There’s one big main thing Zhang Yixing (alias Lay from EXO) has definitely achieved with the release of his second solo, SHEEP. Through almost all of the 10 songs on the album, he has completely and absolutely shattered any expectations or any kind of preconceptions I had of it.
You see, I’m more than familiar with Lose Control, Yixing’s first release. I know every song from the inside out, and I have long since grasped the sound of it—and maybe shaped my expectations around it, as well. Heading onto the release of SHEEP, I was expecting the same kind of smooth-sounding R&B sound, but maybe a little more upbeat and leaning more towards hip-hop—isn’t that what Yixing had told us about his “second child” anyway?
Yeah, well. He sure did warn us, I guess.
Out since October 7 (Yixing’s birthday!), SHEEP is definitely an interesting musical endeavor, which I definitely was not expecting. The pre-release single “I Need U” certainly did not prepare me for it at all—not that it’s a bad thing. It’s just that the funk-pop song Yixing put out on September 25 is so very different from the rest of the album that it is pretty much… the black sheep of the tracklist. Ha.
“I Need U” is romantic and is built around a guitar and bass pop melody, one of the few melody-centric tracks of the album. To me, it’s a highlight on the album—it’s one of the tracks where you can clearly hear Yixing’s genius as a composer, without getting distracted from it by the lyrics or whatever else might be going on. Plus, the song served as a golden wedding anniversary for his grandparents, who were even featured in the Paris-set music video of the song. How could you not love it?
But as I said, “I Need U” is a strange exception to the tracklist; as we listen to the rest of SHEEP, you’re almost starting to wonder just how it even made it on the album. However, after a few listens, I’ve actually managed to wrap my head around this album and find a huge liking to it.
The lead title track “Sheep” pretty much sets the tone for what is to come. It’s very much a hip-hop song, and it’s so well-crafted: the beat is great, the horns aren’t blaring, the bass is loud enough to drive you into the song. And it wouldn’t sit so low on my top songs on the album if it wasn’t for the lyrics—not to say they’re bad, but the overwhelming amount of English sort of threw me off at first. I’m still trying to grow used to it, but I’ll admit it, it’s not easy. It’s such a weird feeling for me, too—if there’s one person I’m more biased towards to than EXO as a whole group, it’s Zhang Yixing, my favorite member. But this song just… doesn’t do it for me. The music video, though, is amazingly produced and put together, and pairs Yixing’s humor with his confident streak perfectly—you know, minus the bad choice of hairstyle. But cultural appropriation in East Asian pop music will have to wait for another article.
The further I ventured into SHEEP, the more I grew confused. Following “Sheep” and “I Need U” on the tracklist was “Peach.” I made a noise when that song came on the first time—the shocked kind, to say the least. And guess what? This song is actually growing on me. I already loved the beat from the first listen, despite how the lyrics left me speechless. “Peach” actually distinguishes itself with its impeccable production, and how each of the verses never leaves you bored, nor is the chorus jarring. It’s a great song, man—and yeah, sure, he’s singing in English, and about ass (what that peach do, huh?), but then again, is music meant to be serious and desperately emotional all the time? No, it isn’t. Music is meant to be fun, and “Peach” is the proof of it.
Unfortunately, “Peach” won’t be one of those songs I’ll willingly seek out. In fact, I can narrow down my favorites to four songs exactly: “I Need U,” “Hand,” “Director,” and “X BACK.” “Hand” reminds me of the sound that is found on Lose Control: melancholic from the introductory guitar hook to the distorted synths of the chorus, surrounded by brilliantly executed harmonies throughout. “X BACK,” like the name says, is a song dedicated to Yixing’s fans and follows an EDM-influenced melody, marrying Yixing’s high, almost tinkling singing voice to his lower register spoken vocals. Again, just like “I Need U” and “Peach,” the instrumentals are proof of his genius when it comes to composing and producing music. Everything is so well-put together, flowing seamlessly and beautifully.
The same can be heard in “Director,” my top favorite track on the album. “Director” is an R&B song—the best kind, with an urban modern twist and vocals that seem rapped at certain times. I’m dying to get my hand on translated lyrics for this song, because the melody already carries so much through the way it sounds that it leaves me curious as to what exactly the song is about. It’s simpler in sound than the rest of the tracks on the album, but that also leaves more room for the audience to just focus on Yixing’s voice, which is something the rest of the tracks fail to do for me. Please, just listen to “Director.” I don’t see it being talked about enough, when it’s actually one of Yixing’s top songs in his entire career so far, in my opinion.
If you think I’ve purposely avoided talking about the hip-hop and trap songs on this album, you’re half-right. As I said at the beginning, I’m still in the process of wrapping my head around this album, but I actually do have a few favorites amongst those, namely “Mask,” where I’m actually in love with Yixing’s drawled-out delivery (that’s kind of hot, you know), and “Too Much,” with its catchy minimal beat. Maybe this will change in a few days, weeks, or months—but as it is, I do prefer the melody-driven songs of SHEEP. I’ll say this, though: I love Zhang Yixing. I love his ambition as a singer and entertainer, and I absolutely admire his work—I might not be in love with all of it, but I’ll definitely recognize his genius, and I’m no less in awe of the incredible amount of talent this man has.