'Lit' Review: Exo's Lay Zhang goes beyond K-pop roots and branches into his tryst with cinema in 2-part album
Lay Zhang, more commonly known as Lay, is an all-rounder like no other: a Chinese singer-songwriter, rapper, producer, dancer, actor, fashion muse and philanthropist. He made his debut as a member of the South Korean boy group Exo under SM Entertainment and soon became one of the tops idols in both Korea and China.
After taking East Asia by storm as a part of Exo, Lay would go on to make yet another debut as a solo artiste, hitting the Chinese pop and hip-hop scene hard and making a mark within a very short time. Then, in 2019, he dropped a track along with Jason Derulo and labelmates NCT 127 titled 'Let's Shut Up & Dance', taking his artistry to new levels and announcing he was ready to take his act global.
Lay, whose real name is Zhang Yixing, first gained recognition in 2005 after he participated in the Chinese television talent show 'Star Academy', winning third place. Even before that, however, the artiste was proving he was destined to be a star. His first acting role was in the 1998 Chinese drama 'We The People' when Lay was only six years old. By the age of 16, Lay was already well-versed with the entertainment industry, having participated in a few shows and auditioned for many more, including SM Entertainment in 2008. Following a successful audition, Lay relocated to South Korea, where he briefly worked with Shinee as Jonghun's dance replacement in 2011 before debuting with Exo in 2012, soon earning the moniker 'Justin Timberlake of Asia' owing to both his vocals as well as his dancing.
The idol would begin his solo activities with a spot on the cooking show 'Star Chef' in 2014, as well as being a regular cast member in the Chinese show 'Go Fighting!' that began in 2015 and ran for six seasons, four of which included Lay. He would also go on to release his record-breaking autobiography, 'Standing Firm at 24', make his film debut in the Chinese rom-com 'Ex-Files 2: The Backup Strikes Back', write and record the original soundtrack for the film 'Alone (One Person)', and win several awards for his various activities along the way.
In 2016, Lay surprised his fans with his solo debut song, 'What U Need?', a gift from him for his admirers on his birthday. And from there, Lay's solo work continued to bloom, demonstrating the idol's abilities both as a musician as well as a performer, eventually establishing him as the highest-ranked Mandopop star on Billboard 200 chart and the first Chinese artist to enter the iTunes Top 60 in the US with his third album, 'Namanana'.
Not one to slow down, Lay has taken on 2020 with even more fervor than before. Following some top-tier collaborations, including his most recent cross-cultural collaboration with Steve Aoki and will.i.am for the music video 'Love You More', Lay dropped the track 'Jade' off his latest EP 'Lit' in June, his first in almost a year following 2019's hugely successful 'Honey'.
The title track 'Lit' would prove to be one of Lay's most successful ever, breaking records as a Chinese artiste and debuting on Billboard's Social 50 Chart at #36 and Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales Chart as #22. The pre-order for 'Lit' instantly broke 9 certification records as soon as it went live on China’s QQ Music platform, surpassing 1.5 million pre-orders within 7 minutes and 19 seconds of launch and locking in the #1 position on QQ Music’s daily and weekly album sales chart.
'Lit' saw Lay take his sound further into cross-cultural territory, blending the production values of K-pop with distinctly American hip-hop sounds all wrapped up beautifully in traditional Chinese music and visuals. Developed by Lay's very own Zhang Yixing Studio, 'Lit' is a two-part release featuring six songs each, all co-written and co-produced by Lay who was dedicated to ensuring that the EP told a clear story.
The album's name in Chinese, '莲' or 'lian', translates to 'lotus', a cultural icon recognized in China as something that "grows and blossoms from dirt/mud". The title serves as a metaphor for the album, highlighting both the duality of its two-part release as well as representing a new birth and a new sound that both contrasts with and expands on Lay's past achievements. Through this EP, Lay explores the concepts of solitude, arrogance, self-confidence, loyalty, resolution and courage, all aligning with Lay's impeccable attention to detail and his goal to deliver a clear message through his work.
And to further that goal, Lay enlisted the help of producer Murda Beatz, who delivers that flawless hip-hop sound we've come to expect from him. Part one of 'Lit' integrated familiar ancient Chinese musical elements, concepts, instruments, cultural metaphors with top-notch modern production techniques, mixing English and Mandarin lyrics in every song.
A standout on the record was 'Jade', which combined traditional 'Peking opera' and Chinese instruments with contemporary pop and hip-hop, delivering an interesting and emotional and auditory journey. But for the multi-platinum and award-winning pop sensation, this was merely the beginning, because he's all set to drop another EP later this summer: part-two of 'Lit'. And given that the first offering has already transcended everything Lay has done, taking us from top-notch productions and quality music to a whole new level of cinematic brilliance, we can expect the next phase of the 'Lit' era to deliver yet another record-breaking release.
Check out the cinematic music video for 'Lit' below.
Follow Lay Zhang on Instagram, YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music for more.