I have so many thoughts about NCT 2018 Empathy. So many. Most of them are not positive, but I remain hopeful.
If you’re just joining this comeback cycle, I was not a huge fan of NCT U’s “Boss” but liked NCT Dream’s “Go” despite my dreamies being all grown up. The more I listen to “Go,” the more of a Haechan appreciator I’m become. His voice is gorgeous and he uses it impeccably. (“Boss” is growing on me, ngl. Listening to it on headphones is like suddenly going underwater and seeing all the coral reefs and fishes when previously you were just been dog paddling above the surface.)
However, that brings us to NCT 127 and “Touch.” Writing about it means that I should post the music video on my channel and for that I hate myself a little bit.
This video makes me cringe.
It’s clear that Dream and 127 swapped concepts for this comeback, with Dream taking the hard-edged grotty urban-inflected hip-hop sound, and 127 covering the squeaky-clean brightly lit bubblegum pop arena. However, unlike Dream’s previous singles (even “Chewing Gum”), “Touch” doesn’t have a twist, or a nudge-and-wink, or a naughty streak. It’s just plain, simple bright smiles and boyfriend material.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that–there certainly isn’t. But it isn’t why I started listening to NCT and certainly isn’t what attracts me to k-pop.
I recognize that I’m not the typical fan (I’m older than most of their target market), because I see the younger fans clearly enjoying the visuals of all the members in this comeback. And yes, they are all very good looking. But I miss the gonzo NCT styling which even applied to Dream when they were promoting. There are no fur hats or eyeball rings and shark jackets or fantasy military jackets. Or Gucci on a hoverboard.
It’s not just the visuals that bother me, though. The actual song “Touch” is really corporate sounding, like you’d stick it into a commercial for an off-brand soda. Frankly, it sounds like a reject from EXO’s winter album that some underling producer got stuck with trying to “funk it up” for NCT.
Which brings us to the Empathy album as a whole, which someone remarked should be called NCT 2016-2018 since it contains all the assorted non-album releases since NCT debuted. “Black on Black,” all of the NCT U songs. NCT U’s “The Seventh Sense” was the first song that drew me to NCT, and if I had discovered it on an album like Empathy, I don’t know if I would have explored more. (Of course it was Dream’s “My First and My Last” that really got me. NCT Dream is secretly everybody’s favorite.)
Specifically, I dislike albums that are all single and no b-side. Even with the intro and outro, there’s no reason for me to listen to Empathy on its own. NCT has always been weak in their discography–partly because they’re still experimenting with their sound but also because they only have mini albums and don’t have a body of work built up like a band like EXO or Big Bang did. Granted, the inherent structure of NCT’s design would make it more difficult to build up a body of coherent work, because they’re built up of subunits with different themes and sounds.
Even more specifically, I’m really disappointed by the song “Yest0day.” Interesting title, not a bad hook, fantastic rap from Mark (who is really starting to hone his chops), all ruined by an idiotic rap from Lucas. One of the main reasons I like k-pop is that even when the rap is simplistic or lacking finesse it’s not dumb. I hate dumb rap where they take a word and then rhyme it five times in a row without any rhythmic variation or wordplay or anything. Mark delivers the opposite of that. So does Taeyong. But Lucas the Usurper? No more dumb rap, please.
Now. Granted. Part of this sounds like the knee-jerk reaction of someone who is protective of a fledgling k-pop group. And that is true, I like NCT and being a person high in openness, I like the idea of an ever-expanding group that can shift to accommodate different musical styles and moods.
But it’s hard to watch SM deliberately crash the original NCT concept. One of the benefits of doing it now is that I know that I won’t have to watch it happen in slow motion, when producers run out of ideas and the concepts all start to morph slowly into each other and enough members leave that all the subunits are consolidated to keep the group alive. At least we don’t have that future.
Maybe (hah) this means that we can get more clarity out of future NCT subunits, who will emerge to deposit a well-conceived package of music into our earballs before evaporating back into the nebulous NCT mothership. (Isn’t that what the concept was supposed to be anyway?)
I suspect that the deliberate switching of Dream and 127’s concepts, plus the cataloging of U’s random singles into one album, serves as a zeroing-out for the group. I think this is supposed to be a new start, a time for all the subunits to develop empathy for each other’s concepts and learn how to work together or whatever. However they promote from this point forward, it won’t be the NCT that we started with.
On the plus side, SM is always A/B testing, so I’m hoping we’ll get something stronger out of this. The concepts for both Super Junior and EXO crashed too, and both groups did alright for themselves.
PS: SM Entertainment, this is my request for an official Mark/Haechan subunit.