Years after its debut, my favorite NCT-related track is still Without You. I get that hip-hop is much trendier and globally popular, but I will always be a proponent of big pop melodies and powerful vocalists. This style used to be a stalwart of SM Entertainment, but now that the NCT brand seems to be the agency’s definition of “boy group” going forward, I feared that rap-heavy title tracks would be the norm for some time. Songs like Highway To Heaven offer needed hope, and shatter my perceptions of what kind of sound NCT 127 can tackle.
To be fair, 127 is home to some of SM’s most promising new-gen vocalists. They’re rarely given much to do on songs like Regular and Simon Says, and that’s always been a frustration of mine. Melody often seems to be an afterthought to the sheer badassery of Taeyong and Mark’s rap, but Highway To Heaven is built almost completely on the group’s vocalists. In fact, when rap does show up in the second verse, it feels unnecessary and — quite frankly — unwanted.
I knew I would love Highway right at the twenty-five second mark, when Heachan’s powerful vocal cuts through the moodiness and the instrumentation suddenly expands to euphoric levels. From here on, the track is pure open-road, windows-down pop anthem. The vocals are almost entirely layered, giving Highway an immense, almost otherworldly tone. The guitar chugs, framed by galloping percussion that keeps the song in constant motion. I could do without the already-dated tropical synths (and that aforementioned second verse rap, which nearly derails the energy). But, when we hit Highway’s climactic power note (Heachan, again), all quibbles are forgiven. If this kind of polished, melodic focus represents NCT’s next stage of evolution, I’m completely on board. This is an incredibly promising pre-release.