Review

Song Review: NCT U – Universe (Let’s Play Ball)

NCT U - Universe (Let's Play Ball)With barely a moment to take a breath since their release as NCT 127, the NCT guys are back for their latest full-group project. NCT 2021 promises another round of mix-and-match sub-units, though the teasers so far suggest no real change in sound or style. Title track Universe (Let’s Play Ball) brings together Doyoung, Jungwoo, Mark, Xiao Jun, Jeno, Haechan, Jaemin, Yang Yang and Shotaro – a vocal-heavy group that had me wondering if the song would deliver something a little different.

As usual, the lure of a successful formula has proven too tempting to resist. Universe is exactly what you’d expect of NCT (and SM in general), composed by a team of usual suspects including long-time SM talent Kenzie. It’s a solid distillation of their sound — if you can get past the first thirty seconds. Universe opens with an obnoxious shout, quickly joined by clattering percussion. I’d remove this introduction entirely. In fact, let’s get rid of the silly “Let’s play ball” hook and call it a day. It clashes with the rest of the song in a juvenile way.

Ignoring this jarring hook, Universe thrives on its obvious SM-isms. It’s so nice to hear the return of that halting, layered vocal arrangement during the pre-chorus, hearkening back to the agency’s iconic second-gen sound. The sung chorus is also satisfying, even if the melody could be a bit stronger. It’s supported by an instrumental that merges the old with the new. I love the 90’s synth flourishes, and the way the rhythm switches as we move from verse to pre-chorus. The song is quite groovy in its off-kilter way, and benefits from consistent shots of vocal firepower. With this in mind, I’m more than happy to play ball with Universe. Just ease up on the shouting, guys.

 Hooks 8
 Production 9
 Longevity 9
 Bias 8
 RATING 8.5

13 thoughts on “Song Review: NCT U – Universe (Let’s Play Ball)

  1. I was ready to be disappointed when I heard the first 15 seconds of the song, but surprisingly the rest of the song is very enjoyable. The 2nd gen sounds are prominent and I am here for it! Those autotunes are deliciously executed and probably my favourite part of the song. Always love your reviews Nick 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a NCT127 prelease song out the other day which was so bland as to make me sigh audibly into my morning coffee. (“Earthquake”)

    I think this song stole all the goodies from Earthquake. This song is so SM, in years time one could use this to define what the classic SM sound on this era was. Just like there is a Motown sound, a Gamble and Huff sound, Stax, Stock-Aitken-Waterman, Brian Eno, Max Martin sound etc etc. This THIS is the SM sound.

    I Like it! Big L Like. Of course, because I Like the SM sound. This song is outre and pushing boundaries without being actually outre and pushing boundaries like, say, Sticker. That happy medium between Earthquake and Stickaaaah.

    The opening Let’s play ball doesn’t bother me. Actually, I was hoping they would lean into it more. I was waiting for it to come around again, and it did but only in small ways until the outro. It basically is a loop idea, add layers of single lines progressively until there is a whole enchilada wall of sound of loops. I had hoped after the opening salvo that somehow in the chorus or break another top line would be added to unify it and bring it to another level. Or scraps besides the “Let’s Play Ball” line would be threaded throughout. But alas.

    That said, yeah, rating is about right.

    Related – this is probably one of my favorite loop song builds, Vienna Teng “Copenhagen – Let Me Go”.
    ‘https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTEFgagK04I

    Liked by 6 people

  3. 8.75 for me.

    I enjoy the LETS PLAY BAALLL shouting. Yes, it makes me reduce the volume a bit, but that whole section feels quite….Misfit-y, I guess, so I definitely enjoy it a bit. The chorus was great, though the phrasing seemed very slightly off(?). I like the synths, though surprisingly, the rap wasn’t as punchy as it should’ve been.

    Now, what they SHOULD have done is make the synth squiggle that appears before each pre-chorus as the basis for the verses, and this would have been much better.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Admittedly, the song’s beginning had me a bit scared but everything from there was great. That pre-chorus with Doyoung definitely felt like a 2nd gen throwback to me. It reminded me slightly of the Suju electro-pop songs. I’d give it an 8.5 maybe 8.75

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  5. not to derail the conversation but thoughts on monsta x’s second english full album? i thought the album was lovely and its an excellent sequel to the late-night-driving-and-shouting-lyrics-out-the-car-window vibes of the first one!

    ‘you problem’ deserved the MV treatment as it’s a fun ‘dynamite’-lite song but the real star of the show is definitely ‘about last night’, it has little production quirks that culminate to form one hell of a club anthem!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. All told I like this a lot, but the let’s play ball chant is frustrating me more than it should. I don’t even mind the shouty nature of it so much as the choice of phrase. Why that? When it could have been anything else? It just sounds kind of bizarre and at the moment makes me cringe. Maybe it’s war flashbacks to when I first heard the “ayyyy we ballin” bit in punch? I’m sure I’ll warm up to it over time though, like I always do when NCT chooses silly English phrases to shout repeatedly. The rest of the song is great, so that’ll help!

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    • My mind went straight to the ‘go sports!’ girl meme (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDYV1NCNiTE) at yet another NCT sports concept. What have we had so far? Ice hockey with 90’s Love, basketball with Misfit, basketball with We Go Up, sporty cars x 2 with Dream (Dreaming and Boom, with bonus motorcycles in Ridin’ and a few wheelies in Go – not counting the go karts in My First and Last, not sporty enough). We even got jet planes in Take Off. I’m sure I’m missing others.

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  7. I don’t know. The vocals, particularly in the chorus, feel weirdly far back relative to the instrumental. That unison seems kind of flat, too — SHINee’s Lucifer’s chorus is essentially just one note, but it’s dripping in character. This one isn’t robotic, per se, but they don’t exactly sound like they’re enjoying it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So often do I become interested in a group enough to follow the teasers and promotions leading up to a new release of theirs, only to be promptly disappointed in what I thought their next release might sound like. This is partly a problem with expectations, and partly a problem with groups changing producers for every other release.

    That being said, I paid absolutely no attention to the promotional teasers for Universe, or rather the album. I do like a lot of NCT U’s material, and of course its derivative subunits. They’re just very inconsistent for me. Frequently do they have cool ideas and concepts, but slightly miss the mark when it comes to a song that falls into my rotation. Even though I absolutely adored both “Sticker” and “Favorite”, I didn’t want to get my hopes up for a follow-up that couldn’t live up to either of those tracks.

    I was wrong. Not only was I completely blown away by this release, but I think it might be the best NCT offering since “Superhuman”, and that is a damn high bar.

    Let’s start with the production. Dem Jointz has outdone himself. This track clicks with my sensibilities in every way possible. I know the “Let’s play ball” chant is a little abrasive, but it’s gone just before I have a chance to feel annoyed by it. Had it played through the entire song, I might have had some issues, but it’s only there to kick start the track before we get into the dreamy and ethereal verses that come afterwards. The chant has a cool pan back and forth at the end of the loop too. Also, that haunting noise that comes 6 seconds in is such a bizarre and interesting sound to color the introduction with.

    The pre-chorus follows the verses in tone, yet manage to feel distinct from the previous verse. Elements like the percussion that swing in, panning from left to right, are small touches that give away just how much effort and detail is really thrown in. 95% of people will probably listen to this song on their phone or on low quality speakers/headphones and never even notice a detail like that, so the fact that the producer did it anyways really makes it feel like a labour of love. As someone that cares far more about the production and mixing of a song than is at all necessary, it feels like the producer put in a special treat just for people like me.

    I don’t even know what to say about this chorus. It’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of a k-pop chorus for me. While I do like fake-out drops in songs like “Superhuman” or “Black Mirror” it’s nice to have the track hold on to the energy that we build up in the pre-chorus, and then to immediately throw it into a satisfying catharsis. I was genuinely on the edge of my seat when this came on for the first time.

    The chorus is strong and catchy without feeling like it needed to rely on a simple earworm to get stuck in my head. Just as “Favorite” did, the chorus builds onto itself until it’s bursting with energy. Both the vocals and instrumental work to achieve this goal. The drums and synths are particularly amazing. It all feels explosive and larger-than-life. The chorus comes and goes so quick that it makes you wish for more. Sorta like getting a minuscule portion at a really nice restaurant, it refrains from overstaying its welcome.

    The bridge features this fuzzy and full bass that buzzes around without taking focus off of the vocalist. Also, I just noticed that to kick off the final chorus, instead of panning from left to right like the first pre-chorus, the percussion pans from right to left! An utterly inconsequential detail that I adore.

    Long story short: all the texture choices are immaculately curated. This is a résumé for Dem Jointz, and helps to give each member on the track their own canvas to build upon, which really helps their sections feel meaningful instead of just interchangeable filler verses.

    What else is there to say? This is everything I could have asked for. I don’t typically rate new releases due to longevity being one of the most important factors for me in k-pop, but I’m having fun so I’m going to anyways.

    10/10

    Liked by 6 people

  9. Woohoo! As someone who loves SM’s sound, I feel well fed. I read your review, got hyped, and wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.

    This song is so full of energy, has a decent ratio of rap to singing, and the instrumental is so dense and diverse I’ll need many listens to absorb it all. And I loved the second-gen-esque prechorus. Delicious.

    Also while some people don’t like NCTs model as a group, for people who do become fans I think it’s such an exciting crossover event to see members of 127, Dream, and WayV in a new mixed and matched combination.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Heh, I didn’t like the first few seconds but my ears perked up once they started layering in stuff. I was expecting to be out on my own limb on that but it looks like I’m not the only one. I might have loved this if it kept going that way, but alas. The rest of the song has some good bits but falls firmly in the “when would I ever want to listen to something like this” bucket. Once again it feels four or five different moods smushed together – it might be my favorite NCT ETC release in a while but it’s still not for me.

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