Like many, I was rather lost when NCT was announced by SM Entertainment in a keynote address back in 2016. Would NCT be an extension of Exo‘s concept, with boy groups debuting and promoting all around the world? Would the groups’ discography be the same, albeit in different languages? Was this concept truly, as one deigned to call it, SM Entertainment’s ‘final frontier’? One thing was for certain: NCT as a project was simultaneously ambitious and abstract.
Then came the music. Out of the blue, NCT U debuted to rave reviews with “The 7th Sense” and “Without You”. NCT 127, the unit based in Seoul, came roaring out with the experimental “Fire Truck”. NCT Dream came out in hoverboards for the saccharine “Chewing Gum”. Throughout all of this, however, NCT as a whole remained no less confusing. Last-minute member additions of Johnny and Doyoung into NCT 127 for “Cherry Bomb” and “Limitless” led some to wonder whether NCT 127 would also function as a rotational group like NCT U. The purpose of NCT 127 debuting in Japan in 2018 was questioned when there were already plans to debut a Japan subunit. It seemed as though NCT, with each successive comeback, had brought us more questions than answers.
That being said, I couldn’t be the only one to have very lofty expectations of this album when it was announced, could I? With 3 sub-units, 18 members across 14 tracks, and marketed as an unprecedented, best-of-best comeback, Empathy would showcase the first fruits of SM’s labor. Discounting the hyperbole an agency normally puts out in the weeks leading up to a group’s comeback, I remained cautiously optimistic. Seeing what their contemporary Seventeen could do with so many members and sub-units dedicated to particular areas (Hip-Hop, Performance, and Vocals), perhaps NCT 2018 could do something similar on a full album. With so much untapped potential, Empathy was NCT’s chance to blow us away.
Nope. Not by a long shot.
Let’s start with the good. As Empathy’s first pre-release, NCT U’s “Boss” does a great job in drumming up excitement for the forthcoming album. Over a filthy, rumbling bassline, NCT U are all about attitude in this release, aggressively declaring that they are the boss that leads you, a player that moves you. Whilst initially I felt that the lack of a melodic chorus was to the song’s detriment, NCT U showcased enough energy in their repeated chants that largely made up for it. Newcomers Lucas and Jungwoo make their official debut here, and they do as well as one could reasonably expect, though Lucas’s lyrics are admittedly rather weak.
In a behind-the-scenes video, Mark explains that what he wanted to convey in his lyrics was that with so many interactions taking place through SNS, they — NCT — were going to get rid of all the walls between their fans and go straight to them in a direct link. Whilst bits and pieces of this idea are scattered in between standard-fare, sweet nothings like ‘I know you want it, come closer and touch me’, the sentiment is most clearly felt during his own verse in the rap breakdown. I appreciate the meaning behind it, but felt that it would have been better received had Taeyong not go out of his way to make his voice as grating as possible, or interrupt that great message with the frankly inexplicable bar “Hot Dog feel like I wear goose goose”.
Communicating with fingertips, that’s fake, throw all of that away
Instead, fly to you, dive to you, directly
I can make it make it work for you
I became the boss for you
Useless posts, no need
I’ll make you appear, I know how you feel now
We eye to eye
Taeyong’s shortcomings on that track are almost forgiven by the best track of this entire album, “Baby Don’t Stop”. Paired with fellow main dancer Ten, the song begins with the same filthy basslines of the previous track, before quickly diverging into a fast-paced instrumental that just keeps changing. Percussive elements are added and removed before we get too comfortable. The vocals — melodies and rap verses — are incredibly diverse and varied, with Taeyong being his grating self at one moment, to frantically whispering in another, branching into spoken word in the bridge, to scatting smoothly at the very end, with Ten harmonizing and adlibbing all the while.
With a title as played out as “Baby Don’t Stop”, I’m quite impressed by how Taeyong and Ten manage to put their own spin in their recollection of a sexual encounter. The imagery is nicely suggestive, with Taeyong playfully describing in his first verse how, like the famous artists and sculptors he mentions, he’ll treat his lover’s body like a work of art.
Play play play play play
I’ll play in the Paris
Stay clay sketch dirt dough
I’m gonna knead your body
Rothko, Auguste Rodin, Claudel
I’m gonna make you with warm colors
All day holding, hold me tight.
Taeyong’s gratuitous Spanish in the song’s ending moments is the probably the only nitpick I have with “Baby Don’t Stop”, the standout track of Empathy. It’s a fantastic track, and I wished that the rest of the album was equally good, but keep in mind it says something when two members can display more vocal versatility on a single track than the rest of the album.
NCT Dream is next with “Go”, a heel-face turn from their normally cheerful and upbeat concepts like “We Young”. The theme of the song is ‘teenage rebellion’, and NCT Dream tries hard for us to take it seriously, from the styling to the complete lack of a melodic chorus, as the group begins shouting akin to “Cherry Bomb” or “Boss” over a glitchy instrumental. It’s not as disjointed as I feared it would be when I first heard teasers for it, and the individual moments of the song are executed well, with main vocalist Haechan getting his star turn with an inspired vocal performance.
My biggest problem, however, is that this concept is so jarring from their previous releases it’s sort of hard to take this seriously as a natural product of their musical evolution, which hinders their overall message of ‘no one can understand me’, or ‘we’re trapped inside losing what’s real’, which is already a hard sell to jaded listeners. And although it does grow on you, I’d argue that there was too little of a buildup leading to the first abrasive chorus, and that the latter two with Jeno and Jaemin’s rap breakdown and Haechan’s high note was handled a lot better. As it is, “Go” isn’t a bad track per se, but it definitely could be so much better.
Funnily enough, the shift in concept for NCT 127’s “Touch” is handled better. I don’t know, perhaps after their past experimental releases, an upbeat, bubbly track like “Touch” isn’t so hard to take in, especially when one takes into account how well it’s done. The rappers take a back seat this time and let the vocalists be the star of the show, and it’s a decision that pays dividends for NCT. The chorus, with its buoyant harmonies, lift the track up from a shaky start, and main vocalist Taeil especially shines with his adlibs. By the end, you can hear everyone chiming in, and the closing ‘na-na-nas’ will stay with you like an old commercial jingle from your childhood you inexplicably still remember.
The rap-line along with vocalist Doyoung returns on “Yestoday”, a song of reminiscence and regret on past relationships and decisions. In terms of showcasing the trio’s rap skills, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. All of them do a little bit of soul-searching, but it’s quite interesting how differently each one of them does it, and the varied results they bring.
Taeyong dials down his grating vocals and raps with charisma, but beyond feelings of regret and being lost, it’s not really clear exactly what he’s referring to in his verse, which hinders our appreciation of it somewhat. Lucas delivers his verse entirely in English, and though the result is refreshingly straightforward, chock-full with internal rhyme, clumsily slinging words that don’t necessarily go together just so you’d have a rhyme scheme isn’t a particularly good practice, even in K-pop. Mark, with his characteristic lyrical deftness, is the best of the bunch, as he reflects on where his career has taken him. I especially like the bar where he says he gets more ‘spotlight’ than sunlight, and all that it suggests about his career as an idol. Paired with Korean, his English doesn’t feel forced, the concept is clear, the rhymes — internal and external — pop, and the delivery leaves little to be desired. It’s a great verse to go along with an equally great B-side.
I remember the times we tossed our lives like wishing coins
Boy didn’t know a lot, I think I’m still the same
Searching for my galaxy, still don’t know my screen
Drowning in the looks that are getting worse
Everyday getting more spotlight than sunlight.
Unfortunately, I’ve run out of good things to say about this album, so now I must rant. Any hopes that I had that perhaps the underutilized members of NCT 2018 would shine on the B-sides of this album were dashed when it was revealed that 5 of the album’s 14 tracks were previously released singles that had yet to get a proper physical release, such as NCT U’s debut singles and Station releases. I had hoped perhaps the album’s B-sides would perhaps give the spotlight to the underutilized members, but no.
As it is right now, discounting the members of NCT Dream not in any other sub-units, you have 13 members of NCT 2018 and SM Entertainment utilizes at most 8 of them prominently well. The rest of them are lucky if they have lines allowing them to be heard, or like Kun — who only appears on the Chinese version of “Without You” — are waiting on a regional sub-unit (China and Japan) where they’ll hopefully be the star of the show. Until then, you have people like Winwin and Johnny who constantly gets shafted harder than an elevator when it comes to their fair share of lines. In particular, Winwin’s lines — if they exist at all — are like a fart in the wind: brief, barely discernible, and completely unsatisfactory.
As if to add insult to injury, the introduction and outro of this album are arguably pointless and could have made room for other tracks. One is an instrumental track, and the other has its job done better by another track on the album, “Black on Black”. Although it’s the only song on the album where all 18 members take part, you can really only hear the main rappers Taeyong, Mark, and Lucas. It’s not a perfect song, with an out-of-the-blue beat switch that would make even Kendrick Lamar hesitate, but it gets the job done better than the real introduction, “Neo Got My Back”, a song full of Taeyong’s autotuned murmurings and a distorted, lifeless repetition of the song’s title.
Who knows, maybe that’s what SM Entertainment want NCTzens to emulate and chant when NCT perform. But as it is, the inclusion of the intro and outro feels self-congratulatory and superfluous, when they could have instead included more B-sides in an album already half-full with previous releases.
I’ve read a hypothesis somewhere that after having Exo members leave one after another and make bank somewhere else, SM wanted to create a group where the brand name was bigger than the sum of its members. Aside from a few core voices, its members would be replaceable by their sheer numbers, and a member leaving wouldn’t affect the group as much. It’s a great idea if it takes off, but if this comeback is any indicator, SM has got a long way to go. Maybe my disappointment would have been lessened had it been announced Empathy was a compilation album. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected much. But it’s hard not to have such high expectations when SM is marketing NCT as the next big thing, and you can feel the untapped potential they possess. Maybe in the long run, when we have more sub-units, this approach to their albums would be better received, but not today, and not on Empathy.
Until then, I’ll keep on hoping for a comeback where Winwin has prominent lines.