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The Intricate Brushstrokes of Suho’s ‘Self-Portrait’

The leader of K-pop group EXO goes solo with a deeply personal debut album

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The common stereotype that K-pop stars take no part in the behind-the-scenes production of their music is wholly, hilariously false, and Self-Portrait, the first solo album from Suho of K-pop group EXO, is the latest release to scoff at that misconception. The Korean singer’s dreamy debut is out Monday, and as sweet, sweater-clad Suho put it (via a translator, over Skype): “My hands are all over this album.” And that includes the album’s central artistic theme, the lyrics, the construction of the tracklist, and, of course, the singing. This is a work of art the EXO leader can call his own, from top to bottom.

By Suho’s design, his biggest influence on the album is none other than Vincent van Gogh. The famous painter inspired the concept behind Self-Portrait, particularly “Starry Night”—a track named after Suho’s favorite painting, because sometimes the classics just can’t be beat. Suho even chose March 30 for the mini-album’s release date because it’s van Gogh’s birthday.

It may seem like a surprising pairing, but not to EXO fans with a long memory. According to Suho, in 2017, he traveled to Switzerland for a photoshoot with Allure Korea. There, he discovered the artist who would inspire Self-Portrait. Before this trip, Suho says, he wasn’t particularly interested in visual art—he was, of course, an artist in his own field. But seeing van Gogh’s paintings for the first time in real life, namely the Self-Portrait series, struck a chord with the singer. “I realized you could see almost every individual paint brushstroke and how it was different, reflecting different phases of his life,” Suho said. “That’s when I became a big fan of his work. He became a huge inspiration for this album, and much like van Gogh, although I’m not a painter, I feel like this solo album is marked with all of these paint brushstrokes of my own.”

The singer’s fondness for van Gogh’s portrait series makes sense, considering Suho has spent the past eight years maintaining a subtly shifting and evolving image of his own. Since EXO’s debut in 2012, the subject has remained the same—Suho’s calm, level-headed leadership, show-stopping talent, and Big Dad Energy have not wavered—but the brushstrokes differ from album to album. Until now, Suho has primarily been the model. This time, he’s the painter, too.

The tracks on Self-Portrait are deeply personal to their singer—according to Suho, “For You Now,” is his favorite on the album. “This song is my message to all the people in my life that I regret not telling them how thankful I am,” he said. “It’s my favorite because even though it’s late, I get to show them my gratitude now.”

Lead single “Let’s Love” is named after the EXO group cheer that Suho created early on in their career, an Easter egg for loyal fans—not to mention the rest of EXO. “The members loved it—they found it extremely meaningful,” Suho said. But, covering a smile, he admitted that his EXO groupmates provided him with no advice whatsoever for his solo debut. Luckily, he doesn’t appear to need it.

The exact responsibilities of K-pop group leaders can vary, but one constant tends to be their role as the voice of the group in shows, interviews, and promotions. “I’m used to being the one to speak on behalf of the members,” Suho said. He’s not nervous about being the center of attention, but he does miss the presence of his additional groupmates—namely, to laugh at his jokes. “It is slightly awkward, because usually we would talk to one another, react to each other in promotions. But now that I’m doing it all alone, it does feel a little …” He pauses. “I miss their presence for sure.”

For fans, it is a little unusual to see Suho operating solo. More than anyone in EXO, his personal image is inherently tied to that of the others—his role since debuting in the industry has, more than anything, been to guide and represent the rest of his group, both onstage and off. After all, Suho, a stage name given to Kim Junmyeon before his debut, means “guardian” in Korean. But he has less and less to watch over these days, as EXO is increasingly—if temporarily—fractured by a number of factors, including mandatory military enlistment, alternate group promotions, and personal commitments. That said, EXO remains one of K-pop’s most successful groups, and Suho isn’t shy about his continued faith in the group as a whole. At an EXO concert last year that incorporated temporary tattoos into the members’ styling, Suho chose to display the names of all nine current members on his back—a meaningful gesture, considering he included both Xiumin and D.O., currently serving in the military, and Chinese EXO member Lay, who (somewhat controversially) hasn’t promoted with his group for several years.

But his leadership role in EXO aside, a solo for Suho (a “Su-lo,” as the internet has dubbed it) is long overdue. At most EXO concerts, members perform solos and duets, including Baekhyun’s “UN Village” and Chanyeol and Sehun’s “What A Life.” But until now, Suho has always sung an adapted version of a group song by himself. Now, he finally has six solo songs of his own to choose from—and they’re a far cry from what EXO fans may be used to hearing.

”I think a lot of people will be surprised with the kind of music this is going to be,” Suho said of Self-Portait’s easy-listening indie rock. Considering the last EXO single, “Obsession,” was a sinister, sci-fi club banger, he may onto something.

Self-Portrait features a soothing acoustic tone—particularly on “Let’s Love”—that complements Suho’s soft, pure voice. “This is the genre of music that I’ve always loved, ever since I was young. I’ve always dreamed of producing this kind of music, if I ever got the chance to make a solo album,” he said.

Suho also expressed the hope that international fans and people who may not know EXO will discover and enjoy the album. “I hope they’ll just like my voice, and like the music,” he said. “I hope that international listeners will look up the translated lyrics and ... hear my heart. Because there’s so much of it—so much of me—on this album.”