’s shortness gives the songs no room to expand beyond its thematic elements, hindering the value of the project. For a debut project that took so long and so much effort to realize, one cannot help but feel a little disappointed at the lack of variety.
Despite executive mishaps, SOMI made the best of what she had, and in each song and music video, you cannot help but marvel at her charming stage presence. She sings with conviction, allowing the audience to connect with her in a way that many artists are still trying to develop. With the right support, SOMI can become a big K–pop idol, if only her record label begins to share the same vision as the artist herself.