With new album Neo Zone, Seoul-based K-pop group NCT 127 proves that they’re ready to take on the global stage, armed with a vibrant new approach that pushes the boundaries of genre with inspiration from their past eras.
It’s been over a year since NCT 127’s last full length release, Regular-Irregular — an album that certified platinum in Korea and gave the group their first song to chart at no. 1 on the U.S. Digital Song Sales Chart. In the intervening months, NCT 127 has only increased their global presence, releasing a Japanese studio album (Awaken) and an EP (We Are Superhuman), Meanwhile, they took their Neo City: The Origin World Tour through North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia, with additional visits to New York City to perform their English-language single “Highway to Heaven” at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In short, it’s been a couple years of intense growth for the Seoul-based unit of the larger boy group NCT (an acronym for Neo Culture Technology) under one of Korea’s largest entertainment companies, SM Entertainment. After first debuting in July 2016, the group has shifted into the nine members that make up NCT 127 today — Taeyong, Taeil, Johnny, Yuta, Doyoung, Jaehyun, Jungwoo, Mark, and Haechan. Together, their concept embodies the city of Seoul, with “127” in their name representing the longitudinal coordinate of the Korean capital. But the group is also home to members hailing from Japan, Canada, and the United States in addition to Korea, all coming together to make a group of diversely talented vocalists, dancers, rappers, lyricists, and performers. The effect of that effort is clear in the range of musical styles and visual aesthetics that are on display on Neo Zone.
With a significant amount of time having passed since their last comeback, Neo Zone has been highly anticipated by fans (known as NCTzens) and the larger K-pop industry. The day before release, the album had over 500,000 preorders, setting a personal record for preorder volume for the group. The first single off of Neo Zone, “Kick It”, released with an accompanying music video two days prior to the album and garnered nearly 7 million views within 24 hours. Visually, it’s a martial arts concept with nods to iconic kung fu films of the ‘70s. In terms of sound, “Kick It” represents both where NCT 127 has come from (the heavy, darker moments from older tracks like “Cherry Bomb,”) and where they’re going: self-assured, bold, and into their own take on the pop, hip-hop, and R&B hybrid sound that feels ever-present in pop music right now.
Neo Zone opens with “Elevator,” a feel-good dance track that’s coupled with a teaser video of the members dancing and generally being extremely charming in an elevator to the 127th floor. The next track, “Boom”, brings listeners down from the high energy of “Kick It” with acoustic guitar and steel drums produced by American musician Bazzi, who’s worked with Mark previously to co-write the song “We Go Up” for another NCT subunit, NCT Dream. “Pandora’s Box” and “Daydream” display the influence of ‘90s R&B stylings that the group has heavily incorporated in this new release — both tracks slow down the tempo, and “Daydream” brings out an airy quality; Doyoung, Yuta, and Jungwoo’s falsetto vocals invite the listener into the dream.
An orchestral, almost spooky interlude splits half-way through to usher in EDM influences (reminiscent of past songs like “Superhuman”), On the back half of the album, hip-hop reigns in “Mad Dog” and “Sit Down,” giving rap line members Mark and Taeyong (both credited as co-writers for multiple tracks) the spotlight. Elsewhere, electronic club banger “Love Me Now” is a danceable highlight perfect for arena shows and grounded by Jaehyun’s deeper vocals. Further on, “White Night” and “Dreams Come True” invoke jazz piano-laden soul-pop, while “Love Song” (produced by long-standing R&B production team The Stereotypes, and featuring member Johnny’s first co-writing credit for NCT 127) wouldn’t feel out of place on a Bruno Mars record.
But Neo Zone is at its best on “Not Alone,” a slow jammy ode to their fans with a Stranger Things synth line, the members balladeering over a warm trap beat with Haechan and Taeil, two of the group’s strongest vocalists, shining throughout each verse. The song was accompanied by a heartwarming teaser video where NCT 127 shows their love for one another and their fans by assuring them “we are never alone.”
With their second full album release, NCT 127 feels more fully-evolved than ever, more choosy in their references but also more confident in their presentation. They’re always game to nod back to visual and musical aesthetics that have inspired them in the past, while also reaching to whatever they can dream up for the future, all packaged within 127’s broader vision for a dynamic, passionate presence in the industry. As Mark told Refinery29 back in April 2019, “NCT 127 really leads with the idea that we have no limits. I feel like we’re always being experimental and meeting new challenges. It’s not that we’re necessarily chasing after new and trendy things, but just being ourselves and having our true colors come through in every single performance and song.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue