NCT Dream, the intended teenage faction of SM Entertainment’s sprawling boyband clan NCT, were never meant to be a fixed unit. At some point, each member would graduate out of the group and focus their attention on other subunit projects. And so at the end of 2018, rapper Mark Lee became the first member to “graduate” from the group, leaving the other six members to continue on their youthful journey together. Then, last year, SM announced it was scrapping the graduation system and added Lee back into the mix.
As well as opening the door to jokes about the Korean-Canadian rapper running out of new units to debut with, that surprise news meant all seven members would be present for NCT Dream’s first full-length album. If it’s a moment that means a lot to the group themselves, their fans are clearly also thrilled at the prospect, breaking the band’s personal best for pre-orders with a whopping 1.7million copies.
At a recent press conference, 21-year-old Jeno described their highly-anticipated ‘Hot Sauce’ comeback as “picking up where we left our bookmark last time”. This isn’t just a case of carrying on where they left off, though, but of showing how much they’ve grown in the two years since they last promoted together. That last official comeback as a quintet, 2018’s ‘We Go Up’, was full of buoyant, young pop. ’Hot Sauce’ doesn’t sound like they’re collecting their pensions, but it does boast new levels of maturity and prowess.
The title track is a prime example. It’s vibrant and exuberant, but the very SM experimentalism that courses through it elevates it into something more weighty and developed. On ‘Countdown (3, 2, 1)’, the seven-piece group play with fire on a piece of brooding hip-hop, the shadowy sounds and lyrics like Renjun’s “It’s like I’m going to explode, I’m burning up right now” sprinkling a hint of danger into the arrangement.
‘Dive Into You’, meanwhile, is the perfect marriage of youth and the band’s increased experience. It uses the relationship between a whale and the ocean to examine the partnership between two people, but its instrumentation keeps things light. Guitar arpeggios swing like a pendulum, glimmers of pop-punk catching the light with every finger-picked note.
The Korean title of the album includes the word “flavour” before ‘Hot Sauce’ and, across its 10 tracks, it offers up a smorgasbord of tastes. Some feel spicy, like the title track and ‘Diggity’, which takes the group on an adventure into an unknown world. “I light a flame with flint,” Jaemin raps assuredly on the latter. “I walk without hesitation, I’m Columbus.”
‘ANL’ (which stands for ‘All Night Long’) is the tangiest track on the album, a lightly bubbling tropical cut that’s tinged with romanticism. It’s a feeling that’s there in the brushed production that makes parts of the song feel like it’s in a rose-tinted haze – and in the lyrics too. “Your appearance filled up every scene / When there wasn’t much to see,” Haechan explains, while Jisung notes: “You were the light inside a dark maze.”
‘Rainbow’ showcases an even more heartfelt side to NCT Dream. Written by Mark, Jeno, Jaemin and Jisung, it features both messages from the members to each other and to their fans. It’s a touching moment and a fitting way to close their first album, paying tribute to their bond over glistening synths and softly skittering beats. Earlier, the retro ‘Irreplaceable’ takes on a classic sound, brilliantly adding a dash of brass onto the record.
Not every dish a chef cooks up can hit the spot though, and there are some misfires on ‘Hot Sauce’. ‘My Youth’ is a frustrating piece of cavernous pop, constantly flirting with going stratospheric but pulling back at the last second to keep flying at a more sensible height. ‘Be There For You’, on the other hand, is a piano ballad that, by stripping back the layers, allows the group to show off their gorgeous harmonies but feels like it’s been pulled in from a drama OST. ‘Hot Sauce’ might skip across the palate, but until this point it still manages to feel fairly cohesive.
Overall, though, NCT Dream’s first full-length album is a triumph. It’s confident and cool, and makes infectiously real its creators’ excitement of all being back together again. If ‘Hot Sauce’ is a hint at the group’s future, making NCT Dream a fixed unit should prove to be a wise move from SM. As Haechan tells us on the ’80s synth stabs of ‘Rocket’: “The whole universe is a stage at the bottom of our feet / We go beyond the limits of gravity, babe.” Strap in for a wild ride ahead.
- Release date: May 10
- Record label: SM Entertainment