Within the already vibrant realm of K-pop music, NCT stand out as beacons of eccentric kitschiness. It’s no surprise that Taeyong – who is the boyband’s leader – wholeheartedly embraces this polarising quality. His debut mini-album ‘SHALALA’, also the first official solo release from an NCT member, offers a unique kaleidoscope of self-produced, self-written tracks in NCT’s signature sound, while also giving listeners a deeper glimpse into who he really is.
‘SHALALA’, the record’s overture and lead single, confidently weaves together an array of percussive elements and an alluringly crisp yet catchy groove. It’s very unlike anything we’ve really heard from K-pop, for better or for worse, and is more reminiscent of the eclecticism of contemporary hip-hop from the late ‘90s to early 2000s – set your minds to the works of Missy Elliot and Aaliyah.
Taeyong’s funky delivery of the rap verses are enthralling – and coupled with the dynamic production, the song almost works – but ‘SHALALA’ starts to rip at the seams during the chorus. It’s an earworm of a hook, that much is certain, but there’s a surprising lack of substance, especially when compared to the album’s other tracks.
Rising from its earlier incarnation as ‘GTA 2’ and inspired by the video game of the same name, ‘Virtual Insanity’ is an electrifying sensation. The abstract, neon-lit stylings of cyberpop illuminate Taeyong’s musicality and visual style here. The lyrics possess a nuanced depth that surpasses the original rendition, showcasing Taeyong’s remarkable growth as a songwriter (“Virtual Insanity / I don’t know how far it’ll go, I don’t know at all / This earth boy will go anywhere / I’m a magic wand, call me Granzört”).
Similarly embracing the cyber motif, ‘404 File Not Found’ employs allegories to delve into personal dilemmas. Taeyong articulates the universally relatable experience of feeling adrift amid the uncertainties of young adulthood, drawing parallels to the frustration of encountering a missing webpage. Nevertheless, he encourages listeners to persevere regardless, even if the definitive solution they seek remains elusive for now.
In contrast, the remainder of the ‘SHALALA’ album stirs profound emotions and places greater emphasis on vocals – and here’s where Taeyong really shines. ‘Gwando’ sets the tone with delicate guitar strings, evoking the essence of springtime, capturing the liberation Taeyong feels after releasing himself from the burdens of a strained relationship. Meanwhile, he enlists Red Velvet’s Wendy (and her silky smooth vocals) for the captivating ‘Move Mood Mode’, a mid-tempo tune where Taeyong grapples with the complexities of confessing his feelings for someone.
‘Ruby’ is the most heartfelt song on the album, masquerading as a traditional confessional on the first listen. But delve into the lyrics and you’ll find out that it’s a heartwrenching tribute to his beloved dog of the same name, who passed on two years ago. It’s hard to miss the raw love and grief that oozes from his raspy voice as he croons his vows to reunite with her again in their next lives: “If we meet again in the next life / Let’s be each other’s point of view / And fill the regrettable part of each other / Let’s make sure to do that.”
Among the bunch, closer ‘Back To The Past’ is the most painful to digest – and that’s what makes it so unquestionably good. Taeyong shares searing anecdotes of a turbulent adolescence, but the vulnerable tapestry he weaves grounds him in a profound sense of humanity. In an industry notorious for its controlled nature, many idols understandably hesitate to expose such personal details in their music. However, Taeyong effortlessly transcends those boundaries, solidifying his position as an artist who wholeheartedly embraces his humanity, while making music worth listening to.
With ‘SHALALA’, Taeyong presents a compelling argument for a promising solo career, exhibiting his mastery as a multi-faceted musician. By fusing cyberpunk aesthetics and his down-to-earth songwriting, he forges an unparalleled sonic panorama that pulls you in. While it may spark mixed reactions, the NCT leader demonstrates immense potential as an artist unafraid to forge personal connections with his audience, setting an indelible standard for future K-pop soloists.
- Release date: June 5, 2023
- Record label: SM Entertainment