When it comes to innovation, K-pop is one place where music is never behind on the times. Leading much of that is SM Entertainment, which has nurtured some of South Korea’s most prominent artists and is largely responsible for the current state of music in the country.
Their latest venture is the boy band known as NCT, which seemingly has no boundaries and will result in multiple sub-groups, each with their own distinct raison d'etre. Most prominent is NCT 127, the Seoul-oriented team made up of nine members from five countries, which has appeared Stateside a handful of times since last year, quickly becoming one of the most frequently visiting K-pop acts in the U.S.
They recently performed at KCON 2018 NY, where the nonet took to the Prudential Center's stage June 24 with a variety of their songs, ranging from the bright R&B-tinged synthpop of “Touch” to the bombastic experimental dance track “Cherry Bomb.” Though they didn't close out the night at this year's event, the crowd's riotous response to them signaled that it's only a matter of time.
For NCT 127's members, the fluidity of their musical styles — along with their set, three of the members appeared earlier in the night for a special performance of their sensual hip-pop track “Whiplash” – is one of their defining factors.
“I think we like to do new things, and we like to challenge ourselves,” says Jaehyun, one of the team's primary vocalists and one of their three English-speaking members. “So while we challenge on, later on, I think we'll find our own colors.”
The group admits to being surprised when they first heard their most recent single, “Touch,” which was released on NCT 2018's Empathy album and is an ebullient sonic reversal from prior singles “Fire Truck,” ”Limitless” and “Cherry Bomb.”
“I think everyone at first was very excited,” recalls Chicago native Johnny, as Canadian member Mark imitates his initial reaction with exaggerated wide eyes and a gaping mouth. “We were like, 'Wow, it's lit.' The mood is a lot brighter than what we were actually used to, so we were excited to see what kind of performances would come out of this new song. We were very excited to show our fans, because usually when our fans look at our performances, they're just like, 'Woah, that's strong, that's very powerful.' But we felt, as soon as we heard the song, like, 'Oh, they're going to be smiling this time.'”
Bright smiles became a mainstay of their performances and music video for “Touch,” where Japanese member Yuta in particular gained a lot of attention for his beaming demeanor, just in time for the group's about-face into the Japanese market with their EP Chain in May.
“I was extremely happy to be able to record a Japanese album, but because it was my first time recording in my native language, I was really nervous,” he says. “But I was very comfortable because pronunciation-wise it was a lot easier.”
Johnny adds: ”[For] the group, I feel like because he was able to speak Japanese very fluently, we, as a team, were more confident about what we said because he would kind of interpret it in his own words.”
The album debuted at No. 2 on Japan's Oricon weekly album chart, and the titular single peaked on the Japan Hot 100 at No. 20.
Like many newer K-pop acts, NCT 127's members have a hand in crafting their songs, especially rappers Mark and Taeyong, who write their verses together. Mark describes the pair's creative process: “When we receive the track, first we take our separate moments and brainstorm ourselves, individually at first. And then we come together with our ideas, we brainstorm together, and we do our finishing touches on each other when we think about it together.”
Mark said his favorite line that he's written so far hasn't been for an NCT 127 track, but rather from his appearance in NCT U's “Yestoday,” released in April. In it, he addressed his younger self about what he has achieved in the present. “We were basically talking to ourselves from the past, because it's about time and everything, and so at the end of my verse I say, 'And I hope you like it where I am now.' The 'you' is meaning the past me.”
Other members of the group, especially Taeil, are also interested in writing and producing for the team in the future.
As is the norm in K-pop, NCT 127's next move is tightly under wraps, but the group promises that there will be a lot more to come soon.
“We've been running forward in 2018 extremely quickly, and our fans can expect us to continue running forward, continuing as we have, and expect even more from us for the rest of the year,” team leader Taeyong shares.