The throngs of fans gathered outside of Newark, NJ’s Prudential Center might seem like the average sold out concert, to the unsuspecting eye. But on April 24, NCT 127 was on that stage, which means the evening was about to be anything but ordinary. The significance of the South Korean band's first stop on their U.S. solo tour wasn't only meaningful to the thousands of their fans, called NCTzens, in attendance, but to the members themselves.
"What we're doing, and what we're doing on this tour, is not something that should be thought about lightly," rapper and Korean-Canadian member Mark told the crowd in a rare moment of solemnity. "Bringing K-pop [here], there's a significance to that and I'm very very grateful. Thank you so much for showing up today. I want to thank you guys for being that confidence and allowing us to do what we do."
In the vast K-pop landscape, NCT 127 has always been an anomaly. The group is the Seoul-based team of a larger global collective from SM Entertainment, made up of members from diverse cultural backgrounds. Though they don't shy away from ballads, like “No Longer,” and the occasional light pop ditty, like “Touch”, their singles tend to be hip-hop/trap tracks studded with quirks. From screaming Hakka chants on “Simon Says” to smatterings of Latin trap on “Regular,” NCT 127 always have an unexpected flourish up their sleeves. But the group — Johnny, Taeyong, Doyoung, Jaehyun, Taeil, Yuta, Jungwoo, Mark, and Haechan are the members who performed — wear their eccentricities with confidence, whether that means singing sultrily on a jungle gym on stage or giving their all as they dance to a song with "queso" in the lyrics. That spirit is why the group is one of the most promising acts out of Korea right now.
“NCT 127 really leads with the idea that we have no limits,” Mark tells Refinery29 just before taking the Newark stage. “I feel like we’re always being experimental and meeting new challenges. It’s not that we’re necessarily chasing after new and trendy things, but just being ourselves and having our true colors come through in every single performance and song.”
Owning your quirks isn’t something you necessarily learn as an K-pop band trainee. Many NCT 127 members credit the influential women in their lives for helping shape who they are as performers.
“A lot of the female figures in my life in general have been especially careful and detail-oriented,” says bright tenor Doyoung. “I think that especially as an artist and musician that has been a vital trait I’ve learned and emulate, and something I truly appreciate.”
“I won’t discount the influence of my father,” jokes the striking rapper and leader of the group, Taeyong. “but it’s because of the way that our mothers raised us, believed in us, and had faith that we’d come this far that we're here now.”
“Sorry daddy!” he adds in English, laughing.
“I really feel like I picked up a lot of confidence from my mother,” adds Johnny. “She is so charismatic, and the way she holds herself in front of people with confidence really encourages me to try to do the same and that's how I think I got here.”
So it’s fitting that the group began their show with a literal bang, performing their braggadocious, bass-heavy hit “Cherry Bomb” while wearing stark white, futuristic-looking outfits. The group continued to boast their out-of-the-box sensibilities by bringing their choreography onto a giant jungle gym set during the sensuous R&B “Baby Don’t Like it,” and Chicago-born Johnny performed "Interlude: Regular to Irregular” solo on a keyboard.
NCT 127, to the surprise of many fans, also performed three new tracks off of their upcoming album, We Are Superhuman, which is set to release May 24: nu-disco “Superhuman,” which the group performed a part of for the first time on Good Morning America, jazzy vocal-heavy “Jet Lag,” and the soaring anthem “Highway to Heaven.” The new releases still carry some of the charms of their previous work, but certainly seem like more polished pop. Johnny said that their forthcoming new music is an evolution of their sound, the themes of which are becoming increasingly individualistic.
“Every time we come out with a new album, we’re always looking for a new sound or something that excites our fans and something that can be fun. This time around we’re leading with this message in particular: Everyone has their own potential and is a superhuman themselves. This album is the whole package: everything from happy to a little sentimental — and I feel like our fans are really going to love it.”
It’s been a long journey since their 2016 debut, but here they are on their 11-stop solo tour, standing in front of their excited, green lightstick-waving fandom for the first time. The moment, as Mark describes, is extremely special and sincere. “I hope our fans can feel the same way we feel about them,” he says.
The exchange of love and appreciation is palpable: The deafening roar of the crowd certainly is proof of their adoration, and in return? “We’ll break the stage,” says Taeyong, eyes glimmering with pride. “Explode it with our performances like dynamite. You can see it.”
And feel it.