Universe (Let’s Play Ball)
Despite having been extremely busy throughout the entire year, NCT are not done yet. Shortly after the release of NCT 127’s album repackage Favorite in October, they decided to close the year with a loud and confident ‘bang’ – on December 14, they came back as a whole (aside from member WinWin) under the name NCT 2021 with the 13-track record Universe.
I won’t bore you with a lengthy description of NCT’s system (and if you’re reading this article, I assume you’re already familiar with them), but to keep it on a need-to-know basis – the group is divided into three fixed units (NCT 127, NCT DREAM and WayV) and a rotational unit (NCT U).
Occasionally, all the units get together as the whole NCT group (with 22 members as of now) and release a joint album. Thus far, it has already happened twice (2018 and 2020), and NCT 2021 is the third chapter of this exciting journey.
And now that you’re all up to speed, let’s dive into Universe!
The different sides of the Universe (song breakdown)
With the first track New Axis, the group makes sure to open the album in true NCT style – with beats and lyrics that are catchy, loud and bold. The rap-heavy song highlights the group’s stellar rap trio composed by Mark, Taeyong and Yangyang, with lyrics co-written by the first two members. “We decide the standard”, they sing in the chorus – something definitely true for NCT, as they’re the ones setting the standard in KPOP right now.
Next on the album is the title track – Universe (Let’s Play Ball) – sung by Mark, Haechan, Doyoung, Shotaro, Jaemin, Xiaojun, Jungwoo, Jeno and Yangyang. With its layered, detailed production and astounding vocals, the song feels very ‘NCT’ in the good way. However, I mean it in the bad way as well.
Universe (Let’s Play Ball) is exactly what I expected the track to sound like prior to listening to it (aka ‘dollar store 90s Love’), meaning it’s nothing new for the group. It’s not a bad song per se, but it is predictable and unsurprising.
Plus, just like any NCT song, it feels very disjointed and messy production-wise, to the point that it’s almost hard for your ears to make any sense of it. You won’t get it the first time or the second time or… well, it will probably take about 10 listens with this one, but you will eventually enjoy the song. It still won’t make any sense, but it wouldn’t be an NCT song if it did.
And now, onto the unit songs – i.e., Earthquake by NCT 127, Dreaming by NCT DREAM, and Miracle by WayV. These tracks may not be the most memorable on the album, but they are perfect for what they are meant to be. Their main purpose on the record is to represent each unit in the grand scheme of things, and they do so wonderfully.
Earthquake is powerful and noisy, Dreaming is more melodical and mainstream-sounding, while Miracle is fun and pop-ish. These songs are meant to encapsulate each unit’s vibe and/or sound, and it’s an understatement to say that they are up for the challenge.
Something that cannot be missed in an NCT album is hip-hop, and Universe is no exception, with the fun track Birthday Party and the R&B-tinged OK!. Both songs are especially notable for their catchy beats and addictive hooks, which are more than likely to remain stuck in your head. OK! is particularly unforgettable – all it will take is one listen and you will be chanting ‘My baby say she wanna dance with a ghost / She wants to leave me, yuh’.
And what about R&B? Well, as per usual with NCT’s albums, R&B is present and thriving on Universe. We have a splash of R&B pop with Vroom and Know Now, a fun and catchy track with lyrics co-written by Mark, whereas we have a more laidback approach to the genre in Round&Round. Members Jaehyun and Haechan shine particularly with this style, something that is highlighted in Sweet Dream, a medium tempo R&B track with jazzy beats and sweet lyrics about being with a loved one.
To close the album, NCT choose to go out on a softer note compared to how powerfully they begun the record. As the second-to-last song, we have Good Night, an acoustic ballad with a sweet melody, lyrical guitar and piano. This track showcases the impressive versatility of vocalists Taeil, Renjun, Doyoung and Xiaojun across the contrasting music styles that denote NCT’s discography.
As a way to say goodbye to the listeners, Universe ends by bringing all the members together in one final song – Beautiful. With a rhythmic piano riff and nostalgic beats, the song sounds like something SM could have released in the mid-2000s. Harmonizations and vocals reign supreme over the raps, which are scarce compared to the usual rap-heavy tracks by NCT (and let’s be honest, it would have sounded better with no rapping at all!)
Albeit sounding like something off the end credits of a High School Musical movie, the song gives less second-hand embarrassment than you would think (minus the spoken word intro which was definitely not needed). Yes, it’s corny and tooth-rotting sweet, but it’s the kind of cheesiness that makes you roll your eyes while still happily singing along.
To the Universe and beyond (final thoughts)
Truth be told, prior to its release I was on the fence about Universe. I was not the biggest fan of the album snippets NCT had released, and Resonance wasn’t exactly what you would call a masterpiece. Thus, my expectations were rather low. But after I was done with my first listen, I found myself coming to a surprising conclusion – Universe might just be NCT’s magnum opus.
The album is well-structured and somehow cohesive, while still managing to keep you on your toes until the very end. It’s bold and loud, but also soft and warm at times, proving once and for all how NCT are true musical chameleons – they can do just about any sound and still make it exceptionally good.
Plus, this record has great replay value – whereas some albums make you wish they were over sooner, Universe makes you want to replay it again and again because you don’t want the fun to end. And most importantly, this album perfectly represents the group as a whole in all its facets and units – it’s utterly and blaringly NCT.
Alas, if I were to (regretfully) pinpoint one misfire of the record, it wouldn’t be in regards to the songs or their quality – that’s all very well-done! The release time of this album is where things begin to fall short.
As I said in my introduction, this has been one of the (if not THE) busiest years so far for NCT – adding up all the units’ releases, they have put out nearly 70 (!!) songs in the span of 12 months. An insane accomplishment for sure, but also a major drawback for the group.
Having so many back-to-back comebacks means fans don’t have the time to truly appreciate and savor each release, which is a real necessity with NCT’s discography, as their music often needs time to properly marinate before it can be fully enjoyed.
But as ‘the next comeback’ is always already on schedule, the audience’s attention is constantly forced to shift in order to focus on the new shiny thing, rendering every release but a dot on the discography. Not to mention that both fans and NCT are exhausted at this point, thus the music is not even getting the acclamation and momentum it deserves. Whereas, Universe merits to be celebrated and thoroughly relished by everyone.
Maybe things would have worked out better had the album been released in a couple of months instead of now – the jury is still out on this one. But one thing’s for sure – with Universe, they have once again proven themselves to be absolutely capable of releasing great things, and releasing a lot of them. The choice between quality and quantity is not a difficult one for NCT – they simply do both.
Verdict - 9/10