SM Entertainment doesn’t always get the credit it deserves when it comes to being a boundary-pushing agency. They’ve been blending genres and playing with song structure since the very beginning. Hits like H.O.T’s I Yah or TVXQ’s Rising Sun still feel miles away from what we think of as “Top 40” radio fare. But these tracks are at their best when their more adventurous elements are softened by classic, engaging melodies. This is pop music, after all.
Of the three NCT units who have debuted so far, 127 has become the heir to this experimental spirit, incorporating hip-hop and off-kilter production styles much more strongly than any SM act in recent memory. When they released Fire Truck last July, it felt jarring and somewhat off-putting, but quickly grew into one of the summer’s highlights. Cherry Bomb may have the same trajectory, but it has a much tougher hill to climb. On first listen, its obnoxious series of English-language catch-phrasing grates more than you’d expect from a major agency who doesn’t need to try so hard to feel meme-worthy. The “If you’re happy and you know it” refrain may just be the worst bit of lyrical sampling that SM has ever given us. The central hook isn’t much better. It’s just as repetitive as Red Velvet’s Rookie, but feels too self-serious to be fun. When it comes down to it, Cherry Bomb just doesn’t really have a proper chorus. Coming off a return as triumphant as January’s Limitless, this feels like a major disappointment.
Luckily, the instrumental has a few tricks up its sleeve. It’s a claustrophobic brew, driven by creeping rumbles of bass and an eerie backdrop of sinking synths. Every once and awhile it jerks to life, most notably during Mark’s climactic rap verse just before the breakdown, when the beat drops out only to rev back up with synth-assisted fury. With this style in mind, Cherry Bomb would have been better served as a Taeyong and Mark sub-unit release. It pretty much is already. But as a group comeback, it fails to display the full breadth of what makes NCT 127 so promising. The vocalists have little to do, even if their brief harmonic segments are among the song’s strongest moments. More than anything, the track is a wasted opportunity. I want to love it. I will try hard to love it. But NCT is billed as a limitless group. Cherry Bomb feels the exact opposite — too restricted by its concept and coolness to make a meaningful push into more compelling territory.