NCT 127 Competes to be Biggest Hit on the Stage. Everybody Wins.

NCT 127 performs at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
NCT 127 performs at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Photo by SM Entertainment
“It’s one of those K-pop boy band things, right?”

So asked my Uber driver as he surveyed the headband-wearing, light stick-waving, banner-holding fans streaming into the Toyota Center Wednesday night. Quite proud, he went on to say he knows K-pop – not know knows it, but knows it. If you know – or know know – K-pop, then you definitely know NCT 127, the group that drew those approximately 12,000 fans to the venue.

And if you don’t yet, you should definitely know know NCT 127.

NCT 127 is one of those K-pop boy bands, but as a descriptor, it’s lacking to say the least.

But first, the basics.

NCT 127 is one of four sub-groups under the umbrella group NCT, which boasts 23 members. (Right now. By the time you read this there may be more.) In a concept that is one of the most compelling and frustrating since Menudo, the idea is an unlimited number of members, all potentially moving in and between different sub-groups, based in different locations, not to mention collaboration and solo projects. NCT 127 is the second sub-group to debut under NCT – itself under SM Entertainment, home to Red Velvet and EXO. And that’s enough about the NCT family tree for our purposes.

This sub-group – NCT standing for “Neo Culture Technology” and 127 the longitude of Seoul – debuted in July 2016 with “Fire Truck” and a lineup of seven members, which soon jumped to nine, then ten, and back down to nine active members. Eight actually arrived in Houston, as member Haechan isn’t traveling with the group on this tour due to medical reasons. This left Taeil, Johnny, Taeyong, Yuta, Doyoung, Jaehyun, Jungwoo and Mark to carry on, and carry on they did before a crowd of NCTzens (their fandom name) that clearly missed them.

It’s worth noting that NCT 127 holds the title of first K-pop group to play RodeoHouston back in March 2020, which also makes them the last K-pop group to visit the Bayou City before we went into lockdown. They may not have been the first to come back, but the return was certainly triumphant. The energy was palpable, a roar steadily growing from the crowd with each passing note of “Pandora’s Box,” the last prerecorded song to be pumped into the Toyota Center before the members took the stage for Neo City: Houston – The Link, the name referring to the link, or connection, between the group and their NCTzens.

It’s hard not to get, as Johnny said later, “like, legit goosebumps” when the lights drop, the venue illuminated by a sea of pearl neo-champagne light sticks. That’s the team’s official color, a neon green that is bright and cheery and a color you’d think you probably shouldn’t stare at too long for the sake of your retinas, but turns out not to be the case.
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Eight members of NCT 127 arrived in Houston to the delight of NCTzens.
Photo by SM Entertainment
The set parts to reveal the eight members, dressed in all white and standing with a cool, practiced casualness, basking for long moments in the cheers of NCTzens. The energy was high and it never wavered during the jam-packed, almost three-hour-long concert. NCT 127 left no talent unexplored, checking off all the boxes for vocals, rap, dance, personality, and gratitude.

The setlist opens with a trifecta of NCT 127’s hardest-hitting songs: “Kick It,” “Lemonade” and “Cherry Bomb.” Musically, NCT 127 is heavily hip-hop dominated, with R&B, pop, trap, and more woven through. Many K-pop groups stand on the shoulders of the poppy hip-hop and R&B that dominated the '90s, but it’s clear that no group reaches the heights of it that NCT 127 do. This opening salvo puts it on full display, as well as emphasizes the great hooks and beautiful bridges you can find all across their music.

But the most noticeable aspect of the show was the parade of solos and groupwork. They were brief, but an excellent showcase of individual talent in a world where screen time and line distribution are always a concern. This is particularly true for our (ironically) unsung heroes – the strong vocalists of NCT 127.

The rappers of NCT 127 get a lot of attention, and deservedly so – see Mark’s solo of “Vibration” and his unit performance with Taeyong of “The Himalayas” – but the vocalists are an integral part of NCT 127’s success and it was good to see them show off. Taeil impressed on “Another World,” and Doyoung awed on “The Reason Why It’s My Favorite.” Jaehyun’s soothing vocals on “Lost” – strong despite an early warning that he wasn’t in the best condition – was a sound for sore ears.

As if vocal and rap prowess isn’t enough, NCT 127 has many choreographic moves that fans expect, love and happily imitate, and it was a treat to see some of their best performers get a chance to shine too. Specifically, Yuta’s graceful and sultry “Butterfly” and Jungwoo’s stylish dance solo to “Lipstick.”

And then there was “Focus,” Johnny’s sexy, shirtless solo in a glass room – sexy enough that a nearby 12-year-old covered her eyes, and a mother had a mini-Hank Hill moment. The glass room, as well as the angled wall used during “Love on the Floor,” seem to be the spiritual successors to the stripper pole-monkey bar set they brought with them to the Smart Financial Centre stop of their NCT 127 1st Tour: NEO CITY - The Origin back in 2019.
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Fans know the NCT 127 members are distinct personalities.
Photo by SM Entertainment
But as lovely as the staging, and as fun as the flashing lights, the fire and the confetti are, they are just accoutrements. The real spectacle is all in the members – their skill, their talent, their personalities, which were also crowd-pleasing. The group delivered on personality, giving fans glimpses of what they love about each member, like Johnny’s teasing nature, Mark’s patented awkward rambling, Jaehyun’s too cool aura, or Jungwoo’s energetic playfulness.

The last trifecta of songs (before the encore) were three more bangers: “Sticker,” “Faster” and “2 Baddies,” a love-it-or-hate-it title track that fans will never get over if only because it began life with the title “2 Bitches 1 Porsche.” “Faster” and “2 Baddies” are perfectly paired, while “Sticker” really does a great job of highlighting the vocal line.

With such a packed setlist, well over two dozen songs, it’s hard to complain – but complain we shall. Where’s “Limitless,” “Superhuman” or “Simon Says”? Stolen by COVID, that’s where. To frame it more positively, NCT 127’s oeuvre is an embarrassment of riches.

Some random notes: Did I hear a tune that sampled Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in the background at the beginning? It worked so well. After one member referenced Whitney Houston, an NCTzen behind me shouted, “You’re better than Whitney!” To you, simmer down now. And Haechan, despite being present in spirit and video clips, was noticeably absent and greatly missed.

The show eventually came to an end with “Dreams Come True” and “Promise You,” leaving the audience in a sweet if wistful mood despite the group’s repeated assurances that they’d come back. And it’s hard to imagine they won’t at some point. Houston’s love for them came through loud and clear, and is strong enough that NCTzens could already be heard making plans to see them again when they do come back. Or, if necessary, driving to Dallas, maybe San Antonio. Whatever it takes to see them again, and after such a stellar performance it’s hard to blame them for making very early travel plans.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.