NCT 127 Is Bringing Main Character Energy To K-Pop
At their NEO CITY — THE LINK show in Newark, the idols defied expectations.
For a few hours on the eve of NCT 127's Oct. 13 show in Newark, New Jersey, nine of K-pop's biggest superstars relished in the simple pleasure of a succulent bite. At Wolfgang's Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, JUNGWOO treated his band mates to a steak dinner, where they sat around an oblong table gorging on platters of red meat and sipping glasses of cabernet well into the evening. It was one of those rare moments on tour when everyone, bare-faced and casually dressed, could enjoy a nice meal together. Surprisingly, it doesn't happen all that often, not for a global pop act that's always on the go, shuffling from one time zone to the next, and especially not for those inside the mercurial Neo Culture Technology (NCT) ecosystem.
"We all really love eating, and going on tour makes us eat more," MARK tells Elite Daily the next day. There's a boy-next-door charm to the 23-year-old rapper, an eagerness that most idols grow out of. In roughly an hour, he and the rest of NCT 127 will emerge on the Prudential Center stage to kick off the group's second (and final) stop of the U.S. leg of their world tour. Right now, however, they're sitting around a table, lightly snacking on custom-decorated NCT sugar cookies in their crisp, white stage outfits. ("They're actually good, though," Mark says of the sweet treats.)
It's been three years since NCT 127's last tour brought them stateside. "Three years is a long time," JOHNNY says. The Chicago-born performer is naturally charismatic, and he intuitively takes the lead during this interview. "It was the first time since our debut [in 2016] that we each had a good amount of time to ourselves. It was a time for us to mature, not only musically but also personally. After everyone took some time to reorganize themselves, to find who they are, we all came back together and started doing music again. Starting from that point, everybody not only grew up as a person but as an artist, and I feel a lot of that energy as we perform now."
The fans feel it too. "To be able to even do this tour after not being able to for so long, it really meant so much for all of us and for our fans," MARK says. "And that was the attitude we put into the preparations for the tour."
The theme of their tour, called NEO CITY — THE LINK, is part of the larger NCT ethos, where all 23 members of SM Entertainment's mutable boy band collective are connected through the synchronization of their dreams. (NCT 127 is the Seoul-based group.) Onstage, Mark explains its meaning to a rapt arena of thousands the way a philosophy student might interpret ontology. "We are at The Link," the Toronto native begins, "and where does The Link rise from? It rises from The Dream. We’re all connected to The Dream, and we are experiencing The Dream together." He concludes with a characteristically cool, "Y'all feel that?” In short, The Link is about connection — connecting NCT 127 to one another and to their fans, NCTzens (pronounced "N-citizens"), through a shared dream.
So it feels especially meaningful that the show begins with "Kick It (영웅)," a single released in early March 2020 that would ultimately solidify their hard-hitting, experimental sound and serve as a turning point for their careers. As a pandemic forced everyone to stay inside, "Kick It" went viral on TikTok, and Neo Zone became the group's first album to sell over 1 million units. Since then, NCT 127 have experienced a level of success others dream of; their most recent album, September's 질주 (2 Baddies), sold 1.5 million copies in its first week, a record for SM Entertainment.
Its title track, "질주 (2 Baddies)," evokes an image of a cooler, more rebellious NCT 127 — less off-kilter than 2021's polarizing "Sticker" and more core to the group's "experimental, alternative" sound with its aggressive rap verses and chanted chorus, says Mark. "I really think that this song just describes us. That's how I felt when I first heard the track: If we had a sonic identity, it might sound like '2 Baddies.' I might be overexaggerating a bit, but compared to our last release, this feels more us." It's more of a vibe, or a sensation, and less of a formula. "We don't really stick to one genre," he says. "We're versatile."
That versatility, of NCT 127's music and its members, is what they wanted this tour to represent. In addition to demonstrating their team's performance strengths — which JUNGWOO confidently says are their handsome "visuals," as well as their "dancing, singing, and everything" — their concert director, Rino Nakasone, told them each to channel their Main Character Energy. "I feel like all of us are part of one big movie," JOHNNY adds. "Each one of us is focused on our own character. We're literally in character from beginning to end."
In doing so, they curated a set list that would highlight their individual artistry, sprinkling solo performances throughout the concert's three-hour run time. Oldest member TAEIL sings his own version of the group's B-side track "Another World," emphasizing his vocal agility and depth. Powerhouse vocalist DOYOUNG performs the soaring ballad "The Reason Why It's Favorite," a continuation of NCT 127's "Favorite (Vampire)" and a gift from songwriter KENZIE. "It's very important to showcase our individual talents through our solo performances," DOYOUNG says matter-of-factly. "The genres that we are best at are all different… It's one thing that defines us a bit differently, and it's something that our fans really like."
YUTA, who moved from Osaka to Seoul a decade ago to pursue his dream of performing, describes the song he penned, "Butterfly," as an expression of freedom. (He has a blue butterfly tattoo on his hip, which he incorporates into the stage's choreography.) "The musical style that I like and the musical style that we do as a team is a bit different," YUTA says, tapping his black-painted nails on the table. "It was something I really wanted to show, and when I was working on it, it was coming from a state of real honesty and authenticity, especially the lyrics. That was something I wanted to present to our fans."
HAECHAN, the group's maknae, or youngest, is known for his unique voice, sweet yet piercing. For The Link, the singer was keen on showing a more mature side of himself, so he worked alongside TAEIL and producer DEEZ to create "Love Sign" — a simmering R&B slow jam. "There's a producer that we really like," HAECHAN explains. As he talks, HAECHAN fiddles with a plastic cookie wrapper; he's not someone who can sit still for very long. He and DEEZ have worked on "a couple of songs together" (he's too much of a perfectionist to reveal them just yet), but the smooth sultriness of "Love Sign" was something he "wanted to showcase" to fans at this point in time. While he teams up with TAEIL on the vocals, the all-rounder pirouettes across the stage during a stunning dance solo, displaying a panorama of his talents.
JUNGWOO also shows off his fluid yet rhythmic dance style with a slinky performance of NCT 127's Japanese song "Lipstick." Donning a wide-brimmed hat with an embellished veil, the effusive artist lets his body do the talking. Meanwhile, JOHNNY delivers a truly show-stopping moment during "Focus," when he performs — completely shirtless — within a clear, glass shower, turning the apparatus into his own sexy showroom. "We all have our own things that we want to show off," JAEHYUN says. There's an unmistakable zen to his demeanor. This past August, the crooner put out his first solo release, "Forever Only." He calls the chill R&B track "sexy lonely" and he brought that vibe to the arena stage to perform "Lost," an unreleased song from his repertoire. "Everyone is getting more involved in what they want to do, and having opportunities to show off what I really wanted to show helps me to grow and learn more as an artist," he says. "And I can use that when we do our team work as well."
Perhaps no one on their team understands that more than MARK and TAEYONG, the group's magnetic main rappers. At times, they seem like NCT's unofficial frontmen, having played crucial parts in numerous NCT U projects and SM's "Avengers of K-pop" supergroup SuperM. (MARK, along with HAECHAN, are also members of NCT Dream, a subunit for NCT's youngest artists that also happens to be extremely popular.) MARK was the first member of NCT to release official solo work as part of the collective's "NCT LAB" project, and TAEYONG dropped "Love Theory," a colorful collaboration with singer Wonstein, earlier this year. Yet, neither perform these songs at the concert, choosing instead to defy expectations. MARK sets the stage ablaze with "Vibration," an assertively in-your-face hip-hop track, while TAEYONG demonstrates the full spectrum of his star power with the groovy "Moonlight," before joining MARK for their electrifying duo performance of "The Himalayas,” a hype song they wrote and composed in 2020.
TAEYONG is a colorful performer, and his appearance is often a vehicle for art — through his hair (currently, it's perfectly coiffed and copper), makeup, and styling, not to mention his movement. TAEYONG is a pop star in every sense of the word. He's also shy and in his own head a lot, choosing to express himself through his art. Still, when he's with NCT 127 he thinks of himself as part of a larger organism. "I definitely think when there's a great opportunity and chance to, I would of course like to establish myself as a solo artist," he says. "But when it comes to that, timing is everything. Because we're on tour right now that stance is a bit different. Right now it's my time to be part of the group."
"I actually think that's one of the main reasons why I'm also a fan of NCT 127," MARK inserts. "I get so much energy from that, you know, like, I respect all these guys individually and for what they do and for who they are. Having nine totally different people and nine totally different artists becoming one entity, 127, it's what gets me excited, and I get energy from that as an artist myself, and I get inspiration from that as a person." Of course, that doesn't mean it's entirely easy to assert yourself within such a large group. "Finding that balance was tough," he adds. "There were some hard times getting there, because we all are very different. But that's what makes us, and it's working."
That's why JOHNNY, when asked what kind of movie NCT 127 are evoking, describes the group as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. "We've got everything," he says with a smirk. To view it from the outside, the film's nonlinear pacing, interlocking stories, idiosyncratic characters, and the strange world of baddies and intrigue in which they inhabit does seem to encapsulate the more anarchic Neo vibe. It's chaotic, and yet somehow it works.
But not all of the members of NCT 127 are content with being a cult classic; some, like TAEYONG, have more mainstream, Hulk-sized ambitions. "When we come back to the U.S.," he says, "hopefully we can go on a stadium tour." First, however, soft-spoken TAEIL wants to focus on the goal that's right in front of them and "pull through everything that we have to do." (Upon their return home, NCT 127 performed for more than 120,000 fans, both on and offline, during a two-night stint at Seoul Olympic Stadium, the largest stadium in South Korea.)
Yet, MARK is always eager to do more, to be more, to dream for more. Back in Newark, he echoes this sentiment on stage at the end of the night during the group's closing statements. "Honestly, I feel like we've still got so much more to do," he tells the cheering crowd. "With that being said, by the time we come here again, we better be doing more than two days."