The last time NCT 127 released a full-length album, the world looked a lot different. It was early March 2020 and we were still riding grimy subways and eating dinner in packed restaurants with reckless, gleeful abandon. NCT 127 achieved commercial success and was poised to take Neo Zone out on the road with its first arena tour in the States. We know how the rest of this story goes: the tour was cancelled and the entire world was put on pause. Now, over a year later, NCT 127 is back with Sticker—its third album featuring a lead single of the same name.
Sticker is an 11-track record that features a blend of lively EDM tracks, soulful ballads, and rap verses full of swagger. Seasoned listeners will find that this album—though increasingly experimental in its use of samples—offers a lot more of the same from NCT 127. For listeners who prefer the group’s more mellow tracks, there’s no shortage of those familiar high notes and stunning vocal runs. And for those on the other end of the spectrum, there’s plenty of noise—though, while Sticker reliably builds on the foundation it built on previous releases, the group seems to be testing just how noisy it can get.
For a K-pop act, NCT 127 has always been largely unafraid to experiment with unusual styles and sounds. “Simon Says,” a single from the band’s Regulate (2018) album, has a distinctive, repetitive beat that sounds like someone brought a horse into the studio and let it neigh along to the track. “Kitchen Beat,” a track from the Japan album Awaken (2019), is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way the song sounds a lot like someone banging on pots and pans. Somehow, “Sticker” manages to take things a step further: Yes, there’s a trilling flute sound looped atop a smooth bass and R&B melody. But the soulful chorus and hook do little to temper its more audacious elements—elements that include a jarringly frenzied breakdown and the members chanting “roll up to the party” over and over (and over) again. “Sticker” is a dose of noise that teeters on, but doesn’t fall off, the brink of full-scale chaos. The song is a daring track that carves out its own sonic terrain, but not actually indicative of the rest of the album.
The next track, “Lemonade,” gives listeners a better idea of what to expect, with NCT 127 at its best. The brassy song is bass-heavy and highly produced, made whole with the addition of powerful, honeyed vocals and lightning-hot rap verses. NCT 127’s ability to play around and experiment with outlandish, obscure samples is successful largely because its vocal execution is so tightly controlled and deliberate. Third track “Breakfast” continues the frenetic pace, this time infusing the song with a heart-pumping EDM sample. With lyrics like “Don’t want nothing else / Let’s be together, breakfast in the morning / So our time doesn’t end,” the punchy track breaks down the aftermath of a night of lust and longing. “Far” and “Bring The Noize” are two others that keep up with NCT 127's unrelenting energy, albeit in opposing ways. “Far” is another spirited, vocal line-heavy EDM track that builds to a hopeful chorus (in which the group vows, “Can’t stop me, can’t stop me / We’re turning all of the paths upside down”), while the latter is the perfect hype vehicle for rappers Mark and Taeyong to shine. The singers are noticeably absent on here, instead letting the spitfire raps, gang vocal chorus, and a car engine sample do all the work—they make good on that promise to bring the noise.
Despite being front-loaded with the more boisterous tracks, Sticker again demonstrates NCT 127 is’t a one-trick pony of noise-pop, with a smooth transition to R&B-heavy tracks for the latter half of the album. The vocals shine on “Focus,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” and “The Rainy Night,” with all three ballads containing classic elements of ’90s-era R&B, replete with syrupy lyrics about love and goosebump-raising harmonies. Members Taeil and Doyoung have impressive breath control which allows them to belt out high notes that are crisp and powerful. Haechan, Jaehyun, Jungwoo, and Yuta complement them well, all of them changing pitches and tones to deliver the smoothest of transitions. If there’s one thing an NCT 127 vocal line is going to do, it’s remind listeners that these guys are singers who can really sing. The album’s last track, “Promise You,” is also a slow jam, albeit less ’90s R&B and more ’80s power ballad, but with a melody that’s just as affecting.
Though the group spends most of the 11-track album skillfully flitting between these twin music styles and confidently showcasing its range, “Road Trip” and “Dreamer” are the only two tracks that feel like missteps. While the rest of the album can pretty easily be divided into brash noise grooves and sultry ballads, these two sound like a detour from the musical roadmap, more upbeat and happy-go-lucky in a way that feels incongruous to the overall vibe of Sticker. Even with the group’s flawless vocal execution, those songs are less daring and, as a result, more forgettable—which highlights the fact that NCT 127’s music works best when, instead of trying to fit into the rigid confines of one genre box, it pulls out bats, smashes the parameters of that box, and then uses the audio as a boisterous sample for a new track.
After achieving so much with its previous record, NCT 127 had to live up to the massive pressure and expectation caused by its own success. The group could have gone the safe route, but instead veered left: Sticker is in no way the most obvious comeback. With the album’s jarring use of such abrasive samples—especially throughout its lead single—it’s hard to imagine a world where any of that works and sounds good. But by blending these unlikely sounds with rich, powerful harmonies and solid rap verses, NCT 127 strikes a sweet balance and delivers an album that is fiercely creative and incredibly self-possessed.