Even if you haven’t been following them closely, the success of SM Entertainment’s multi-unit boy group NCT over the last year has been hard to ignore. In the first half of 2020, NCT 127’s Bruce-Lee-inspired “Kick It” went viral with one of the most iconic dance trends of the year, while NCT Dream’s “Ridin’” earned them their first real-time Melon number one. In the second half, their reunion project NCT 2020 continued that momentum, which manifested as over two million in album sales and incredible social engagement growth. More recently, NCT Dream followed this trajectory with their long-awaited first full-length album, Hot Sauce, which single-handedly brought in yet another two million sales in just 16 days.

The hidden gem among NCT’s many achievements over this past year, however, was actually the first full-length album of Chinese subunit, WayV. Released this time last year, Awaken The World charted decently in several countries – impressive, considering their junior status, relative lack of promotions outside China, and ambiguous marketing as an NCT subunit before NCT 2020 – but didn’t come even close to matching the commercial success and international popularity of WayV’s Korean counterparts. Of NCT’s five million total album sales accumulated over 2020, sales of Awaken The World amounted to just over 280,000 – or about five percent.

As such, Awaken The World is criminally underrated. This album is without a doubt one of the strongest, most cohesive, and compelling full-length albums put out by SM in 2020. At just ten tracks, it is a lean, captivating, and excellently paced sonic journey that soars effortlessly through its runtime – never dragging, yet always easy to keep up with. Just two years after they were introduced as the fourth and most junior subunit of the NCT umbrella, WayV have fast grown to become one of the most confident and cohesive groups – they are the ones to watch moving forwards, not just among NCT’s subunits, but all of SM’s current groups.

Almost every song on the album hits home, with polished, impactful production and songwriting, and performances that are rich with emotion and conceptual depth. There are sophisticated layers to their assembly, in a way that makes them interesting and satisfying to listen to even after multiple repeats. Vocally, WayV deliver their tracks earnestly, with vitality and resolute purpose.

Most importantly, these songs work together as a meticulously arranged tracklist to imbue the overall album with those same qualities. The result is a vividly envisioned epic that makes Awaken The World one of the best full-lengths of NCT’s entire discography – no small feat, considering albums such as NCT 127’s Neo Zone and NCT 2020’s Resonance are good in their own right. It may be one year old, but the musical quality and conceptual weight it carries have given it replay value far exceeding that of its contemporaries.

The overarching aim of Awaken The World is to confidently assert WayV’s ambition to “awaken” or make their impact on the world. Conceptually, though, it tells a story of WayV travelling back in time in order to correct a wrong, continuing the lore established by their previous releases. They set out this resolution in the title track and album opener, “Turn Back Time”, a bold clash of EDM, pop, and hip-hop that combines NCT’s signature, hard-hitting sound with WayV’s own sense of wonder and majesty, created through soaring, dramatic melodies and otherworldly soundscapes.

In this way, of all SM groups, WayV’s sound most closely echoes that of seniors Exo – specifically, songs like “El Dorado”, “Overdose”, and “Monster”, in which Exo are fierce warriors and adventurers. WayV’s equivalents lack a little finesse in comparison – the first verse on “Turn Back Time” is rather noisy, while their vocal line still have a ways to go to match Exo’s holy trinity – but songs like “Turn Back Time” and their 2019 masterpiece, “Moonwalk”, display an appetite and potential for greatness that could mean they are worthy of becoming Exo’s successors in future:

The earth has no boundaries, the sky has no limits
If we could turn back time
Set out once more, turn back once more
This journey’s name is known as transcending time and space

“Turn Back Time” is followed by “Bad Alive” and “Unbreakable”, which both happen to be in the same minor key. Along with the next song, “After Midnight”, these songs form the opening chapter of the album, a selection of dark, powerful tracks that use largely electronic or mechanical sounds. As such, they seem to represent the part of the journey that is set in the present, where the group searches for a way to go back in time to undo whatever catastrophe it is they are facing.

Robotic synths echo on both “Bad Alive” and “Unbreakable”, while the repeating wind-up sound on “Bad Alive” especially resembles a clock or a (time) machine gearing up to operate. Meanwhile, “Unbreakable” soothes the frenzy of the first two songs by taking you from the heat of a furnace to the coolness of a dark abyss – eerie, but also refreshing.

In particular, SM’s attention to detail in gathering songs with the same key and sonic motifs means that the transitions between these songs are utterly seamless. Such smooth, same-key transitions are rare on both SM albums and K-pop albums in general, but the technique appears again later with “Up From Here” and “Electric Hearts”, two bright pop songs with the same major key. The use of such a technique solders the stories between tracks together, creating a narrative thread that helps tie the album into a cohesive whole.

The fourth track, “After Midnight”, is a gorgeous synth-pop track that thematically marks WayV’s acceleration towards their destination: the past. Heavy reverb, shimmering 80s synths, and a rumbling bass help recreate the feeling of speeding along a highway at night, against a skyscape of stars and city lights. It is perhaps the most singularly beautiful song on the project, with lyrics that are just as evocative:

Moonlight blossoms at midnight
Heartbeats start to rise
Creating a fluttering surprise
The midnight rhythm arrives

This is followed by “Interlude: Awaken The World”, a short but stunning instrumental, and “Only Human”, a softer, more downbeat R&B ballad carried by WayV’s rap line, Lucas, Hendery, Yangyang, and Winwin. The former opens with winding synths that repeat, before swelling into dramatic piano notes and strings that are underlaid with pounding bass and drums. The sequence is beautifully cinematic, vividly painting the scene of a time machine switching on and revving up, before leaping through time to arrive in a different world. It’s a scene foreshadowed in the bridge of “Turn Back Time”, where Kun sings, “We are hovering over the chaotic land”. The Chinese phrase, translated as “chaotic”, references a state of primordiality from Chinese mythology, where sky and earth were said to be one before later becoming separated.

“Only Human” is WayV’s first step into this new, old world – both this and the interlude make use of unexpected minor-to-major chord transitions to create a sense of magic, triumph, and rebirth, perfectly encapsulating how a journey back through time would feel. Musically, “Only Human” provides a well-deserved opportunity for these members to show off their vocals at a range more suited to them; in particular, the chronically line-less Winwin’s prechoruses are perhaps the best and longest lines he’s ever had, and vocally he more than does WayV proud.

Meanwhile, the flute that calls out a haunting pentatonic melody over the second verse instantly brings the song’s vision into focus – one of standing on top of a cliff, hearing a bird of prey cry as it soars on the winds above. This form of natural, almost primeval imagery firmly distinguishes this new chapter from the more urban and futuristic first, and is reinforced by visualisations in the lyrics:

Don’t you know I’m only human
Wreaking havoc, toppling mountains, overturning seas
Not only human
Exhausting all patience / expectations
The blazing sea of stars or dust
The storylines that can’t be destroyed when burned
Let the heartbeat remain
What a life, what a life

“Domino”, another album highlight, continues by transporting you to an ancient civilisation. The muffled, airy synths on the main hook and verses recall military trumpets (which is appropriate considering the song is about an unequal love), while the piano notes that ring out on the chorus sound almost like bells in a tower. The lyrics refer to air and dust, oceans and shores, rain and wind; the main vocal hook repeats: “I can feel it in my bones”.

While the album is strong from start to finish, this section from “Unbreakable” to “Domino” in particular is an inspiring example of album production and sequencing at their finest. The stories are so vivid, the colours so vibrant, and the transitions so seamless that, coming out of this section, you feel like you’ve just watched a movie; but even individually, the sheer quality of songwriting and production that is on these songs gives them a radiance that is deeper than just surface-level polish.

From here, we discover the light at the end of the tunnel. If “Unbreakable” and “After Midnight” represent deep night, and “Interlude: Awaken The World” and “Only Human” a new dawn, then “Up From Here”, “Electric Hearts”, and “Stand By Me” are where the day breaks fully, and WayV’s world is gradually filled with sunlight. 

Starting with the appropriately titled “Up From Here”, a catchy piece of light pop, WayV lead us towards a bright and positive resolution, presumably as whatever calamity they were facing is successfully resolved. If there is a flaw in the album, it’s that this transition to joyful pop is a little too sudden; the tracklist would have benefited from an additional song (or even interlude) that makes this solving of the problem more explicit. This last chapter also sputters a little with the pop-EDM track, “Electric Hearts”, which, while enjoyable, is a little too club-oriented to feel like part of the same era (though perhaps its intent is to show us that we have now arrived in a new, alternative present).

Still, Awaken The World ties up these loose ends neatly with the uplifting “Stand By Me”, a wholesome pop number with One Direction-style band instrumentation and a simple but catchy chorus that is perfect for ending concerts with. It follows similarly sweet B-sides like “Let Me Love U” from Take Off and “We Go Nanana” from Take Over The Moon, but fulfils a stronger narrative role here as the rousing celebration of the end to an epic journey, and a hopeful look forward to what lies ahead. 

This track also ends the project on a distinctly upbeat note, when most albums nowadays would choose to end with a traditional, melancholy ballad. In fact, its positioning on the album highlights the fact that there is no generic ballad wedged in anywhere – something which actually works immensely to Awaken The World’s advantage.

Ballads can provide a much needed moment of rest, as well as an opportunity for members to show off their vocal chops, but they also require pop albums to either take a detour from their concept (which can feel contrived) or build a place of rest into their story (which can feel like an attempt to cover too much ground in too little time). Shoehorned in, ballads often don’t arrive with the emotional momentum they need to make the most impact, doing neither it nor the album justice. 

Awaken The World avoids the need for a ballad by weaving space to breathe into most of its songs, so that listeners suffer neither conceptual overwhelm nor ear fatigue while on its journey. Its pace reflects the natural, realistic speed at which emotions progress when you experience a story, and importantly, that story remains largely coherent and consistent throughout. In fact, even just having a coherent story sets it apart from otherwise similar albums – Awaken The World goes somewhere, and it is successful in taking you with it.

As a side note, the fact that there is no repackaged version – normally a staple for SM’s group full-lengths – actually helps to preserve the integrity of the album and its story. While a good repackage can feel like watching the director’s extended cut of a movie, with extra scenes that flesh out the story in more detail, rushed or overly commercialised ones can feel like watching the director’s commentary or a lower-budget spin-off movie instead (think multiple versions of the same song, instrumentals, remixes, and conceptually disparate bonus tracks). 

This kind of rushed approach is what cheapens WayV’s follow-up EP, Kick Back, which was released in March off the back of their success in joining NCT 2020. While its songs are perfectly enjoyable, the smooth conceptual flow and painstaking sonic consistency of Awaken The World are conspicuously absent, leaving it a decent but ultimately spiritless installment to WayV’s saga. Comparing both, the care and attentiveness with which the latter was put together become all the more remarkable; few SM releases are as focused as Awaken The World is, with ambitions as lofty and grand.

SM ensures that every song is able to stand alone by building into them unshakeable melodies, rock-solid production, rich performances, and unique, vibrant identities. As such, even if listeners aren’t interested in storytelling, this remains a very enjoyable and memorable collection of pop, R&B, and hip hop songs that is quite able to stand the test of time. What makes Awaken The World special, however, is the combination of these songs with exquisite album sequencing and conceptualisation, resulting in a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

When such storytelling is done well, albums develop a weight and depth that cannot be matched by music and concepts that are feather-light and skin-deep. After all, a good story will always be the most powerful and effective way to communicate with other humans, because we ourselves are also walking stories. So, if WayV’s own story continues to blossom like how Awaken The World’s does, then don’t be surprised if the world awakens to them very soon.

(Naver [1][2][3][4], Social Blade, YouTube [1][2]. Lyrics via WayV Subs & Translations. Images via SM Entertainment.)