Until a month ago, the frequent questions circling around NCT Dream were about whether the 2000 line (Renjun, Jeno, Haechan, and Jaemin) would graduate like rapper Mark did around a year and a half ago, and whether the group would have a comeback before. 

News dropped on April 14 (South Korea time) answered both of these questions: SM Entertainment announced that NCT Dream would be a fluid group, similar to the concept of NCT U, and Mark would yet again be its seventh member. He is expected to return later on in the year. The group’s first comeback of 2020 was announced with the mini-album Reload on April 29. 

And a reload it is. If we walk down the memory lane of Dream concepts, they have their fair share of innocence, brightness, and energy starting with “Chewing Gum.” “My First and Last” and “We Young” further solidified their youthful image. The group’s song in  NCT 2018 Empathy, “Go,” indicated a new trajectory with a darker concept, while “We Go Up” went back to the brighter energy of their previous releases, although they continued their shift in mature direction, both sound-wise and in its lyrics. Their track “Boom” from last July saw the members in sophisticated black tuxes, as they tried out a new look. 

NCT Dream nods to the fact that the majority of them are, indeed, 20-years-old in Reload, especially in the powerful title song “Ridin,’” but they are nonetheless still growing up. Reload is a little bit like the group’s scrapbook of memories, dreams, and celebrations encompassed in the five-track mini, a sentiment advanced by the release of track videos in a similar strategy to that of NCT 127’s promotional content for Neo Zone

NCT Dream showcases their older, more mature selves in this new album, but they also take time to revisit their innocent and lighthearted roots. The group resets their image to demonstrate their various sides as artists as well as the refreshed structure of their group, an announcement that could not have come at a more fitting time. 

Their title track “Ridin’” jumpstarts the mini that musically reminds me of “Drippin’” but more refined in a way. The distinct NCT “noise”—in “Ridin’” layered beats, synths, and an element that sounds like a revving engine—dominates as the song begins with restrained but growing energy, leading straight into the chorus of “ridin’ and rollin.’” NCT Dream recharges as artists with this album, and “Ridin’” demonstrates their goal exactly: 

In my heart, exploding Energy

Until the end, throw myself Reloading

Break the record, break out

We break the record every time

Now take us up to the world Watch us

They experiment with the NCT sounds while carving out space for themselves as some of the youngest of the 21-member strong group. Dream’s growth and maturity as artists is paying off: on Reload’s release day, the album charted at #1 on iTunes in 49 countries, and the group is currently the sixth to sell over 400,000 copies of an album within the first week on Hanteo. 

“Quiet Down” rides off of the title track’s energy but in a less aggressive way with laid back beats and rhythms. In its mash of many sounds and an electronic staccato hook, the shortest song of the album has the Dreamies daring the audience to listen to the rumors about them: 

The spreading rumors talk to you

If you believe me, you need to mute

I dare you to spread fake news

Turn that shh down

for quiet new dawn

The song evokes a sentiment like NCT 127’s track “Sit Down” from Neo Zone, although both songs have their clear differences. This initial similarity of the titles may catch listeners off guard, but it is also interesting that SM decided for the two NCT subunits to have these songs released a few months apart. There naturally has to be a thread of commonality between all of the NCT subunits to demonstrate that they are part of a larger umbrella group, but they each need to have their distinctions as well. 

NCT Dream goes back to their lighthearted roots with “7 Days.” In a 180 degree shift, the song tells a sweet and romantic story. While the sound and the melody is bouncier, “7 Days” maintains deeper chords to tie a thread back to the first two songs of the mini. In this track, the Dreamies ask the person they like with open honesty to tell them their feelings. 

Their growing sophistication is also demonstrated in “7 Days” as the six members sing:

Surprisingly, a week feels

Really short

Any time spent with you,

To end it it’s a pity

Actually I’m still curious

About everything about you

I fall for you more

As I get to know you

It is a typical young love story, but they demonstrate a growing maturity though the narrative. The Dreamies have this person on their mind seven days a week, but their feelings only grow because they gain a greater understanding of person after spending more time with them. 

“7 Days” is a dramatic pivot from “Quiet Down” which may at first glance seem disjointed as opposed to seamlessly flowing from song to song. The effect that is created is a reflection of NCT Dream and their various concepts. They started out as cute little boys sneaking out of bed at night and grew to be young adults with fierce stares surrounded by motorcycles. The Dreamies themselves pivot from image to image, from being innocent teens in love to flashing their abs at their concerts. 

Although it is more relaxed compared to the previous tracks, “Love Again” tells quite a complex story. Backed by sharper beats, “Love Again” is a hesitant love story: NCT Dream likes a person, and they think that person might like them back. 

But there is more to the romance than one might initially expect. The lyrics suggest that the characters in the song might have broken up before, as the members mention their hurt, and they question why they still have feelings for this person (“did my memories get erased / I don’t remember being hurt”), yet they might be coming back together.

The Dreamies are consistently drawn to this person, closing the song with a high-energy repetition of “keep it on the low” which, except for the very end, was followed by the lyrics, “that this kind of thing / could’ve happened again.” The members have made themselves clear that they want an ending, but their feelings will not let them although they are trying to conclude the relationship officially:

The short time where you weren’t by my side

I needed that, for this ending to happen

I’ll turn back time to the start and say

Sing it Hey, my first and last

The lyrics even sneak in “my first and last,” a reference to the group’s lead single off of their first mini-album. Listeners are left a lasting impression with the final seconds of “Love Again” thanks to its switch to heavy beats and intense record scratching as the members chant “keep it on the low.” 

Then comes “Puzzle Piece.” The concluding track of Reload can also be interpreted through a romantic lens, but it is more likely representing the relationship between the members of NCT Dream and their fans, NCTzens. The Dreamies complete each other, and NCTzens complete the group as a whole. 

In the track video, Jaemin holds the last puzzle piece at the end with the rest of the members surrounding him. He places it over the camera lens, the only remaining open space left—which is where NCTzens are watching through their screens. NCTzens are their missing puzzle piece. 

This song is even more emotional (similarly to that of “Dear Dream” from We Go Up) in the context of the recent NCT Dream news. The group as we have known it since their debut will undergo a significant change, hopefully for the better. 

“Puzzle Piece” is a heartfelt conclusion to Reload in its simple guitar instrumentals, a stark contrast to the heavier and more sonically crowded previous songs. In its simplicity, the track lets the members’ voices, particularly Jisung’s which melds especially well, and the lyrics that Jaemin and Jeno have writing credits shine through. 

NCT Dream sings of the loneliness that comes with an expanding world but contemplates that their world can be very small—it can be made of a person. They realize that they can be complete with that missing puzzle piece, with that person in their life, regardless of how big the outside world is: 

More than having everything,

Not losing that one thing is more important

Through you, I came to know that

OT7 will be back soon enough, and we may get to hear the Dreamies plus Mark once again cheer “Yo, Dream!”

Through Reload, their fourth mini-album, NCT Dream moves forward with their mature image while taking the time to refresh the innocent concepts of their past. In this “reload,” add a greater note of sophistication that comes with growing up, proving the group’s artistic versatility. 

(YouTube. Billboard. NCT Charts. Lyrics via LyricsKpop and Lyrics Translate. Images via SM Entertainment.)