The end of the year may be uncertain, but if there’s one thing that’s now for sure, it’s the release of yet another NCT album. This time, NCT and its three fixed subunits and 21 members (minus WayV’s WinWin and Lucas) have come together in different concoctions to flaunt their collective brand and sound on their third album, aptly named Universe

Universe delivers exactly what it promises — a (mostly) cohesive look inside NCT’s world. Its highs are high, and its lows are luckily few and far between–where present, they are hardly enough to subtract from the glistening galaxy that the album’s best moments triumphantly piece together. 

The album’s title track of the same name, “Universe (Let’s Play Ball)”, sets the tone accordingly, with a seemingly formulaic ‘90s hip hop-inspired beat and repetitive rapping of the line “Let’s play ball” that at first feels almost too predictable for an NCT title track. But, as “Universe” saunters through its first verse, featuring Haechan, YangYang, Jeno, Jungwoo, and Mark, it takes a step outside of its expected formula and transforms into an amalgam of groovy, R&B synths and vocals, and heavy-hitting rap adlibs that make it impossible to ignore. NCT’s busiest member, Mark, is at his unequivocal best during his rap in the track’s second verse (“What you got? What’s a lot ain’t enough / Step and pivot / The only center of my universe”). He keeps the momentum going as “Universe” takes several melodic twists and turns to arrive back at its easygoing chorus.

“Universe (Let’s Play Ball)” gives just an initial glimpse at the remaining hip hop-focused tracks on the album that in many ways represent the best of NCT. “OK!” and “Birthday Party” are two such tracks; both home in on the unexpectedness yet familiarity of NCT rap-centric tracks. “OK!,” featuring Taeyong, Ten, Yuta, Hendery, Mark, Jeno, and YangYang, welcomes us with mesmerizing twinkling synths and a drill trap beat entirely reminiscent of a Pop Smoke single, although the members make it their own. Filled with memorable rap verses (“My baby says she wanna dance with a ghost / She wants to leave me, uh?”) and smooth R&B melodies, “OK!” is a dazzling coming of age moment for NCT. 

“Birthday Party,” featuring Jaemin, Shotaro, Chenle, Jisung, Johnny, Yuta, Jungwoo, and Hendery, is much of the same. However, it brings things up several notches by following an ultra upbeat rhythm that continuously speeds up and slows down, hardly ever settling on one uniform pace. The track’s standout moment comes during its interlude when Hendery asks “Yo, DJ, can we switch it up a bit?.” “Birthday Party” then immediately turns on its head, metamorphosing from a guns-ablazing hip hop number into an R&B slow jam, as Johnny raps “Flip that, switch that / Shawty fine, big facts.” It’s an astonishing, almost too-good-to-be-true breath of fresh air in the midst of a full-blown hundred-meter dash. 

Speaking of R&B jams, it wouldn’t be an NCT album without one. “Round&Round,” featuring Taeil, Xiaojun, Sungchan, Jaehyun, Haechan, and Ten, neatly takes that place on Universe, stringing together a fitting team of vocalists to get the job done. The track is the epitome of a guaranteed hit, combining EDM with trap beats and electrifying synths, plus memorable vocal adlibs and runs that make for a hypnotizing listen. “Miracle,” WayV’s track, does much of the same, taking inspiration from R&B and trap, but it’s wrapped in a different formula that gives it that distinctively effortless WayV touch. 

Universe’s other fixed subunit tracks, “Earthquake” and “Dreaming,” also aptly represent their respective groups, NCT 127 and NCT Dream. “Earthquake” is perhaps the younger, less erratic sister to NCT 127’s recent “Sticker,” presenting a complex clanging of loud beats, subtle growling and zooming sound effects, and commanding vocals that add to its intense aura. “Dreaming,” another standout track among Universe’s other offerings, is fittingly brimming with NCT Dream’s ever-present youthfulness and sincerity thanks to lullaby-esque synths. These are surprisingly contrasted by house beats and noticeably mature vocal moments from each member.

Meanwhile, other tracks, like the subtle but sweet “Vroom” and poppy “Sweet Dream,” get slightly lost in the sauce as the album progresses. Hip hop-inspired tracks “New Axis” and “Know Now” fall more or less into the same gray area, while ballad “Good Night” feels out of place amongst other high-energy, high-intensity tracks. Here, Universe doesn’t quite lose its way, although it still strays noticeably further from its previous offerings. One caveat, however: an NCT album simply wouldn’t be an NCT album without a few lowkey tracks thrown into the mix to break up the the beautiful madness of it all. 

Where Universe strays too far out of the sonic realm it aspires to create, however, is with its second title track “Beautiful.” With sentimental and sincere lyrics (“Why is it that, when everything in the world takes its right place / It shines more beautifully?”) sung by all 21 members at one point or another, “Beautiful” certainly has some promise of emulating what its name suggests. However, despite its encouraging words, its instrumentals err just too far on the side of bubbly and earnest, to the point where the closing track feels more contrived than anything else. That said, “Beautiful” is still teeming with the subdued catchiness of any other NCT title track, only this time bundled up in a slightly more unexpected package.

With Universe taken in its entirety, NCT have undoubtedly built a larger-than-life sonic ecosystem of seismic proportions, one which they can easily call their own. As the group continues to grow (both in terms of size and skill), so will their universe, and their ever-impending impact on the musical territory laid out before them. 

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3][4]. Images via SM Entertainment.)