It’s been a quite some time since NCT 127 had a comeback — over a year, to be semi-exact. After taking a long hiatus as a fixed subunit within the greater supergroup NCT, the nine-member group is finally back with their third full-length album, Sticker.

With so much time in between releases and opportunity for the members to expand on and explore their sound within other projects — namely Resonance Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 by way of NCT U, plus a full-length NCT Dream album (for 127 members Mark and Haechan) — it’s no surprise that the group have returned only to take Sticker in an even more experimental direction. NCT 127 are already known for their eccentric, unique SM-based sound most often featuring a loud and electrifying bass and complex production, plus catchy melodies and choruses and hair-raising vocals. 

Sticker as both an album and the title track of the same name take each of those distinct NCT 127 elements up a notch, or perhaps several notches. In both an expected and at the same time completely unexpected choice, “Sticker” begins with an off-kilter flute melody that eventually lingers throughout the entirety of the track, only to pause and quickly jump back and forth between a distorted bass. The arrangement becomes more complex as the song progresses further, and the back-and-forth between the members’ distinct verses and voices amidst the (loosely) organized chaos of the instrumentals is at first a hard pill to swallow.

However, while the complexities and experimentation of “Sticker” may not be digestible or approachable for some listeners, it’s nearly impossible to not give credit where credit is due. Despite the frenzy of instrumental layers that don’t always sit neatly on top of one another, they still manage to work — it’s the unexpected elements and sometimes disorganization of the song that ultimately make it make sense. On top of that, NCT 127’s vocal line, consisting of Taeil, Doyoung, Jaehyun, and Haechan, layer their own easy-to-listen to, smooth but sophisticated vocals over the track to transform the main melody into a catchy and almost addicting tune. 

As Sticker goes on, it becomes more palatable and more recognizably situated within the group’s usual musical style and genres, still with a welcome degree of experimentation. The following track, “Lemonade” sounds more like a typical, older NCT 127 title track.

It features a consistent, booming beat and bass with addicting rap lines flowing throughout and melting vocal harmonies to back them up. “Far” has a similar vibe, again sounding more reminiscent of older NCT 127 tracks. It’s slower than the typical choice for an NCT title track, but follows a steady beat and features electric guitar-like EDM instrumentals and easygoing vocals (with some can’t-be-missed ad libs) that give it a sense of maturity mixed with familiarity. 

“Bring The Noize” also lends itself to older NCT 127 title track territory. Another energetic, chugging hip hop track, “Bring The Noize” does exactly as its title suggests. Loud, almost banging percussive instruments, “vrooms,” and a boosted bass serve as the basis for the steady, practically never ending rap flow (except for a short pause before the chorus) that gives the track its easy listen quality.

While it heavily features the group’s rap line, including Taeyong, Mark, and Johnny, who carry the track’s rap verses, plus Jaehyun, who expertly delivers one of his own, each of the vocalists also finds an opportunity to stand out and shine. 

The remainder of the album is a mostly a departure from the “noisier,” more intense, and more experimental tracks already discussed. However, that’s not to say the rest of Sticker isn’t experimental — it is, just in different ways. 

NCT 127 isn’t a stranger to ballads or slower songs in general. Part of their charm and draw is that each member’s voice is completely distinct and noticeable, whether a rapper or a vocalist, and the remaining tracks give them the space to showcase just that. “Magic Carpet Ride,” which features a tinge of 90s-ballad in its melodies, provides a less complex canvas for the vocal unit to showcase their smooth, honey-like vocals and harmonies. “Focus,” a sensual R&B track, allows the group’s vocalists to showcase their vocals in a different light, highlighting their ability to switch back and forth between sultry falsettos and deeper tones. 

“The Rainy Night” also follows suit, this time taking the form of a slow, delicate, piano- and strings-based ballad. It’s certainly a departure from the genres the group has previously been most drawn to, but showcases their vocal maturity and ability to traverse genre. The chorus, which features swelling, uplifting harmonies and later earwormy ad libs largely from Taeil, has a pleasant softness to it, especially by way of its metaphorical lyrics:

You become the rain
And pour endlessly
You become the wind
And blow into my heart
I keep you safely
And can’t let you flow out, 
I just drown it

A few other unexpected choices, namely in terms of genre, are also sprinkled into Sticker. Some work really well, like “Breakfast,” which features elements of the house genre, previously unexplored territory for the group.

That, along with “Promise You,” which is an upbeat, light and breathy synth-based track dedicated to the group’s fans, NCTzens, are cases where exploration of the new and unfamiliar work. “Roadtrip” and “Dreamer,” on the other hand, are welcome additions to this experimentation, but easily get buried underneath Sticker’s other standout tracks. 

As a long-awaited album for fans of NCT 127, Sticker does the job of fittingly “sticking” with casual and dedicated listeners alike. After five years in the K-pop scene, and three full-length albums later, NCT 127 has managed to continuously and cleverly reinvent both themselves and even musical genres as a whole, while still remaining the same nine-member group their fans have always known. 

(Images via SM Entertainment.)