Never thought you’d see NCT 127 in a soft concept, did you? Neither did I. When it was announced that the next installment in NCT’s recent string of music video releases would be the bright “Touch” by unit NCT 127, I wasn’t sure what to think. I’d been holding out for another “Limitless,” admittedly, so you can imagine that the cheerful “na na na na” in the music video teaser for “Touch” made me a little nervous. I shouldn’t have doubted NCT or SM for a second. “Touch” is every bit as good as the NCT 2018 tracks that came before it, though in very different ways. Furthermore, hours after the “Touch” MV dropped, SM Entertainment finally (FINALLY) released the new album, “NCT 2018 Empathy,” meaning that NCT have officially made their comeback and I can talk about the album itself. “Empathy” mostly consists of the four songs released in the past few weeks, plus some old NCT U projects which are by now months (or years) old. However, it does include two completely new songs: NCT U song “Yestoday” and full-group track “Black on Black,” both of which are slated to get music videos in the coming weeks. I’ll share some thoughts on the album after singing the praises of “Touch” at the top of my lungs for a few paragraphs.
Fans are having a good chuckle at the fact that NCT Dream, the group’s youngest unit, and NCT 127, the oldest, may as well have switched concepts for the songs they’ve released during this comeback. While Dream’s previously cute, youthful sound was traded for growling bass and angry yelling in “Go,” the dark concept of 127 songs “Limitless” and “Cherry Bomb” suddenly gave way to pastel colors and toothy smiles in “Touch.” The only explanation I can think to offer is that SM decided to reserve “Touch” for the unit with the most clout, which would be 127. That’s how good “Touch” is. I hardly know where to begin—I’m still riding the sugar high that kicked in the first time I heard the song, even though I’ve replayed it upwards of thirty times by now.
The subtler strengths of “Touch” include its richly smooth synth instrumental and the dozens of compositional quirks strewn throughout its verses like flower petals. But the song’s most effective element by far is its refrain. I mean, boy, can SM’s people write a hook. All the members chorus the melody in unison, and the effect is as infectious as gospel music or an uplifting musical number. NCT’s vocalists, who have already proven themselves to be among the most capable K-pop vocalists out there, turn this into something spectacular. I’ve even grown extremely fond of the aforementioned “na na na”s, which in the song itself are layered among lower melodies as a textural failsafe. As the track progresses to its close, it weaves adlibs and sing-talking into that towering choral refrain for the song’s most feel-goody moment. I love that—how “Touch” draws out every second of giddy joy even as it gallops towards its own end. I’ve been having trouble deciding which of the NCT 2018 songs is my favorite since the moment “Baby Don’t Stop” dropped, but “Touch” just might be it.
So let’s talk about what else “NCT 2018 Empathy” offers. Aside from the last few weeks’ music video releases “Boss,” “Baby Don’t Stop,” “Go,” and now “Touch,” the album also includes NCT U’s SM Station “Timeless” and their original two 2016 songs, “The 7th Sense” and “Without You.” You’ve also got member Ten’s 2017 SM Station dance feature “Dream in a Dream,” and a new orchestral outro titled “Vision.” Technically, the January SM Station release of “Timeless” was a live version, and I think I still prefer the original to the one on the album—there’s something compelling about the live vocals and their slight echo. It’s a lovely ballad, and I do highly recommend the original to anyone who hasn’t heard it.
More important than all that, though, is the album’s intro, “Neo Got My Back” (!). Everyone has been rooting for this track since SM used it in a comeback teaser at the beginning of February, and the fact that it’s included on the album is one of the biggest reasons to celebrate NCT 2018. The hip-hop-based intro is not a full track, but it’s still one of the album’s biggest highlights. The beat is…what can I even say? It’s like NCT has cornered the market on bass with this comeback, and “Neo Got My Back” was step 1.
However, all of those songs had been released before the album itself. So what about the new music? We’ve got two new tracks, “Yestoday” and “Black on Black,” as I mentioned before, plus a “bonus” extended version of “Yestoday.” I’m not sure what the purpose of including both versions might be, as the extended version feels much more complete due to the dynamic effect of its introspective first thirty seconds. It should, in all honesty, have replaced the original entirely. Now, “Yestoday” has quite a 90s feel, and when it kicked off, I wasn’t sure what exactly NCT would do with that. But it’s successful, which it owes as much to vocalist Doyoung’s smooth delivery of the melodic hook as it does to Taeyong, Mark, and Lucas’ ponderous rap verses.
In regards to “Black on Black,” on the other hand, I’m a lot more skeptical. Or perhaps “lost” is a better word. Expectations were high as could be for this song, between the quality of its NCT 2018 predecessors and the fact that this is the first full-group NCT song in history, the first song to include all the members and all the units. But “Black on Black” does not feel like a full song. I spent all day yesterday replaying it and trying to convince myself this wasn’t the case. Bottom line, though, it might as well have been an intro or an interlude. I was on board throughout the first minute, where Taeyong and Mark go off over a grungily suspenseful instrumental peppered with some absolutely wild sound effects (that crazy echoing trash-can percussion!). It feels as if it’s building up to something mind-blowing. But when the verse is over, the beat doesn’t drop; instead, the tempo slows. From that point on, the song doesn’t…go anywhere. Nothing happens. There’s no hook whatsoever. Not if you don’t count the staggered shouting of “black on black on black!” which I don’t. Not even Lucas’s brief rap takes the song anywhere.
As I said, I’m totally lost here. I have no idea why SM would make this highly anticipated track a space-filler. It must have been purposeful, because SM would never do something like that by accident. You could say that perhaps it serves the same purpose of Ten’s “Dream in a Dream,” which like “Black on Black” is largely instrumental-based. The focus of “Dream in a Dream” was on Ten’s dancing, not the song itself, which might indicate that “Black on Black” is exclusively a performance song, seeing as its live performance at NCT’s showcase was quite a production. That would be disappointing, but I guess it is what it is. With any luck, the music video dropping in a few days may shed some light on the matter—maybe “Black on Black” has some conceptual significance that has yet to be revealed. In the meantime, we’ve got a near-perfect album to enjoy, and I’m going to go do just that.
TOUCH: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? B o p ! Na na-na-na-na-na, na na-na-na-na-na, na na-na-na-na-na, na na na na!
Take a look at NCT 127’s “Touch” MV below: