NCT are one of K-pop’s more interesting inventions: a global music collective with multiple “units” who reside in different cities, release separate albums, and periodically come together for joint efforts. The brainchild of SM Entertainment, the collective boasts a dizzying array of subgroups, including NCT 127 (based in Seoul; 127 is the city’s longitude), NCT U, and NCT Dream, which comprises the band’s underage members.
The group’s 2018 debut, NCT 2018 EMPATHY, saw the 18 members joining forces for their first collective full-length release. And like the band itself, the album is a bit of a hodgepodge: At least five of its 13 songs had already debuted—some as far back as two years before. It’s a lot to take in, but once the music starts, you’ll find a startling singularity of purpose. Their hair may be in various pastel shades, but this is not feathery pop music—NCT are making some of the most convincing trap-pop coming out of South Korea.
The mood is set from the intro, “Neo Got My Back.” The gloomy, moving-through-syrup opener oozes effortlessly into the authoritative single “BOSS,” whose stabbing synth might give Iggy Azalea déjà vu. It’s fun and swaggering stuff, with a clean-cut edge that keeps the vibe light even as the singers flirt with menace. Perhaps most compelling is “Baby Don’t Stop,” with its drifting analog synths and steamy atmosphere, while “TOUCH” breaks ranks and forges throwback ’90s-style pop. Not every member does (or could) get equal time on the mic, but Empathy proves that teamwork, not ego, provides the most dazzling results.