[Review] NCT 127 return with the ambitious & outstanding “Superhuman”

One of the things that first drew me to K-pop was SM Entertainment’s SMP style (SM Music Performance). Characterized by its hybrid, genre-bashing nature, this musical philosophy was fueled by bombastic instrumentation and outrageous vocal arrangements. There wasn’t anything else like it at the time, and there still isn’t. As K-pop continues to blow up internationally, SME has moved toward a more Westernized sound, but my fondness for their past glories has caused me to stick by the agency’s side during even their trendiest moments.

As a concept, NCT has always seemed poised to usher in a modernized SMP renaissance. Their work has been experimental from the start, but rooted much more strongly in hip-hop than anything else. The 127 unit in particular has too often become the Taeyong and Mark show, sidelining melody in favor of swagger. This pattern took a seismic shift with anthemic pre-release “Highway To Heaven,” and the compelling disco-meets-complextro “Superhuman” seals the deal.

Rather than borrow from SMP’s mix-and-match toolkit, “Superhuman” carries on the spirit of the agency’s past. The song has impact, from its jackhammer funk percussion to the deliriously satisfying wall-of-voices flourish that begins and ends the track.

“Superhuman” marks SME’s first partnership with producers 1Take & TAK, whose glitchy electro has powered standout tracks from artists like Lovelyz, WANNA ONE, and Golden Child. Along with co-composer Adrian McKinnon, they give NCT 127 a powerful groove to sink their teeth into — reminiscent of ‘King Of Pop’-era Michael Jackson but updated with modern tastes in mind. Many have already compared the track to SHINee’s 2012-13 work, and there’s definitely a little bit of “Sherlock” in the dynamic bones of “Superhuman”.

To be nitpicky, I wish the song’s momentum didn’t stall during its second verse. This segment presents a meandering diversion as the tempo stagnates for too long. The dreaded ‘post-chorus slowdown’ is par for the course when it comes to 2019 K-pop, but its presence here keeps the track from veering closer to perfection. Luckily, this stumble is book-ended by galvanizing choruses that feel as immensely packed as NCT’s unlimited roster. While the group’s vocal line was often relegated to the bridges of past 127 title tracks, they’re the driving force of “Superhuman”, and the choice pays off wonderfully.

The song’s opening verse impresses with a sturdy funk-pop performance — an edgier take on the buoyant groove of NCT Dream’s “My First And Last.” The jagged instrumental counters the track’s bright melody, offering complexity without sacrificing its pop-minded core. During its best moments, “Superhuman” is the sound of a group giving it all they’ve got. That’s the kind of lofty ambition that modern K-pop was built on.

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