On their 2016 song "Wake Up," NCT 127 promised to "wake up this world" over a pulsing electronic beat. It was a loud, confident declaration — the kind fans have come to expect from the unconventional K-pop act. Three years later, the Korean group made good on their word, kicking off their first North American tour at New Jersey's Prudential Center on Wednesday (April 24), the first stop in what they hope will become their own history-making journey.
For NCT 127 — the Seoul-based unit of a larger global collective from Korea's SM Entertainment — the goal has always been to take their signature brand of bass-heavy beats, layered production, and charismatic swagger worldwide. Attendees of their Neo City – The Origin tour got a taste of what they have to offer with a diverse setlist that included early bangers ("Limitless," "Chain"), slow-tempo R&B tracks ("Timeless," "City 127"), fan-favorite B-sides ("Angel," "Baby Don't Like It"), and three new songs off their forthcoming EP, We Are Superhuman, including lead single "Superhuman" and the shimmering "Highway To Heaven" (as member Mark says, "it's a bop").
The nearly three-hour set traversed the group's eclectic discography, starting with the explosive "Cherry Bomb," a song that proclaims NCT 127 to be the "biggest hit on the stage." (They performed the English version for the New Jersey crowd.) It's not a coincidence that the group chose this song to open their set; it's boisterous and features some of their most ambitious choreography, a hallmark of NCT 127's dynamic performances. It's an introduction to NCT, or in their words, the world of Neo City.
And while the group lean heavily toward hip-hop — led by magnetic rappers and dynamic duo Taeyong and Mark, who performed an energetic version of "Mad City" together — NCT 127 highlighted their vocalists by slowing things down at the halfway point, giving members Taeil, Doyoung, Jaehyun, Jungwoo, and Haechan the chance to showcase their powerful vocals and tight harmonies with "No Longer." Member Johnny then performed a solo piano number ("Interlude: Regular to Irregular") at the keyboard to deafening cheers.
The nine artists on stage also gave their fans — affectionately called NCTzens (pronounced "Ncitizens") — an exclusive look at the new music they have coming this May 24. After debuting part of their forthcoming single "Superhuman" on Good Morning America last week, NCT 127 performed the track in full during their encore, their sparkly attire glistening under the blinding house lights. The nu-disco track is a bit of a departure for the group, or perhaps an evolution. It's a slickly produced pop song with a sticky hook that particularly suits the group's vocalists. It's less swag and more sultry.
In addition to "Superhuman," the group also performed their jazzy new song "Jet Lag." While sitting on chairs, the members sang the smooth, slow-tempo track while cosmic images of stars and planets flashed on the screen behind them — a nod towards the Superhuman era, perhaps? The production was minimal, just a bit of piano and that signature bass, but the reaction from the crowd was electric.
But of all the new offerings from NCT 127, it's "Highway To Heaven" that holds the most promise for a group with global aspirations. The synth-pop track is already a favorite among members Doyoung and Haechan, and thanks to an encore presentation of a never-before-seen black-and-white music video, now fans know why. With elements of synth and new wave (and what sounds like a bit of Asian instrumentation), "Highway To Heaven" sounds both fresh and retro with a hook that builds to something close to euphoria. It's so deliriously catchy that fans were singing along on first listen (a true sign of a bop).
There was minimal banter between songs, and when the group did address the crowd — the non-English speaking members trying their best — it was often to ask innocuous questions like, "Are you having a good time?" Their fans, green lightsticks in hand, would unanimously scream in response. (That meant "yes.") Towards the end of the night, some members spoke in Korean, relying on the backstage translator to help convey their heartfelt sentiments. But they showed even more personality in the video vignettes (or VCRs) that broke up the set. One clip in particular showed the group being transported to the 90s, where they had to win a dance battle to return to 2019 — which resulted in an onstage freestyle for members Yuta, Jungwoo, and Haechan in 90s attire.
For native English speakers Mark and Johnny, the conversation flowed a bit more naturally. In many ways, they acted as emcees, especially older member Johnny (a Korean American born and raised in Chicago) who kept things moving smoothly throughout the show with his natural charisma. But it was Canadian member Mark Lee, 19, who put the night into perspective.
"What we're doing, and what we're doing on this tour, is not something that should be thought about lightly," he told the crowd. "Bringing K-pop, there's a significance to that and I'm very very grateful. Thank you so much for showing up today. I'm going to be honest, before we even started the tour, I was nervous because we have to bring this K-pop culture and all that we do to North America. I want to thank you guys for being that confidence and allowing us to do what we do. I think that's the best relationship that any performer can have."
For as much emphasis as the media puts on K-pop's big push West, there's hardly ever been a moment to stop and reflect on what that means for the artists themselves and the pressure they feel to succeed overseas in an unforgiving international market.
Members from left to right: Doyoung, Jungwoo, Taeil, Taeyong, Yuta, Jaehyun, Johnny, Haechan, and Mark
With their first solo arena show, NCT 127 proved that they have the right stuff to become the Next Big Thing™ here in the U.S. — the charisma, the power, the precision, and soon, the song — but waking up the world doesn't happen overnight. It's an exhausting grind with no guarantees. But for one night in Newark, just being on stage performing in front of a crowd of thousands 11 miles outside of New York City — something that was a dream three years ago — was enough for them. And their fans.
NCT 127's Neo City — The Origin in Newark setlist:
"Cherry Bomb" (English version)
"Fly Away With Me"
"Back 2 U (AM01:27)"
"지금 우리 (City 127)"
"Regular" (English version)
"Baby Don’t Like It"
"Highway to Heaven" (video)