Just last week, South Korean group NCT 127 – numbers referring to the longitude coordinate of Seoul – released their long-awaited, third full-length album, Sticker, which immediately caused an uproar among their fans. Some really loved it, while some really hated it (and were not silent about it). It’s the so-called ‘third album syndrome’, where artists create a record that is so new even for them it ends up being polarizing for the fanbase. Sticker might have been just that for 127, as fans are either calling it a masterpiece or a huge disappointment – with no in-between.
(Those who are already familiar with NCT 127 may skip the following section. Those who are not – buckle up!)
A Beginner’s Guide to NCT
For those who may not know, NCT (short for “Neo Culture Technology”) is a KPOP boy-group under SM Entertainment. The band has been able to stand out from the KPOP landscape since its very debut, and not only because of their music and talents, but also thanks to their distinctive concept. In a nutshell, the idea is that the group can have an unlimited (or infinite) number of members, as new boys can be added to the lineup at any given time. So far, they have accumulated 23 members, divided into four different subunits – NCT 127, NCT DREAM, WayV (fixed units), and NCT U (rotational unit).
Each subgroup has its own characteristic sound and/or concept, but there is one thing they have in common – they are all known for going against the current, be it musically or style-wise. In fact, they are considered the pioneers of the takeover on KPOP by ‘noise music’. But what is noise music? Sometimes affectionately called ‘pots and pans’, it is a genre characterized by an expressive use of sound that is not bound to traditional music rules and encapsulates different chords and types of notes within a song. Nowadays, it has become the main style of the 4th Generation, and NCT were the ones who truly popularized it to the current audience (despite being 3rd Gen).
NCT 127’s approach to noise music is particularly fascinating. Fans describe their sound as ‘NEO’, which is confusing and vague unless you are familiar with their discography – then it makes perfect sense! The group always takes noise music to the next level, yet manages to not make it sound completely nonsensical and (too) migraine-inducing.
Now that you are all up to speed, we can proceed with the actual review!
Sticker – Peeling the Songs Off
…the pots and pans are here, louder and stronger than ever.
After weeks of teasers and hints, NCT 127 finally unveiled to their eager, hungry fans their new single and album, Sticker. This record perfectly encapsulates the cornucopia of sounds that the band is known for, as the songs go from EDM to hip-hop to heart-warming ballads. And of course, the group’s signature sound – the pots and pans are here, louder and stronger than ever. But enough chit-chat for now – let’s go through the album together.
NCT 127 made the bold choice to open the record with the title track, Sticker. Why ‘bold choice’? Well, let’s just say the song is not exactly easily digestible… The melody is a plethora of sounds, yet feels almost empty and subdued to the vocals at the same time. It is a bacchanal of frenzied beats and a dirty bass line accompanied by a shrill flute and piano, with cut-throat raps, and beautiful harmonies that are disjointed from the overall melody. Sticker is chaos, but an intentional one, thus its instability manages to captivate you whilst disarming you.
Truth be told, I was a bit taken aback by the song when I first listened to it. Nothing appeared to make sense to my ears, as they seem to be fighting with the beat (and losing) throughout the entire track. But that’s exactly the point. The disconnection between the instrumentals and the singing is clearly done on purpose, perhaps in order to further highlight the members’ impressive vocals, which overpower and outbalance the otherwise empty beat. Or maybe the purpose was just to render the song more impactful, which sure as hell worked – you may not like Sticker, but the song is likely to remain stuck in your head one way or another.
The second track was teased by the group prior to the official release of the album with a track video, and was immediately loved by fans. This catchy B-side includes an addictive deep bass which makes the perfect beat for both powerful raps and hefty vocals, a signature cocktail in NCT music.
The song is so good that a puzzling question immediately erupted following the release of the record and spread like wildfire within 127’s fanbase – why wasn’t ‘Lemonade’ the title track? After all, everyone likes it, both fans and non-fans, and it could easily be something you’d expect to find at the top of the charts. In contrast to Sticker, on which everybody seems to be divided. So, wouldn’t it make sense for it to be the title track, given its striking popular appeal?
The answer is no. What some fans don’t seem to understand is that when it comes down to KPOP title tracks (especially nowadays), the issue is not whether it is the best or the catchiest song on the record. The real question is, does it make an impact? Given how new KPOP groups are popping up left and right, managing to leave enough of an impression on the listeners can make or break a career. The title track needs to be instantly stuck in your mind, and for that Sticker fits the bill. Lemonade sounds just like any other song you could hear in the first 30 minutes of Inkigayo. It’s good, but ordinary. It just doesn’t cut it, and NCT 127 clearly know that.
Third song on the record, Breakfast feels reminiscent of past SM boy groups’ releases, namely SHINee’s song Prism from the album 1 and 1. The song encompasses bright melodies and retro beats with a modernized twist, which serve as a perfect mix with the members’ voices. The song’s main stars are the vocalists (particularly HAECHAN, whose tone works wonders with the genre), while the raps are tamer for the group’s standards.
The fourth track is a mid-tempo R&B romantic song, a genre that is characteristic of 127’s B-sides and displays the group’s more soulful edge. Focus flawlessly showcases the members’ honeyed and warm vocals (especially JAEHYUN’s), and the slow lazy-like raps remind of early 2000’s sultry slow jams. This track was an immediate fan-favorite (as attested by yours truly).
The Rainy Night (9.5/10)
The Rainy Night is an R&B-tinged ballad reminiscent of boy bands in the 90’s, and is the perfect follow-up to Focus, as vocals appear to be the true protagonists of both songs. In the track, TAEIL manages to stand out in particular by showing off his impressive range, with his beautiful adlibs on the suit-and-tie beat.
Next up is Far, characterized by a boom-clap drumline and a chanted chorus. Despite being rather forgettable, it is a good song after all – something straight out of a superhero movie soundtrack. It just sounds like something we’ve heard before at least a million times from about any KPOP boy group out there.
Bring The Noize (6.6/10)
Bring The Noize is about as NEO as it can get, with loud and thunderous beats, growling raps and sounds mimicking a car engine, which together make you feel as if your head were in a blender. Just like Sticker, this song is pure chaos, but of an overwhelming and impetuous kind because of its packed production. Yet, I think that’s where it all goes sideways – Bring The Noize is just too overwhelming, because it’s too crowded. On top of the production overflowing with sounds and effects, the vocal aspect of the song is simply too much. All members sing or rap on the track, but the variety of vocal colors is disarming and confusing to the ears in the worst way. Simply put, some members could have stayed silent in that recording booth….
Magic Carpet Ride (6.4/10)
Doing a full 180 from the previous track, Magic Carpet Ride is a ballad with pop elements, and a melodic beat that particularly shows off DOYOUNG and JAEHYUN’s vocals. Despite being a lovely song, it’s nothing particularly exceptional – it’s good for what it is, but it falls slightly flat and forgettable. Nevertheless, it does a wonderful job in proving that not every KPOP song needs a rap part…
Road Trip (7.3/10)
Road Trip shows off 127’s more boyish and bright side, with nice layers of guitar, drums, and delicate vocals, proving once again how the band is not just a loud gimmick. The song is enjoyable – however, it’s not something we haven’t heard before from NCT. It’s sweet and lovely, but it’s definitely nothing to write home about.
This upbeat song gives yet another sweet and poppy feel to the tracklist, with retro beats, trumpet riffs, and a happy-go-lucky melody. Dreamer kinda sounds like something out of an Old Navy commercial, but I mean it in a good way – its funky, childlike charm combined with the uplifting lyrics is likely to put a smile on your face!
Promise You (7.2/10)
127 chose to end the album with a letter dedicated to their fanbase, NCTzens. Due to the ongoing pandemic, groups have not been able to meet fans in a long time as they normally would. In Promise You they sing about being separated from a loved one and then being reunited again, which is likely a nod towards their fans. Musically, the song intertwines retro-inspired beats with atmospheric synths that give it a dreamy-like appeal. The track is sweet and serves as a great album closer, as wrapping up the record with DOYOUNG singing “So stay” in a longing yet reassuring tone, feels like the perfect goodbye.
So, Did It Stick?
It has a good 50/50 mix of experimental songs to ballads and R&B-influenced tracks, and it leaves room for both rappers and vocalists to shine.
Overall, Sticker is a very well-made album – it has ballads, upbeat tracks, addictive songs, and a decent dose of the good ol’ pots and pans. Does it sound like something we have never heard before in KPOP? No! Does it sound like something we’ve never heard before from NCT? Also… No… But whilst the record follows a similar algorithm to 127’s past albums, it is still incredibly enjoyable without sounding boring or too déjà vu. It has a good 50/50 mix of experimental songs to ballads and R&B-influenced tracks, and it leaves room for both rappers and vocalists to shine.
The album truly screams ‘NCT 127’ – it’s experimental, not sonically cohesive, confusing, and a little weird. Plus, just like all of the group’s music, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Or better yet, it’s not at first listen. Sticker might be odd and disarming, but it will get to you eventually – you just gotta let it stick.
Edited by: Pritha Ray