From NCT DREAM‘s delicious debut with “Chewing Gum” in 2016 to later devouring the charts with hits like “Hot Sauce” and “Candy,” the boy band’s taste for snackable singles takes a different and darker turn with “Smoothie,” the lead single off their just-released Dream( )scape EP, that speaks to the group’s hope of using music for fans to “escape their fears and negativity.”

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“Our producers and label were like, ‘Is there something that you guys want to say in particular?’” group leader Mark explains to Billboard days before the album drop. “Renjun was actually thinking, ‘Musically and visually, we’ve always been so bright and very optimistic, but I think we can kind of express how it’s still NCT DREAM and sometimes we can also have bad dreams.”

Represented through the intense five-part ( )SCAPE Film on YouTube and their most experimental mini album, NCT DREAM tweaked their signature style for tracks that recognize hardship and offer an empowering, encouraging message. MARK opens intro track “icantfeelanything” announcing, “I might’ve been afraid to be brave,” followed by CHENLE crooning, “‘Cause I’m lost and confused” before an intense breakbeat switches into a chant of frustrated yells.

The septet tackles anxiety on the pacifying R&B of “UNKNOWN” (Encouraging the listener to slowly but surely “Go chase your dreams/ Dive in, dive in, into the unknown”) as they yearn for freedom on hip-hop/pop cut “BOX” (“I don’t need controllin’, Let me go/Nobody lockin’ me up, nobody stoppin’ me”). The hook-heavy single “Smoothie” flips the group’s tried-and-true foodie styling by inspiring the audience to share their worries with NCT DREAM so they can blend it into a healing formula: “Throw in that doubt and fake, pour in all that pain / Shower that in all this ice, eventually it all melts.”

Pronounced as “Dream Escape,” the tight, six-track makeup of Dream( )scape offers fans not only an uplifting getaway of a listening experience but crucially lets them in a bit closer to a group that all debuted as teenagers and is becoming a team of wise young adults. The messages should connect well with audiences worldwide as NCT DREAM’s Dream Show 3: Dream( )scape world tour begins in May with plans to visit Latin America, the U.S., and Europe before the year’s end.

Before then, read more from MARK, RENJUN, CHENLEJENOJAEMINHAECHAN and JISUNG on creating their latest album, upcoming world tour and more.

Congratulations on the new album. From the teasers to the music itself, NCT DREAM shares a lot through Dream( )scape. Overall, what are you looking to show in this album?

RENJUN: As expressed through the ( )SCAPE Film trailers, although we have all different jobs and are in different locations, we experience the same external stress and, through those processes, we almost feel like we are liberated. And also the title song itself, you can see that it’s titled “Smoothie,” but it means that we will grind all these bad ingredients and mix them up [into something positive].”

MARK: I think we’ve really grown as people, and as artists, and that definitely reflects the way we make our albums now because I think this album might actually have the most of our identities and our personal colors in it. We were very involved in the process from the very start and we really got to put in the message that we’ve always wanted to deliver to our audiences. This album, in particular, really kind of showcases who we are the most out of all the other albums in terms of that we were very much looking forward to how our fans would respond to that. [Dream( )scape] revolved around our ideas, and we were involved with how we wanted this whole message shared, so it made us feel like, “Okay, we need to take more responsibility for this album.”

JENO: This album is the starting point of this year in our new chapter so I think we now want to focus more on that stories that lie within.

What message did you all want to share? MARK opens the album by saying, “I might’ve been afraid to be brave,” and the idea of is mentioned a few times in the record. What’s the significance of bravery here?

RENJUN: It’s always hard to start something and take that first step. Actually, it’s very difficult to be brave and requires a lot of courage. And with this album, we wanted to help others at their own starting line to be brave by themselves.

MARK: Our producers and label were like, “Is there something that you guys want to say in particular for this album?” So, we were thinking among our members but RENJUN was actually thinking, “Musically and visually, we’ve always been so bright and very optimistic, but I think we can kind of express how it’s still NCT DREAM and sometimes we can also have bad dreams as well, you know?” Even though we are going for our dreams, there are hardships that we face in reality. Our hope is to let our audiences escape their fears and negativity; we really want to encourage that. That kind of formed the title of our album as well, which is Dream( )scape.

And I wanted to clarify because I feel like a lot of people would pronounce it as “Dreamscape,” but it’s “Dream Escape.” They took the “e” out because the parentheses are supposed to symbolize a gate, you know? We have to call it “Dream Escape,” I guess — the “e” escaped.

JENO: We express our growth through our music. Since we debuted at such a young age, I think we still have things to figure out from the younger image that our group holds. So, with that in mind, when we were producing this album, we tried to escape from that image that we had.

It felt like Dream( )scape was viral the moment you unveiled these dark teasers that we haven’t seen from NCT DREAM—I thought the bruised and bloody feet were very striking. Can you explain them and your take on the reactions?

RENJUN: The initial teasers meant that the clothes on top are very neat and sleek, but you also see these wounded feet from the members. This signifies that, in real life, everyone seems to be comfortable and put together, but we have hidden feelings inside and wounds in our hearts—and that’s normal. We’re trying to express that going through struggles and pain eventually leads to an escape.

JENO: As you can see in the ( )SCAPE Film, we are locked in our own rooms to show each of the member’s own dreams and identities in this suppressed reality. Eventually, we get to escape after the seven of us gather up, and that’s the storyline that we focused on when we were filming.

MARK: It was really fun seeing how after every photo got released, the fans were like, “Oh, what does this mean? What does this symbolize? I think there’s a story behind all this.” I really liked to see how they were very attentive to each and every detail of the photo, and sometimes even, we were surprised by how they interpreted some parts of a photo or video — their trying to detect what it all meant before everything was released was one of the things that we really liked about this promotion.

Not to pry, but that’s a great message that I imagine many artists relate to. Is there anything you dealt with where things looked good on the outside, but something else was going on inside?

RENJUN: I think everyone has pain and scars from their lives that they don’t want to show until they’re ready. So, maybe talking to people [about this subject] could make others comfortable to want to reveal their pains.

JENO: To continue that, I think the rooms that I described earlier really relate to this album, and that’s where the story and concept came from.

MARK: I think there are a lot of times where I feel very hungry on set, but I just can’t show that to the people because I feel like that might be delaying the whole schedule, you know? Very painful…

RENJUN: He’s joking! He’s always kidding.

MARK: I mean, there’s a seed of truth. [Group laughs.] But don’t worry too much.

Why was “Smoothie” the right song to choose the single for this important album?

MARK: So, it was really hard choosing the title track because we had a lot of meetings and heard a lot of different options of songs for the title track [single], but we eventually chose “Smoothie” because one of the main goals we had for this comeback was to come up with a song that had the easiest hook but still had an impact. In a way, we could have chosen a more complex song, but we wanted to really narrow it down to the simplest type of hook that anyone can kind of catch on, even from the first listen, and I remember how we agreed that “Smoothie” would be the one because of that reason specifically.

JAEMIN: There are a lot of ingredients from which you make a “Smoothie” pictured in the music video, and what we wanted to express was cutting through all these bad ingredients to viewers — that’s the plot point that you might want to look forward to the most when watching.

One of my favorite tracks from your LP last year, ISTJ: The 3rd Album, was “Yogurt Shake,” and I wondered if “Smoothie” was related to it.

MARK: That’s also one thing we wanted to say! We have a lot of songs that relate to food or something you can eat, which is why we wanted to have the “Dirty Smoothie” as the title because we didn’t want it to sound too common or something that people can expect right away.

Looking at some of the other Dream( )scape tracks you were involved in, I love the lyrics in “BOX,” which MARK co-wrote. Did this come from a personal place or do you ever feel NCT DREAM is put into a box?

RENJUN: We wanted to more so summarize a universal feeling because I think everyone, whether it’s at home or work, I think everyone has felt that kind of feeling of being put in a box so wanting to explore and feel free.

MARK: I relate to what RENJUN said because, whether we are or aren’t aware of it, we all have our own boxes internally as well. I realized that this song’s theme and energy really fit the album’s concept — we can’t be trapped in your frame or opinions anymore. If you were to put that as a “BOX,” this song helps us come out of that and I just wanted to put that energy into the verses that I wrote.

MARK and JENO took part in “UNKNOWN,” which I found comforting and I think fans will too. 

MARK: Just from the word, “unknown,” I think a lot of people can relate to being afraid when it’s something that you’re not familiar with — even though they know that they have to take that step. We use the analogy of a body of water as something being “UNKNOWN” so you can dive into the unknown by taking a leap of faith. When me and JENO were writing, we really wanted to express how we know that we want to take that dive so let’s just take the leap of fate together — because it’s always better to do something with someone you trust rather than do it alone.

The album closes with “Breathing,” co-written by MARK, JENO, JAEMIN and JISUNG.

JENO: When I was making the rap, the song content itself is very dark and restrictive, feeling like your breath is running out — that is, until I met you and that became the cure. So, that’s the theme that we set from the start.

RENJUN: The first part of the song starts with “Where I am” and the last part ends with “Here I am.” When we were recording, we put our emotions and struggles into this idea of feeling lost, but when we were getting close to the end, we felt like, “Oh, I am here and I am determined.”

You’ll soon take these songs on stage with your Dream Show 3: Dream( )scape world tour. How are the preparations going?

JISUNG: I think it’s going to be a better concert than The Dream Show 2. We’re still working on it, but we set Dream( )scape as the direction and focus on The Dream Show 3 tour. It’ll be a very different concert because we’re now more experienced, we have new songs and I think we can put out more diverse and improved sides of ourselves.

JENO: This year, fans can look forward to a show where each section has its own strong, independent color and various charms in each section — that’s the key point.

RENJUN: It’s almost like riding a rollercoaster because our emotions throughout the sections have a dynamic to it. So, fans can also ride the ups and downs with us.

What else do fans need to know right now?

CHENLE: We worked really hard on this album, so I hope you guys look forward to it from the trailer to the stages we’re going to perform when we have the album out. It’s going to be a very busy year for us and we’re going to look to do a lot of things. We’ll be getting closer with you all so please look forward to all that.

Jeff Benjamin
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