Known for their often off-kilter, unconventional title tracks, NCT 127 aren’t just all eccentricities and ‘noise’, as some may mistakenly refer to their music as. Throw their b-sides into the mix and their discography becomes greater than the sum of its parts, full of versatility and diverse sounds, with something for everyone.
NCT 127 consists of nine active members (previously ten, although former member Winwin is now only a fixed member of Chinese NCT subunit WayV), each with their own distinct vocal skillsets and unique tones, rappers and vocalists alike. This makes NCT 127 a group built and suited for any genre, and their b-sides distinctly point to that skillset. While they’ve carved out their own recognizable sound within the broader SM Entertainment sound, when it comes to genre and style, the group can do it all — hip hop, ballads, house, upbeat pop, and R&B.
R&B is one genre where the group particularly excels, especially in their b-sides. Such tracks, like “Focus” and “Magic Carpet Ride” from their most recent full-length album Sticker, are often far more stripped down than their title tracks without completely entering ballad territory, giving each member — vocalist or rapper — the space and opportunity to showcase their vocal chops. Each member’s voice meshes particularly well with typical R&B elements and sounds, melting into the instrumentals and each other’s voices and harmonies smoothly.
“Magic Carpet Ride,” which takes clear inspiration from 90s R&B, is one of those tracks that showcases the group’s particular affinity for R&B well. Like many 90s era R&B tracks, the track is full of buttery harmonies and ear-wormy adlibs. Plus it has an easy-going rhythm and not overly-produced set of backing instrumentals, placing the members’ vocals front and center. While rapper Taeyong shows off his soft and delicate singing voice, main vocalist Jaehyun has particularly standout vocals on this track, especially when his full, velvety vocals come in on the bridge to sing the lyrics “Already in front of my eyes, starlight rains as if to overwhelm/I engrave myself in your dream so that you can forget”.
NCT 127’s earliest tracks also lean heavily into R&B inspiration, namely “Knock On” and “Fly Away With Me” from the group’s first full-length album, Regular-Irregular. Whereas “Fly Away With Me” uses the same tactics as “Magic Carpet Ride”, like a steady, predictable beat and a chorus featuring all of the members singing together in full harmonies, “Knock On” consists of more of a call-and-response format in the chorus that keeps listeners hooked throughout the song.
Another can’t-be-missed standout in the realm of NCT 127 R&B b-sides is “Back 2 U (AM 01:27)” from Limitless, the group’s second mini album. A classic post-break up track in which the members repeatedly proclaim “I’m not going back”, “Back 2 U” begins with the familiar sound of a phone ringing, then an R&B-esque piano riff, then the members’ smooth-as-ever vocals. The first refrain, which Yuta sings, is a reminder that while he is in fact the group’s main dancer, he’s also a strong vocalist with a versatile tone that melds seamlessly with nearly any genre of music.
The track continues to build in emotion and sound with each new verse and pre-chorus. While the first verse primarily features the group’s vocalists, backed by instrumentals and vocal harmonies, the second verse switches things up and unexpectedly strips the track back down when Taeyong and Mark tag-team the rap verses, backed only by the track’s beat and bouncy synth instrumentals. The pre-chorus especially builds the suspense for the chorus with the lyrics:
Whenever you need me, you act as if nothing happened
Don’t look for me as you please (Please)
There is no room for you anymore
This is already over
Between the track’s lyrics, instrumentals, and vocal harmonies, the members’ apparent need to not go “Back 2 U” comes to a head and feels most dire during the bridge, which includes particularly iconic lines from Doyoung and Taeil. Doyoung begins the bridge with a heightened sense of emotion, passionately singing “Don’t do this, don’t shake me up”. Then, at the end of the bridge, Taeil hits his infamous G5 note, which completely brings the song and its message home, waking up listeners in case they weren’t paying attention (which, they should be).
Speaking of vocals, it’s impossible to deny that ballads and tracks that especially highlight the members’ vocal prowess in an even more distinct and raw sense, are another one of NCT 127’s strong suits. They have plenty of upbeat, easy R&B listens, more recently including “Dreams Come True”, and “Pandora’s Box” from Neo Zone (their second full-length album), but their easy listens can and do include their ballads.
Take “No Longer”, sung by the group’s vocal line, which also includes Haechan and Jungwoo. The track takes the shape of a classic ballad, featuring a soft piano melody and light, percussive beats that sit firmly in the background to allow for each vocalist’s singing to shine in the spotlight.
Much like “Back 2 U”, “No Longer” has a palpable build of emotion, which reaches its height during the last chorus, when Taeil backs Haechan’s singing of the main lyrics of the chorus with powerful belts and riffs of his own. While the vocals on this track are pitch-wise and skill-wise practically out of this world in comparison to many other groups, their vocals still feel effortless, and the listening experience reflects that as such.
“White Night”, from Neo Zone, is another stand out ballad that leans more toward the R&B side of things, this time featuring all of the members. Lyrically, the track is about trying to forget a past love. It’s solemn, melancholy, and a bit gloomy, and the members’ vocals reflect that.
While the track again features another piano-heavy instrumental melody, the production gets more interesting when high-pitched, retro, electronic-sounding synths are layered over the piano to mesh with the members’ vocals. While Taeil and Jaehyun contribute heavily to the track with their velvety ad-libs and powerful belts, Johnny and Taeyong also sing on the track, providing soft vocals that add to the overall melancholic flare of “White Night”.
That’s not to say that experimental hip hop isn’t the group’s bread and butter either. Although hip hop tracks are mostly a herald of NCT 127’s title tracks, the group also has standout b-side hip hop and rap heavy tracks that further carve out the group’s overall style and the sound they are most widely known for. “Mad City”, rapped by Taeyong and Mark and sung by Jaehyun, comes from the group’s 1st mini album, NCT #127. Taeyong’s and Mark’s rapping skills and lyricism in the song are both undeniable, and the anger in Taeyong’s rapping (as he quite literally raps “I’m gonna be so mad”) is completely palpable:
People tell me to calm down a bit
‘Right now you’re too agitated man’
Then I answer, ‘Yeah, I think so’
I don’t think I can control myself either
Throw away all your nonsense words
I’m past agitated, I’m getting close to mad.
The production on “Mad City” is far simpler compared to other hip hop tracks from the group, which oftentimes include complex, experimental production elements. However, this simplicity enables the group’s main rappers to show off their skillset and let their rapping come to the forefront, rather than fall behind instrumentals.
If there’s one track that takes the cake for emulating NCT 127’s distinct experimental hip hop vibe, it’s “Lemonade” off of their latest album Sticker. Many fans claim this track would have been the more obvious choice as the title track of the album, sounding slightly more reminiscent of the previous title track “Kick It”, but that only makes it a more welcome b-side. “Lemonade” is particularly representative of what NCT 127 do best, effortlessly combining edgy, addictive rap verses with smooth, catchy vocals and sung melodies. The structure of the track’s chorus meshes these two aspects together especially seamlessly, as the group’s rappers rap the lines:
Taste like lemonade, I stir up a hurricane
Can’t hear you, your voice is noise
Taste like lemonade, it’s thrilling everyday
Gulp it down, got me feeling good
This is followed by the group’s vocalists singing the same lines, repeating them with a twist to top the chorus off.
From a bird’s eye view, NCT 127 looks like a subunit within the greater NCT merely known for their unconventional, hip hop-centric tracks that take a bit of getting used to for the average listener. But, traverse their wider, now-five year-old discography, and you’ll find that the group has — and excels at — a little bit of everything.