NCT are to 2021 and K-Pop what fixed stars are to the sky. Just like the fixed stars compose a background of astronomical objects that don’t move relative to one another in the night sky, NCT have composed the background – and foreground – of 2021 K-Pop. They’ve shone throughout the 60+ songs that they’ve released, as NCT and as sub-units. But the brightest star in this December’s sky is Universe, NCT’s comeback as a whole (minus WinWin) named NCT 2021.
The first star to appear in this newly discovered NCT constellation is “New Axis” (NCT U – Taeyong, Mark, and YangYang). It’s a classic NCT hip-hop track, with bold trap beats, lyrics, and rap verses, exactly where the focus on the song is – with lyrics co-written by Taeyong and Mar. The trio set the tone straight with the lyrics “Upper echelon all the above qualified” and “We decide the standard”.
“Universe (Let’s Play Ball)” is sung by Doyoung, Jungwoo, Mark, Xiaojun, Jeno, Haechan, Jaemin, Yangyang, and Shotaro, and perfectly blends with that NCT U style. Music and vocals are layered, the progressions of beats explode with the first chorus, and overall the song brings us back to the ’90s. This track takes a little while to shine; you will need to play it a few times to catch all the details and to enjoy it fully.
Are there earthquakes on stars? The answer is yes, and they happen on neutron stars – remnants of a star larger than the sun that became a supernova. And with “Earthquake”, NCT 127 have gone supernova. The tracks create a surreal and seismic music effect with its blend of EDM and trap beats, creating the perfect environment for NCT 127’s vocals between rap and vocal-heavy parts. The lyrics are adding power to the track, with “ The earthquake that has just begun / The changing domino that destroyed my toes / Turning it upside down and creating it again / A world is completed with the rotation of dreams” and “When we shake earthquake / Destroy yesterday so that the past isn’t here”.
After a striking opening, Universe dims its light with “OK!”, a smooth R&B track sung by Taeyong, Yuta, Ten, Mark, Hendery, Jeno, and Yangyang. The song has a lazy vibe, but it’s catchy thanks to the members vibing to it with their low and relaxed rap.
After “Make A Wish (Birthday Song)” on Resonance Pt.1, we now have a “Birthday Party” and it’s a fun one with Johnny, Yuta, Jungwoo, Hendery, Jaemin, Shotaro, Chenle and Jisung. The atmosphere and vibe of this song are energetic and the beat is addictive; you will end up signing, “Ay, bae, gon’ love that like it’s your birthday / Say, say, say, gon’ love that like it’s your birthday” after the first play.
If NCT have played it safe with the tracks so far, with “Know Now” they are certainly not afraid to experiment – blending R&B with a gospel sample and more use of their vocals instead of raps. Johnny, Doyoung, Mark, Renjun, Jeno, Jaemin, Yangyang, and Sungchan’s bright vocals shine over high synths and have a very groovy vibe. The harmonies are lovely and it just sounds very wholesome. Mark co-wrote the lyrics.
NCT Dream’s “Dreaming” is a song true to its name. It starts with a dreamy atmosphere that swiftly changes into a combination of R&B and EDM, making it a dancefloor banger.
The “Round&Round” unit formed by Taeil, Ten, Jaehyun, Xiaojun, Haechan, and Sungchan delivers a synthpop track mixed with R&B and trap beats that create the perfect background for the main vocalists in the group, making this song glow with their vocal harmonies and adlibs.
WayV’s “Miracle” is a smooth and seductive R&B-infused-with-hip-hop song that serves as a pleasant intermezzo in the album.
“Vroom” is sung by Kun, Jaehyun, Jungwoo, Hendery, Shotaro, Chenle, and Jisung, and it’s likely to be your feel-good track. Its lightness and delicate, adorable vibe contrasts with the title – a sound often associated with cars and motorcycles. It’s a velvety R&B song overlaid with lovely vocals. The mood is kept consistent with “Sweet Dream” – sung by Taeil, Kun, Jaehyun, Haechan, and Chenle. Jaehyun and Haechan’s voices shine on this soft, cotton-like R&B song matched with sweet lyrics, “I share the dreams I’ve always dreamed of, dreamer / That moment in which I met you / Yeah, I can make anything from nothin’ / You and I are the protagonists of my dream” and “You will dream about our own sweet dream / Finding a night for the two of us, dream on”.
Taeil, Doyoung, Xiaojun, and Renjun will make you relax and feel rested with “Good Night”. This acoustic ballad brings forward this unit’s soft and versatile vocals and the delicate feelings described in the lyrics.
The last song on Universe, “Beautiful”, brings all the 21 members together. It feels like a much needed warm embrace at the end of a long day, as Jaehyun sings, “You, who spent an exhausting day / To resemble someone else’s life” – the lyrics follow with “If you’re unhappy when you fall asleep / Even though you chase the dreams others dream for / You keep getting smaller, like clothes that don’t fit / Don’t give up, telling yourself that it’s your fault, that this is it”.
This Glee-esque song with a piano riff, majestic harmonisations and vocals contrasts with many of the songs on Universe but works very well as a heartfelt send-off. The song and the lyrics cast a light of hope and positivity, while the melody rises and brings in the uplifting chorus with all the members singing in unison. Taeyong, Mark, Johnny, Jeno, and Hendery participated in writing the lyrics.
With Universe, NCT have kept their consistency in delivering quality music – no matter the quantity of music released during the year – and showcasing their versatility. This album contains a bit of everything for every listener, from bold and loud tracks to R&B and soft ballads. This is one of the reasons why the album has been well received in Korea and worldwide.
According to SM Entertainment, NCT’s third album swept the weekly No. 1 spot on various music charts such as Hanteo Chart, Shinnara Record, Hot Tracks, Yes24, and Aladdin. Universe topped the iTunes Album Chart in 30 countries, topped China’s largest music platform QQ Music (QQMusic) Platinum Album, digital album sales chart, and music video chart in Korea, and Japan’s Line Music Song Top 100.
With 13 star tracks creating this new constellation and performed by the 21 members across NCT 2021 and its sub-units NCT U, NCT 127, NCT Dream, and WayV, Universe doesn’t fail to remind us of NCT’s magnitude (= brightness of a star) and that they are indeed the fixed stars of K-Pop.