When the video call connects, NCT Dream are already yelling. Never mind the chaotic septet are down two members – with Mark and Haechan flying back to Seoul at the time of the interview – or that the rest of Dream (Renjun, Jeno, Jaemin, Chenle and Jisung) returned from Manila on a red-eye flight in the morning, after a concert just the evening prior. NCT Dream still have enough energy to fill a room, peaking the levels of a laptop speaker half a world away.
“Looking at us individually, we seem so grown up and mature,” says Chenle over Zoom. It’s true. Since their debut in 2016, the now-20-year-olds and twenty-somethings have blossomed into young men: longer legs, deepened voices – points to maknae Jisung’s baritone and close to six-foot frame – and a little more self-assuredness in their eyes. “But,” the Shanghai-born child prodigy continues, “whenever we’re together, I swear the room gets so loud.”
The palpable (and yes, sometimes loud) camaraderie derives from spending impressionable years together, on camera, in dance studios, living and breathing in close quarters, 24/7. NCT Dream, or the “Dreamies” as endeared fans call them, have bonded over life in the limelight and… friendship rings?
Renjun slides one off his finger, holding it up to show me. The matching silver bands were his idea – it’s one of the reasons the soft-spoken, agile-voiced singer is dubbed NCT Dream’s glue. Yet as Jisung rubs his pinkie in demonstration, Chenle has a confession to make. “I lost it,” he admits in English. Chenle glances over to Renjun like a kid waiting to be scolded. But then: “Me too,” Jeno says, a conspiratorial smile crinkling the rapper’s eyes. With a grin, Chenle clarifies. “We lost it.”
As far as they’ve come, the Dreamies are the first to admit they’re still awkward teenagers at heart. (Jisung was 14 when their first single was released; Mark was 17.) “Whenever we all get together, we still act like little children,” Renjun says, to which he receives a hearty round of “that’s right”s. It’s obvious in the way Jisung full-body cringes at the memory of crying to K-dramas and slice-of-life anime, or the way they bounce between lucid observations and point-blank provocation aimed to make the others laugh. And, as we’ve just established, they misplace things (a lot). “No matter what, the vibe of how we used to be when we were younger just never changes,” Jeno says.
Recently, though, NCT Dream’s future has cracked wide open. To start, this line-up was never meant to last. Dream’s original concept included “graduating” members onto greener pastures (aka, another group within NCT) once they reached adulthood, and adding more talented youngsters into the mix. A change of plans came once it became clear neither fans nor the members themselves were ready to say goodbye to charismatic leader Mark, the eldest – nor, the irreplaceable bond the seven had formed.
In 2021, they reunited as a full team to release the piquant, Afrobeat-inflected ‘Hot Sauce’, smashed records, then cruised to new heights once again with kaleidoscopic optimism on ‘Hello Future’. “Can you believe it’s only the beginning?” Haechan belted with confidence – and, clairvoyance: “We’re going way up.” He wasn’t wrong. This year, the combined sales of their sophomore studio album ‘Glitch Mode’ and its repackaged re-release ‘Beatbox’ have minted them as “triple million sellers” a second time over.
It’s been a journey the Dreamies hadn’t ever hoped to imagine for themselves. The clock was always running out, or so they thought. “Back then, when we rode the hoverboards [at our debut stage], I was really just an innocent, bright kid,” Jisung says, pushing himself upward on his chair. “[Looking back], I would probably tell myself to… have more thoughts? To think just a little more, to be more intentional in looking toward the future.”
“Personally,” Renjun carries on, theatrically staring up at the ceiling as if lost in thought, “I would tell my younger self to be just a bit more careful so that one day, when he’s performing at SMTOWN LIVE in Tokyo, he avoids slipping and falling onto the stage.” Jisung hums sagely, while Chenle cracks up in the background. That’s the thing about the Dreamies. For every nugget of wisdom comes a facetious – and often uproariously funny – chaser.
Or, perhaps two.
While his bandmates speak, Jaemin has been perfectly cool and collected, content to sit back, observe and shoot a closed-mouth smirk directly at the camera when appropriate. But, called upon for insight, it’s as though a switch is flipped. He’s ready to put on a show. “Me? Well, if I were to go back in time,” Jaemin begins, fingers cradling his head in a facsimile of Rodin’s The Thinker, “I would say, one day, you will really, really” – pause for dramatic effect – “become so much more good-looking than you are right now.” Jeno immediately dissolves into laughter, plopping his forehead down on the table, but Jaemin’s act refuses to go off the rails once it’s been set in motion.
“So don’t worry about it too much!” he continues brightly. “If anything, just focus on always being the cutest person you can possibly be, and let your every action come from utter cuteness.” Jaemin nods, as everyone else looks on in amusement. “That is something I would really like him to hear.” Advice heeded: in a choreo highlight from ‘Beatbox’, everyone circles Jaemin as he puffs out and pokes the apples of his cheeks. (There’s still room for improvement, though – he thinks it could have been even cuter.)
Dream taps into that childlike charm sparingly on newer projects, yet with a finesse unhampered by the years. On March’s techno-rock mishmash ‘Glitch Mode’, they groan of “buffering” in front of a crush. ‘Beatbox’, meanwhile, is a carefree romp through school hallways and campus radio booths. Here, however, the schoolyard concepts of their past have been aged up. “[It’s like] kids in college, in a club together,” describes Jeno, who says the setting, despite its familiarity, reflects their growth.
Standing in the same place, it’s easy to see what’s changed. Lyrics are more mature, and jaded ever-so. Take B-side ‘To My First’, a clear continuation of the storyline originating with 2017’s ‘My First and Last’ and extended on 2019’s ‘Bye My First…’. “There won’t be a second chance,” they urged, wide-eyed, back in their early days. “You’re my first and last love.” A couple of years later, they yielded over verses penned by Jeno, Jaemin and Jisung that “love is a little hard”; now, they’re bidding a bittersweet farewell to their “innocent selves”.
Yet, although NCT Dream’s musical playground of late has been the vast, big-and-bold future, repackage ‘Beatbox’ is also rife with reflective musings. Hushed campfire-side confessional ‘Sorry, Heart’, for one, is raw and pensive, sculpted by SM Entertainment composer Kenzie’s deft hands. Topped off by the city pop synths of windows-down cruiser ‘On The Way’, this moment feels like a last fleeting glance over the shoulder before setting childhood squarely in the rear view.
Time and experience have made navigating the stretch ahead less daunting for the Dreamies. Behind-the-scenes content documents them in the driver’s seat, deliberating everything from choreography to key changes to album designs. Haechan, a vocalist hypnotic to watch when he steps foot in the studio, notes the importance of the members’ input. “When we hear a demo for the first time, we think a lot about whether this song suits us or if we’ll be able to pull it off well,” he writes over email. “I believe it’s important that it’s a track we’re most confident of.”
Confidence starts with an intimate knowledge of each other’s strengths, and how to play them up. “I enjoyed writing ‘Glitch Mode’ with the thought of doing the part with Jisung,” Mark says, referring to a quickfire rap that seesaws between the two. “I even helped Jisung record that specific part which made the whole process feel more complete.” The result, he explains, is something “more organic and more us.”
With two members splitting time between NCT Dream and NCT 127, constant rapport is key. “We have a group chat,” Jisung says. “Oh my god, it’s literally never quiet!” Chenle quickly interjects, tilting his head in faux exasperation. Jeno echos the sentiment: “We always get so many notifications about the most useless, random things.” Chenle laughs the loudest at the declaration – until asked who is responsible for the volume of notifications. Then, eyes dart over to the far end of the table. “He may not want to believe it’s him, but… Chenle,” Jisung says. Jaemin nods. “Chenle.”
“What are you guys talking about? This is completely false!” Chenle’s head pivots between the members, searching for reprieve. “No, it’s not that I don’t want to believe it… it’s just that–” Jeno, who has been cuffing the younger member’s shoulder in a placatory sure, Jan kind of way, gently claps his hand over Chenle’s mouth. Having quieted the objections, Jeno wrinkles his nose at the screen and positively beams.
Put aside the delight Dream finds in teasing one another, though, and there’s a real respect for conflicting opinions. (To set the record straight, Chenle still believes Mark texts the most, no matter how vehemently Jisung disagrees.) It’s an openness that’s seen NCT Dream through their new chapter as a fixed seven. “As much as we have been lucky, felt happy and had great results,” Jeno explains, “it has been a year that felt just as challenging.” Wanting to outdo themselves on ‘Beatbox’, he says, “We became sounding boards for each other’s ideas.”
“We really voiced our thoughts throughout the process,” Renjun continues. “It was important for us to create something that we were satisfied with – an album that characterized who we are as well as it possibly could.”
In a meta move, the title track for ‘Beatbox’ is all about the little bit of magic the seven of them carry wherever they go. “Write a new story with my voice / Watch it spread through the world,” Renjun and Chenle utter to light production and percussive tongue pops, a far cry from the aural maximalism of ‘Glitch Mode’. All they need to summon a crowd are their vocal cords – in the music video, Mark quite literally beatboxes an audience into existence – and one another: “Every day we’re together, put it on replay.”
It’s why the song contains one of Jisung’s favorite lines yet: “This music that only we can do.” He elaborates, “Taken literally, the line makes me think, yes, we have this music that’s uniquely our own. But I like to appreciate it in the broader sense of,” Jisung clasps ringed fingers together tightly in front of his heart, then unfurls them outward toward his bandmates, “this is really and truly our thing.”
NCT Dream’s new repackaged album ‘Beatbox’ is out now.