Within the K-pop sphere, NCT 127 have always stood out as genre experimentalists with tremendous ambition. They’re known for blends of sounds and textures that can be contentious but charming – a penchant that they continue on their latest record ‘질주 (2 Baddies)’. But there’s something bubbling beneath the surface of this album that hints at a new era of a slicker and smoother NCT 127.
But the project still retains the unbridled chaos that has become a staple in their oeuvre. Take title track ‘2 Baddies’, which is exactly what you would expect from an NCT 127 title track: it bursts right out of the gate with an unapologetic exuberance. The rappers and vocalists alike synergise with its rubbery, high-octane beat with relative ease; each member is afforded the chance to establish their own presence on the hip-hop dance track, all of which amalgamate into three minutes of charisma.
“Two baddies, two baddies, one Porsche,” they chant repeatedly on the song’s chorus; a hook that – while potentially grating on first listen – unwittingly creeps up on you, as NCT 127 hooks tend to do. ‘2 Baddies’ is a valiant addition to the boyband’s catalogue of brash title tracks, but when pitted against other similar-sounding NCT 127 hits (2020’s ‘Kick It’ or 2017’s ‘Cherry Bomb’, for instance), it seems they opted to play it safe this time.
The rest of the ‘2 Baddies’ album never threatens to match the lead single’s audacity, although some come close. Opener ‘Faster’ is defined by its heavy bassline and alto vocal tones; it’s an immediate club-ready banger that spotlights member Mark’s knack for riding the most eccentric of beats. Leader Taeyong gets his chance to do the same on ‘Tasty’, a tense, clanging hip-hop track boasting prominent basslines and synthesisers.
‘Playback’, meanwhile, a similar offering with reverberating synths that clink and rattle – although where this track shines is in the dulcet harmonisations of NCT 127’s impressive roster of vocalists. ‘Vitamin’ exudes this same energy, albeit to a lesser extent. It’s notably peppier in instrumentation than other tracks, its bubbliness also extending to its lyrics, which teeter on the edge of repetitiveness: “Vitamin me, vitamin me / The only thing that’ll make you feel better, vitamin me / Multivitamin me, try it and see.”
But for most of ‘2 Baddies’, NCT 127 tap into sultrier stylings and R&B. Though they’ve played around with this style in past B-side tracks, the boyband have dialed up their explorations of the genre, tapping into their sexier, more mature side. The mid-tempo ‘Time Lapse’ begins with slow buzzes and twinkles against gentle croons, before it begins to build momentum. Its tight production is further elevated by some of the best lyrics from NCT 127 in recent memory, which comes as no surprise given they were written by Taeyong and Mark. ‘Crash Landing’ is a similarly understated gem. Drawing ostensible influences from R&B and trap, it begins to take flight once the chorus comes into play, NCT 127’s vocalists stealing the spotlight with syrupy falsettos and high notes. Contrary to its title, the song effortlessly fades out.
On the other hand, ‘Designer’ is a pluckier, spunkier fusion of R&B and hip-hop that attempts a polarising pairing of gentle vocal verses with brash, sometimes impudent raps. ‘LOL (Laughing-Out-Loud)’ follows suit with funky, chugging guitar riffs that culminate in an endearing neo-soul celebration of living in the moment.
With a 12-track record with a number of back-to-back bangers, there are bound to be songs that slip through the cracks. It’s a remarkably written R&B song, but ‘Gold Dust’ never reaches a satisfying peak, high notes aside. ‘Black Clouds’ is a cookie-cutter track – it employs familiar mid-tempo drums reminiscent of typical feel-good K-pop love songs and sticks out like a sore thumb against NCT 127’s brazen experiments. Closing track ‘1, 2, 7 (Time Stops)’ takes on the nostalgic groove of a ’90s pop confessional, but like ‘Black Clouds’, follows mainstream trends of retrofuturism to a fault. Aside from smooth vocal delivery, there isn’t much to ‘1, 2, 7 (Time Stops)’ to help it stand out.
For a group that thrives on the disorder and unpredictability of their music, ‘2 Baddies’ is an often exceptional effort on NCT 127’s part to uphold that tradition. Doyoung described the record as a “masterpiece” during the press conference for its release, and though they are not quite there yet, NCT 127 are most definitely on track.
- Release date: September 16
- Record label: SM Entertainment