For a group whose members debuted at such a young age, and originally weren’t even set to stay in the group past the age of adulthood, it’s easy to forget that NCT Dream aren’t the innocent seven boys they were when they first started out as idols. While they’ve continuously been maturing in sound and image ever since their debut in 2016, that evolution hasn’t felt particularly complete, or at least near-complete, until now. 

With the release of their latest mini album, Dream()scape (pronounced “Dream escape”), the septet prove to be all grown up, tackling more mature and complex lyrical themes and topics, from loneliness to insecurities to anxieties. It’s also one of the group’s most sonically cohesive albums to date, even as they lean into more chaotic and peculiar sounds than ever. Still, and ironically enough, Dream()scape isn’t without its growing pains either – more on those later, though. 

Between the album’s stirring teasers and most of its tracks, NCT Dream shed their signature vibrancy and zest, exposing the cracks in their well-known surface to express to audiences the trials and tribulations that threaten to hold them back. Even as they discuss these underlying worries and obstacles that may not be so obvious to us as outside viewers, we see (and hear) them break out of their shells and explore new ground in order to experience and understand a more well-rounded, realistic picture of who NCT Dream and its members are as both artists and people. 

Opener “icantfeelanything” introduces this concept succinctly, articulating creeping and chaotic flurries of stress and anxiety through a tumultuous collection of racing and echoing beats and basslines. The members’ vocals are full of despair, as they sing of feeling “lost and confused” and “drifting further away.” The track comes across as both foreboding and disheartening, as if Dream are attempting to grasp onto their last bits of hope before their worries inevitably consume them. 

On “BOX,” a hip-hop track that evokes sounds of older, Y2K-era SM Entertainment hits of the same genre, the group channels their setbacks and troubles into anger, begging for freedom from their negative effects: Don’t put me in a box / I’m banging on the roof / Don’t put me in a box / I’m a lion on thе move.” A clear standout from the album, thanks to writing contributions from Mark, “BOX” is the focal point of Dream()scape’s themes of breaking free of insecurities and other day-to-day realities that threaten to tear anyone — not just a world-famous idol group — down. 

The two closers and other key pieces to Dream()scape’s cohesion are “UNKNOWN” and “Breathing.” Both mid-tempo, airy tracks, “UNKNOWN” and “Breathing” see NCT Dream tackle the doubts introduced in “icantfeelanything” and “BOX” head-on, rather than running away from them. In “UNKNOWN,” the members encourage themselves to literally “dive into the unknown,” and remain “brave” and “strong” while doing so. Lighter in sound and production than “icantfeelanything” and “BOX,” “UNKNOWN” retains the perplexed undertones of both while also breaking from their heaviness, as if to release the theoretical burdens that weigh them down toward the beginning of the album. “Breathing” is the most melodic (and relaxing) track on the album, and also one of its most vulnerable. The vocals are both soothing and powerful, blending seamlessly to inspire listeners to fight through troubles of their own: 

When I’m falling down, down, down

You always save me

The warmth that knew my feelings

Your breath that embraced me

Then there’s “Carat Cake” and “Smoothie,” the two (sort of) food-related tracks on Dream()scape. An NCT Dream song named after food comes as no surprise (there’s 2021’s “Hot Sauce” and ISTJ’s “Yogurt Shake” and “Pretzel”), but “Smoothie” and “Carat Cake” are a tough sell on an album with such a strongly defined thematic across its four other tracks. The eccentric “Carat Cake”’s food relation does begin and end with the word “cake” (the song’s lyrics are about the “diamonds” on the members’ wrists), but still falls short in fitting in with the darkness and vulnerability displayed in the rest of the lyrics on the album. Still, its quirky synth chimes and bass blips forge a feeling of breeziness that helps “Carat Cake” sonically fit in with the rest of the album. 

“Smoothie,” even as the title track, finds itself as Dream()scape’s odd-one-out. Rather than serving as the representative track for the rest of this album, “Smoothie” instead reads as an evolution, or continuation, of the mix-and-matchiness of the group’s last title track, “ISTJ.” Even though “Smoothie” on its own is anything but predictable, in some ways to a tiring degree, it still features the same structure as “ISTJ”: a racing hip hop track whose energy comes to a screeching halt midway through by way of an R&B-inspired melodic breakdown (only to return to said racing hip hop cadence). 

Given the predictable nature of “Smoothie” versus the unpredictability of the rest of the album, it would have served the group well to at least center the focal point around something relevant to the rest of Dream()scape’s unique storyline and sound. Like 2021’s “Hot Sauce,” “Smoothie” also falls victim to similar suggestive innuendos (“Sip it, sip it down like smoothie” and “dirty taste”), despite SM Entertainment’s opposing description of the track. The verses in Korean take this even further, with lines like “feels sticky on me” and “to the bottom, swallow it all chewy.” While NCT Dream is no stranger to less innocent, more suggestive subject matter and lyrics, “Smoothie”’s contributions still set the album off-course, watering down the legitimate maturity the group strives to build via the other tracks. 

As with any other group, growing pains are bound to happen — especially with one that’s been in the business for such a long time but whose members are only just stepping into adulthood. On one hand, NCT Dream take their own personal growing pains as people and as artists and channel them into a creatively-told, sonically cohesive album. On the other hand, however, Dream()scape at times comes across as muddled and confused with more formulaic, generic NCT title tracks like “Smoothie” overshadowing the vulnerabilities and originalities that should take the spotlight instead. The group can clearly sing and write of growing pains and growing up with deep sincerity — let’s just hope they can prove it throughout the rest of their music, too. 

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3][4][5]. Images via SM Entertainment.)