Despite yet another year marred by worldwide uncertainty and doubt due to the ongoing pandemic, we can at least count on NCT for some semblance of normalcy in our lives with the release of album number three, ‘Universe’. Boasting 13 brand-new tracks performed by intermixtures of 21 members across the group’s many sub-units, ‘Universe’ is not just NCT’s concluding record for an awe-inspiring year, but also a cohesive amalgamation of the sound we have come to know and love from NCT 127, NCT Dream and WayV, as well as the group as a whole.
Title track ‘Universe (Let’s Play Ball)’ brings together Shotaro, Mark, Jeno, Doyoung, Jungwoo, YangYang, Jaemin, Xiaojun and Haechan for a groovy number. As expected of an NCT lead single, ‘Universe (Let’s Play Ball)’ is incredibly layered in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way – from the layered vocal arrangement and forthright hip-hop beats that sit front and centre to soaring synth flourishes that take you straight back to the ’90s in the background.
But for all the things that are working for the track, it seems that SM’s prolific in-house producer Kenzie has chosen to play it safe in favour of an assured hit. Still undoubtedly catchy, but comes off feeling a little formulaic.
On the other end of the spectrum, the album’s other lead single, ‘Beautiful’ is largely driven by the 21 members’ vocals over a piano riff that’s a lot more upbeat than what one would expect on a winter ballad. It’s immensely reminiscent of the nostalgia-provoking music SM Entertainment was known for in the 2000s – there’s something arresting about an arrangement as sentimental as this.
What makes ‘Beautiful’ even stronger is its lyrics, penned by SM Entertainment mainstay Yoo Young-jin, that tastefully stray away from the edginess that NCT as a whole have built their comfort zone around. “The shining stars when the night comes / And the setting sun, leaving behind the glow,” tender voices unite on the chorus, “They all have their unique colours, beautiful.”
Beyond the title tracks, ‘Universe’ sees each NCT sub-unit deliver songs that make a case for their distinct flavours of music. NCT 127’s ‘Earthquake’ hails from the school of tenacity – seismic beats relentlessly thud against euphonious voices, creating the perfect backdrop for its potent lyrics: “This earthquake that has just begun / The changing domino that destroyed my toes / What we’ve created is a world bigger than infinity, world.”
Meanwhile, WayV come through with a sultrier cut that does well stepping away from the usual in-your-face NCT vibe. ‘Miracle’ also finds its roots in R&B and trap, adopting the same raunchiness present in their previous releases, such as ‘Love Talk’ and ‘Action Figure’. Their sound is one of the most consistent among the various NCT factions, oft expertly produced by LDN Noise.
Last, but definitely not least, is NCT Dream’s ‘Dreaming’, which is an immediate contender for the album’s best track. This seamless dance number unexpectedly weaves music box-like synths with house beats and a trap snare, transforming into a top-notch club banger that drops into a deliciously dirty bassline during the chorus.
Now, let’s move on to all the songs from the various configurations of the rotational NCT U. Top prize here goes to ‘Round&Round’ (Taeil, Ten, Jaehyun, Xiaojun, Haechan and Sungchan), a synthpop bop with an electrifying bass is an infallible recipe for foolproof hits, alongside a line-up of talented main vocalists who immediately take to the next level.
On the flip side, there’s ‘New Axis’ (Taeyong, Mark and YangYang) and ‘Birthday Party’ (Johnny, Johnny, Yuta, Jungwoo, Hendery, Jaemin, Shotaro, Chenle and Jisung). While the former is a brassy and unapologetic proclamation of their power as a group, where the trio of rappers spit about their place in the industry as the “upper echelon”, the latter falters with abrupt shifts in rhythm and flippant lyricism (“Yo, DJ, can we switch it up a bit? / Flip that, switch that / Shawty fine, big facts”) that comes off boorish.
‘Universe’, for better or worse, also offers the obligatory sugar-coated pop tracks: ‘Sweet Dream’ (Taeil, Kun, Jaehyun, Haechan and Chenle) and ‘Vroom’ (Kun, Jaehyun, Jungwoo, Hendery, Shotaro, Chenle and Jisung). Both these songs are feel-good and contain that child-like effervescence from a number of NCT songs of old, yet lack the charm that would help it rise above just being lacklustre. In the same vein, ‘Good Night’ also feels like an obligatory, emotive pop-ballad, despite boasting a world-class vocalist line-up of Xiaojun, Renjun, Doyoung and Taeil.
But it’s not all bad on the NCT U side, though. ‘OK!’ (Taeyong, Yuta, Ten, Mark, Hendery, Jeno and YangYang) takes us on a smooth ride atop a trickling R&B melody, as voices melt against each other, paired with raps delivered in a lower register. And there’s also the spry ‘Know How’ (Johnny, Doyoung, Mark, Renjun, Jeno, Jaemin, YangYang and Sungchan), that makes use of a gospel sample to add that necessary edge. Upbeat synths and bright vocals lead the way on this groovy anthem, where they sing of unbridled confidence and camaraderie.
The boyband continue to showcase their versatility (based on their sheer size alone) and strengths as a group, and this album a signifier of greater things to come. But like a double-edged sword, ‘Universe’ also highlights the flaws a rotational group structure can create, with many of the NCT U tracks faltering, especially when compared to ‘NCT 2020 Resonance’. There’s no doubt that the group are able to come together to create an electrifying statement of cosmic proportions, but there seems to be a lot more of the universe out there for them to explore.
- Release date: December 14
- Record label: SM Entertainment