To understand the appeal of NCT Dream, K-pop’s beloved young powerhouse, you first have to let go of any lingering notion that you are cool. Cool is looking as comfortable in pastel knits and denim on Zoom as you are in neon green fuzzy jackets and face gems on stage; it’s giggling at a joke with full abandon in one moment and earnestly sharing an introspective observation the next; it’s smashing your own records with every release; it’s making music that sounds like the future.
This doesn’t mean that the septet don’t work at it — in fact, members Mark, Renjun, Jeno, Haechan, Jaemin, Chenle, and Jisung made sure that a primary goal for their second full-length, Glitch Mode, would be to push each other (and themselves) to be even better and more creative than they ever had before. “We all had a meeting together and were talking about how we all shared the same mindset,” NCT Dream’s charismatic leader Mark says over video call from Seoul. “We’re always making sure we’re on the same page when we get ready for a comeback.” The pressure was certainly on — released just last year, their debut album Hot Sauce, made history as their behemoth of a group’s best-selling release ever, as well as one of the highest-selling K-pop albums of 2021.
NCT Dream, affectionately dubbed “the Dreamies” by their fans, leaned on their boyish charms in past releases — from their saccharine 2016 debut single “Chewing Gum” (in which they dance on actual hoverboards) to 2021 hippie fever dream “Hello Future.” But Glitch Mode would mark the newly minted over-twenties’ foray into adulthood. “We knew we had to upgrade our game so our fans could be extra excited – as excited as we were as well, so we had that responsibility,” Mark says. “We wanted to show the people we developed and grew, and that was the focus on every angle of the album.
Not everyone entered the arena so boldly. Youngest member and lithe dancer Jisung, who debuted with the group when he was only 14, admitted in that kick-off meeting that he felt more nervous than excited. “I felt pressure at first, but I remembered I was not working alone,” he says in Korean, eyes peering through silvery white hair. “I realized that teamwork is very important, and during that process I learned that if we work hard and try our best we’ll have no regrets.”
It’s the first time the group has really felt like a solid, unbreakable unit. NCT Dream was formed as the teenaged subunit of SM’s ambitious NCT collective, with the intention that members would “graduate” from the group when they turned 20, to be replaced with younger members to keep the unit’s fresh-faced appeal. But when Mark aged out of Dream in 2018, the collective chagrin of the Dreamies and fans alike drove the label to scrap their plan. Dream’s debut full-length saw the original seven finally reunited, and that’s how they’ll stay. And now they have a full unit to lean on while they walk into the unforeseen territory of mapping a young adult NCT Dream.
Maturity also means leaning into individual strengths and self-discovery. For vocalist Haechan, this was of particular importance. “I think it’s important to show each of the members’ abilities and their personalities,” he says. “We’re positive the fans already felt that we seven members worked well together in our first album. In the second album, we wanted to show that each member has their own ability for vocals, rap, and performance and they’ve developed.”
That ethos brought Glitch Mode, an album that feels in many ways like a step into a new dimension. It spans retro hip-hop and brassy disco to silky R&B, and revels in its brash, in-your-face moments as much as its softer contemplations. There are a few moments where the guys can hear the kind of palpable growth they set out to harness. Mark immediately points to the quirky “Saturday Drip,” made by the group’s four rappers. “Jeno has an adlib that I was really in love with, and I felt like I’d never heard an adlib that came from him like that before,” he says to his bandmate, the latter turning nearly as pink as his hair. “I complimented him on that and was like, Keep this up!” I told Jaemin how much I liked how he started off his verse as well.”
Haechan gave props to his fellow vocalists Chenle and Renjun for stretching their ranges. “We showed more high notes while singing and were able to pull that off very well,” he says, smiling. “And apart from us, different members who are usually rapping or focused on performance also participated in the vocals as well.” Chenle agrees: “Jeno’s vocals in ‘미니카 (Drive)’ is really great, and when I heard it, I was able to see how much his singing had developed.”
The title track is a song about “glitching” in front of a crush, but it’s a far cry from the kinds of love songs crooned by boy bands of yore. It’s elasticized hip-hop laced with both punchy raps and ethereal vocal lines — and just when it seems you’ve gotten a hold of it, the song swerves into a monstrous rock guitar interlude.
NCT Dream could’ve easily dropped a crystalline earworm. But it seems like the more success they encounter, the more they experiment and subvert expectations. “Hot Sauce” makes a shout chorus work over a cascading Spanish-mumbling of a sample; “Glitch Mode” is a face-melting rock concert wedged between two 808s with a side of computer chips. “I feel proud of each album that we released,” Jaemin says. “We’re going on our own path and making it up as we go,” says Renjun, a contented smile lighting up his face. “I feel like if we follow the mainstream tracks, NCT Dream could lose the path that we’re trying to walk on, we wanted to show that we could shine with our own music taste. And since the trends always change, the songs that we do now could be mainstream in the future.”
So far, Glitch Mode has broken both Hot Sauce’s pre-order and first-week sales record — the music video for the title track already has nearly 40 million views. This is clearly a direction that listeners and fans are excited about. But even as they venture further into their coming of age, that doesn’t mean they’ve left their youth behind. “When we’re together, that’s how we get in touch with that young side of ourselves,” Jeno says. When we’re hanging out all together, making an album as seven members,” he breaks into a laugh as he looks around sheepishly, “we’re not actually as mature as we might come off.”