When thinking about NCT 127, a few things come to mind. First: the experimentalism of their title tracks, often laced with menacing raps and sharp-edged synths. Second: their penchant for midtempo R&B and summery pop as b-sides — a direct contrast to the group’s grandiose title tracks.

This duality is everpresent in NCT 127’s albums. Just consider “Cherry Bomb,” with its unconventional structure and amelodic hooks, which become far more palatable when paired alongside the brisk bounce of “Summer 127” and the gorgeously melancholy “Sun and Moon.” 

Ever since they debuted with their eponymous EP, NCT #127, the group has been serving up off-kilter, aggressive title tracks alongside far sweeter b-sides. And with Loveholic, their latest Japanese release, NCT 127 continues this pattern of versatility.

Loveholic’s title track “Gimme Gimme” is, true to form, an explosion of sound and fury. NCT 127’s title tracks have always been an acquired taste, but their Japanese releases even more so (“Chain” sounds like the musical equivalent of chainsaws and power tools being unleashed against a metal wall, and high-pitched EDM synths zing throughout “Wakey Wakey.” Both are quite alarming at first, but given enough time, their oddball charms start to coalesce).

“Gimme Gimme” continues in this same vein, as it is driven by a grating synth loop. The song is at its best during the hypnotic prechorus, when the instrumental calms down and NCT 127’s vocalists get a chance to display their skills.

(Speaking of NCT 127’s members, why does Yuta, the only Japanese member in the unit, get so few lines in the album? NCT’s often-unequal line distribution had improved quite a bit in the past year, but Loveholic seems to be a step backwards for the group.)

But while “Gimme Gimme” is every bit as unapologetically bold and messy as expected, it lacks the experimentalism that has made NCT 127’s past hits so compelling. “Gimme Gimme” doesn’t play with structure (a la “Cherry Bomb”) or exhibit any particularly innovative sonic elements (ex: the helicopter-like synths in “Simon Says”). The song possesses plenty of attitude, but not much substance.

Luckily, Loveholic’s duality steps in to save the day. Like other NCT 127 albums, Loveholic’s abrasive title track is tempered by a few gentler b-sides. “First Love” and “Right Now” in particular provide the rich melody and slickness that “Gimme Gimme” lacks. “First Love” shares a lot in common with “Elevator,” a b-side from NCT 127’s Neo Zone album. Both songs have catchy instrumental hooks during the chorus, as well as a laid-back retro/funk groove. Similarly, the swirling melodies in “Right Now”’s chorus provide a warm contrast to “Gimme Gimme”’s caustic raps.

Loveholic delves back into NCT 127’s experimental side with “Lipstick” and “Chica Bom Bom” — neither are as flashy as “Gimme Gimme,” but both are ultimately more memorable. 

“Lipstick” comprises an ever-shifting hodgepodge of different elements: cold skittering hip-hop synth, spirals of percussion, velvety harmonies, bare whispers of trap. Every square inch of “Lipstick” is crammed with details — this is the type of song that will continue surprising listeners with new details over several months. The vibrant, fluid instrumental is at once maximalist and light on its feet; it’s one of NCT’s more successful recent forays into their experimental side.

Likewise, “Chica Bom Bom” is far greater than the sum of its parts. The song consists of a boisterous chanted chorus, pounding full-bodied percussion, ethereal wisps of falsetto, and nimble dance synths. All these elements weave together to create an incredible sense of momentum throughout “Chica Bom Bom.”

Loveholic, with its balance between aggressive experimentation and melodic R&B/pop smarts, is the quintessential NCT 127 release. But the album also contains a nonmusical trait I’ve come to expect of NCT — namely, confusion.

Remember the press conference Lee Soo-man held back in 2016? Back then, he laid out plans for SM Entertainment’s newest and yet-undebuted boy group, NCT. The sprawling group would fulfill the company’s vision of “culture technology,” Lee Soo-man declared, since each subunit would be tailored to a specific locale — a strategy to penetrate foreign markets.

Remember the endless possibilities he seemed to hint at? NCT Korea, NCT China, NCT Japan, even NCT Latin America or NCT Europe! For each target foreign audience, NCT would generate a new subunit with members who spoke the language and with a music style calibrated to that specific area’s tastes.

Five years later, SM Entertainment seem to have scrapped that idea entirely. After all, NCT 127 (ostensibly the Seoul-based unit) has just released their third Japanese mini album. They’ve toured cities around the world, and released several English versions of their songs. What happened to the regional units plan?

NCT 127’s international activities are by no means a drawback or weakness — but this does make NCT-at-large’s concept harder for prospective fans to understand. And with a whopping 23 members (and counting!), the last thing NCT needs is to become even more confusing.

Hopefully, SM Entertainment will figure out how to utilize NCT’s sometimes unwieldy configuration more efficiently in the future. But for now, we’re left with a compelling (albeit head-scratching) comeback. Loveholic’s title track may not represent NCT 127 at their finest, but its b-sides display the same duality that has buttressed many a NCT 127 album.

(Images via SM Entertainment.)