By Emlyn Travis
As the clock ticks past midnight on a chilly October evening in Seoul, South Korea, there is a light that doesn’t go out in the SM Entertainment building. Inside, NCT members Taeyong, Doyoung, Xiaojun, Lucas, Jaemin, Jaehyun, and Shotaro are wide awake, sipping on iced Americanos as they make fun of each other, pick at each other’s clothing, and chat excitedly via Zoom about the group’s most ambitious project yet: their two-part album NCT 2020 Resonance.
“It’s a meaningful album,” 23-year-old singer Jaehyun answers in English. “[It has] WayV, NCT Dream, and NCT 127, and we’ve all grown a lot. I think in the year 2020, it was meaningful for us to become one.”
To understand the true impact and scale of an album like Resonance, one must understand NCT and its many permutations. An acronym for Neo Culture Technology, NCT debuted in 2016 with the goal of becoming a K-pop group with limitless global outreach. As part of a strategy called “Hallyu Localization” laid out by SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man in 2016, NCT would consist of an unlimited number of members placed into teams based in major cities across the globe who could release music in various languages. With numerous units working independently of one another in theory, NCT could dominate multiple music markets concurrently — from South Korea to China to Japan and beyond.
Currently, there are 23 members in NCT divided into four units: NCT 127, WayV, NCT Dream, and NCT U. Two of the units are localized; NCT 127 creates K-pop music from its epicenter in Seoul, while WayV focuses on the Chinese market. NCT Dream originally began as a group for members under the age of 19 but has since spawned its own unique identity. Unlike its counterparts, NCT U is the group’s musical playground; under the moniker, any combination of members from the aforementioned units can collaborate on songs. Lee Soo-man emphasized that the entirety of NCT could unite to release music as a whole, too, promising “diverse collaborative units between teams.”
Enter: Resonance. The 21-track album highlights all 23 members, split in two parts with five distinct lead singles. This is the group’s second project album featuring its entire roster; its first, 2018’s Empathy, presented a huge shift to NCT’s musical paradigm as the units performed songs that contrasted their image at the time, as when bubbly NCT Dream released the gritty “Go” and fiery NCT 127 brightened their discography with “Touch.” Now, as NCT reunites for the second time, its members are pushing the musical boundaries of NCT and K-pop as a whole. As rapper Yangyang, 20, says: “I feel like we are doing something that no one has ever done before.”
How does a project like Resonance get started? “Initially, it was a bit hard to picture and see how such a huge project would come to life; I felt a bit unsure,” 21-year-old rapper Mark recalls, saying preparation began this summer. “But after seeing the whole structure of the album, and visualizing each song with the different members in different units, it really made me feel like the Resonance album was going to be a project that’s never been seen by people out there.”
The album’s September 20 announcement sent shockwaves through the group’s fandom when official imagery included two new names: Shotaro and Sungchan. The duo made their official debut in NCT through a set of sleek video teasers that saw them don navy and cornflower-blue silk suits and find their place alongside veteran members.
“NCT’s a group that I’ve always loved, and just to be able to join this group is a huge honor for me,” says Shotaro, the 20-year-old from Kanagawa, Japan, who used to post videos of himself covering NCT dance routines on TikTok. Now, he smiles brightly between Xiaojun and Doyoung as he participates in his first album as an official member of NCT. “I love being here.”
“Being able to work with members from all over the world, I’ve been learning a lot of things I wouldn’t have known or experienced otherwise,” rapper Sungchan, 19, answers. “It also allowed me to grow and mature.”
Resonance also saw WayV members Xiaojun, Hendery, and Yangyang officially participating in their first NCT songs. To Xiaojun, being a member of NCT is a deeply personal title. “To me, it’s like an honor all the time,” the 21-year-old vocalist shares in English. “I really had a lot of fun doing this project with these guys; [they’re] so amazingly funny. I really appreciate the community and this opportunity to do more — to be young myself.”
Resonance’s greatest charm, however, isn’t based on the spectacular size of its ranks; it’s how members’ voices commingle in the album’s unique song configurations. Where Empathy toyed with of mixing members from different groups together — creating hits like the indomitable “Boss” and soul-searching “Yestoday” — Resonance ups the ante by developing fresh group combinations that perform songs in a variety of musical genres, ranging from uplifting ballads to fierce hip-hop anthems. While there are still unit songs — NCT 127’s “Music, Dance,” WayV’s “Nectar,” and NCT Dream’s “Déjà Vu” — Resonance’s new groupings highlight each member’s many facets, taking NCT’s musicality to dynamic heights.
The entirety of Resonance was divided into two parts and released over the course of two months. Beginning on October 12 with the release of Part One, NCT’s lead singles, “Make a Wish (Birthday Song)” and “From Home,” encapsulated their duality as they transformed from confident rappers to soft-hearted crooners. They proved their ability to take any genre and make it their own with the release of Part Two on November 23, showing off their powerful stage presence in the visuals for hip-hop throwback anthem “90’s Love” and their youthful side with the electronic dance track “Work It.”
According to singer and rapper Johnny, 25, both parts of Resonance come together to create “one big story” that he equates to a “generation” of music. “This album is like any other NCT album: experimental, exciting, and pushing creative boundaries,” he says. “You can hear sounds from many generations, but we added new sounds to make them more like us. I would say this chapter really shows what NCT is capable of. Especially with the new units and members — there are no boundaries to the music we can accomplish.”
This can be heard both literally and figuratively on Resonance. The album includes multiple interludes that segment it into different time periods: past, present, and future. Starting in the past, tracks like “90’s Love” and “Misfit” are explosive love letters to ‘90s hip-hop and overflow with witty allusions to New Kids on the Block and Friends. But “Lightbulb” finds its roots in NCT’s personal past.
Originally performed by Taeyong and Doyoung as members of SM Entertainment’s pre-debut group SM Rookies, the song received a revamp on Resonance with the inclusion of Kun and Sungchan — past, present, and future NCT members all working side by side. “It’s been six years since we actually performed that [song] together; we have lots of memories about that song,” 24-year-old singer Doyoung reveals. “I actually heard that a lot of fans were waiting for us to come together again on it, and it was cool to have other members join. I think for this album in particular it was kind of like a gift for our fans, but also it was kind of a gift for ourselves too — for me and Taeyong.”
The present section of Resonance depicts today’s NCT amidst steadily growing global popularity. In the four years since their debut, one of NCT’s greatest draws has been the ability to release songs in multiple languages. “From Home” features lyrics in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and English. “Make a Wish (Birthday Song)” received both Korean and English versions. Among the languages spoken by the group are English, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and German.
Now, NCT is seeing the fruits of its diverse discography pay off: Part One sold over 1.2 million copies globally in a single week, crowning the group with the title “Million Seller” in its shortest timespan yet. And at the time of writing, the music video for “Make a Wish (Birthday Song)” has received over 119 million views, the fastest to hit over 100 million views of NCT’s visuals. Clearly, when 21-year-old rapper Lucas remembers being “really blown away at how well the music video turned out,” he wasn’t alone.
Finally, from the dreamy “All About You” to Yangyang’s personal favorite “I.O.U,” each song in the future section of Resonance is centered on providing listeners with a sense of healing and strength, rather than carving out the group’s next milestone. In particular, Hendery, 21, thinks “Work It” is “a song that can really provide encouragement and strength to listeners,” he says. “I hope fans can receive that happy energy while listening to it.”
For some members of NCT, Resonance’s new combinations allowed them to reconnect with old friends whom they hadn’t seen in years, while others met their fellow members face to face for the very first time. Through long nights working together, NCT’s leader Taeyong, 25, says that everyone naturally grew closer. “Some of the members — in particular Lucas, Xiaojun, or Jaemin — they would ask me a lot of questions just related to performance. When I got all of those questions, that made me step back and reflect, OK, I need to kind of look after these guys a little more,” he says.
The other members are quick to share their similar thoughts. With all 22 other members by his side, 20-year-old rapper Jeno says that he felt “well-supported” throughout the creation of Resonance, and 23-year-old singer Winwin calls every moment spent creating the album with the rest of NCT a “cherished memory.” For multilingual singer Ten, 24, part of the reason why “90’s Love” is his favorite song on the album is that the recording process felt like hanging out with friends. “We’ve never had these members come together onstage to perform, so it was all new, and I think the specific dynamics within this group emphasize each member’s strengths even more,” he says.
The brotherhood formed while crafting Resonance takes center stage in its final, eponymous single, released today (December 4). Featuring all 23 members, the song is a combination of four songs from the album — “Make a Wish (Birthday Song),” “Work It,” “Raise the Roof,” and “90’s Love” — and displays just how powerful NCT can be when they become one. Youngest member Jisung, 18, explains that NCT’s greatest strength is that they’re “a group that doesn’t overlook even the smallest, most minor detail — and at the same time are able to showcase so many different sides and charms.”
And yes, it also means when all 23 members are together, it’s an explosion of energy, which can be seen in the video. “Because there’s so many of us, this just adds to the level of energy we have when we’re all together,” 20-year-old vocalist Haechan explains. “I also feel like I suddenly made a lot of friends.”
While Resonance may have already set the tone for the future of NCT, the members are open to their next direction. “Right now, we don’t have a specific thing that we can say that, OK, this is the direction that we’re going to go, but NCT itself, our goal has always been to release the best content of that time,” answers Doyoung. “And whether that’s 2021 or 2022, we’re committed to releasing content and music and albums that are best fitting those times.”
“This was a big project for all of us, despite the fact that we’ve always been trying to experiment and stay away from playing it safe,” Mark reveals. “Not only did our members mature along the way, but new members have also joined through this album. That itself is an upgrade for all of us. This chapter of our career is a bold move to prove what NCT’s world looks like and it makes us work harder to make that world a place for more of our fans to enjoy.”