The world first met Kim Jong-in as KAI on Dec. 23, 2011, when SM Entertainment revealed him as the first member of EXO. They announced the news in a special teaser video posted on the SMTOWN YouTube channel. The video was the first teaser for the 12-member K-pop group EXO, which would later become one of the most popular K-pop groups of all time. The group had an interesting concept never seen before in K-pop — the group was split up into two subgroups: one performing in Korean and the other in Mandarin Chinese.
KAI evolved by being in EXO. He emerged from his time with EXO as an even stronger performer than he was in his 2011 internet debut. He was never shy, but somehow had become even more confident on stage; he solidified himself as a stronger performer as he started to learn more about himself and his personal style. All his hard work with EXO culminated in his 2020 solo release, “KAI.”
KAI’s solo album announcement was surprising, even to longtime fans. KAI was known as EXO’s lead dancer, and he wasn’t a large part of the band’s vocals. And, with EXO’s line-up of impressive vocalists like members Do Kyung-soo, Kim Min-seok, Byun Baek-hyun, Kim Jun-myeon and Kim Jong-dae, KAI didn’t get many singing parts in EXO’s music. Most of KAI’s vocal contributions to EXO’s songs were through rapping. Solo songs onstage would usually be autotuned, which left a big question mark as to what KAI’s vocals actually sounded like.
While no one knew what to expect, some believed that KAI’s album would be rap focused with mostly fast-paced dance trap beats. Some expected KAI’s solo release to be unsuccessful because of his lack of involvement in EXO’s vocal line. However, when teasers for “KAI” started coming out, KAI’s smooth, sleek vocals came through and drastically changed preconceived notions about the upcoming album.
“Mmmh” was the single track off of “KAI” that was teased in an SMTOWN YouTube video a few days before the album came out. The energetic beat and soft vocals of “Mmmh” seemed nearly the exact opposite of what everyone had been expecting. The music video for “Mmmh” featured crisp sci-fi visual aesthetics and clean, precise choreography.
Old EXO-Ls would recognize KAI teleporting around the dance floor in the video to be a callback to old EXO videos. In EXO’s original concept, each member had powers, and KAI’s was teleportation. This wink at fans reminded everyone that he wasn’t forgetting where he came from on his way to becoming a soloist.
“KAI” leans heavily toward R&B and alternative R&B. The album features beats that are groovy and atmospheric; the tracks are minimalistic in a way that truly complements KAI’s vocals. “Mmmh” took over the K-pop fanbase with its addictive chorus and smooth overall sound. Even those who had never known much about KAI were becoming fans of his emerging new style of music.
Fashion is important to KAI, and the outfits and styling for “Mmmh” didn’t disappoint. He experimented more with non-gendered and androgynous looks in “Mmmh,” sporting a cropped sweater at one point of the video. Cropped tops have become a signature part of the fashion style he’s known for. He dons a crop top in EXO’s music videos for “Tempo” and “Obsession,” and he’s even known as the K-pop star who created the newest crop top trend among idols, proving that his fashion is being watched closely by others in the industry.
In 2021, KAI released another mini-album and a single called “Peaches.” This album continued to develop his signature soft, dreamy sound. The single “Peaches” leaned farther away from the harder dance beats and R&B sound that had been the centerpiece of “Mmmh” and experimented with a sweeter sound.
Songs like “Vanilla” and “Blue” continue the dreamy sound while songs like “Domino” keep the same energy as the faster tracks of “KAI.” This second album made it clear to the world that Kim Jong-in was not only EXO’s KAI, but soloist KAI. By being able to have more creative freedom when it comes to his music, KAI has been able to truly connect with himself and show this new side of himself to fans.
Styling for the “Peaches” music video was just as impressive as the styling of “Mmmh.” In teaser pictures released before the video, KAI effortlessly combines a black suit with a long white lace train in pools of pink water. Another style in the video included a historical Hanbok-inspired outfit that feels very clean and fresh.
The overall aesthetics, photobooks and teaser images of the “Peaches” music video show a softer side of KAI. It stayed consistent with the new version of KAI fans had finally met and added more to his new form of gender expression. The style of both videos is reminiscent of looks from fellow SM Entertainment artist and one of his best friends, Lee Tae-min. Tae-min has been leading the crowd when it comes to the new wave of androgynous style in K-pop. Both artists have stated that they enjoy the new gender-neutral fashion that is becoming popular not only in South Korea, but all over the world.
It’s easy to be entranced by the dreaminess of KAI’s music. There’s something about the way his beats and vocals combine to create a smooth and soft overall song composition. He adds his personal flavor wherever he goes. He’s constantly rearranging and redefining industry fashion and music in ways that develop as he himself develops into a new type of performer.
Fans wait patiently for a new album, hoping for a third album to come out in 2022, but nothing has been announced yet. And since KAI is a member of both EXO and SM Entertainment combined supergroup SuperM, his activities with these bands could affect a future solo release. As we watch him progress into a new stage of his musical career, we’re going to continue to be hypnotized by his impressive satin sound. As a long-time fan, I can assure you he won’t disappoint.