What would you do if Gordon Ramsay said you couldn’t cook an egg? For NCT’s MARK, there’s only one solution – turn it into a stomping megabop. Crack open the shell of one of K-pop’s biggest stars with the latest cover story for our New Music Friday playlist edit The Cut.
Words: Abigail Firth.
Photos: SM Entertainment.
The term ‘ace’ floats around the K-Pop industry year after year, searching for a new idol to attach itself to, certifying their pop star abilities as a singer, rapper, dancer and more. It’s a term often aligned with MARK, who’s all of the above and has always shone in his group NCT as a result. With his second solo release, ‘Golden Hour’, dropping today (7th April), he’s still finding new ways to surprise, and discovering himself along the way.
It’s hard to imagine there’s a side to Mark we haven’t seen yet, given his extensive output since his debut in 2016. Launching his career as a teenager in NCT, he’s been part of sub-groups (or ‘units’) NCT 127 and NCT DREAM almost consistently ever since, alongside their rotational unit NCT U and an inclusion in SM’s supergroup project SuperM, there’s no denying his work ethic is exceptional.
“I always kind of had that urge to give my fans a concept that they wouldn’t really anticipate, along with the story of the song, not just the genre,” says Mark about the new track. We’re chatting over Zoom, and he’s just landed in Berlin for the third stop of NCT DREAM’s first European tour. In the few days since he performed in London, he’s changed his hair colour and started teasing ‘Golden Hour’ on social media. The leading emoji tease? An egg in a frying pan.
“It’s about the incident that I had with Gordon Ramsay,” he explains. The incident he’s referring to involved a fan tweeting a picture of a sad-looking fried egg (or scrambled, it’s hard to say) that Mark had made to the famed chef, and he wasn’t impressed. “I have a long history with eggs; I had to put that in a song because that’s just what I do.”
The song it ends up in is just as ridiculous as its origin story. A hip-hop track built on growling guitars and pounding drums akin to those on Kanye’s ‘Black Skinhead’, multiple beat and tempo switches keeping the surprises coming. Lyrically, it’s more than just a Gordon Ramsay call out; it’s cheekier and more grown up than anything he’d get away with in his group, lines like “I got a really big… I got a really big problem” surely crafted to make heads spin.
Mark worked on the track with Dress last year – who, if you’re a K-Pop fan, you might know from his work on EXO member Baekhyun’s solo debut ‘UN Village’ – admitting it was the only song he worked on with the producer in that time.
“I was just that busy,” he says. “I think I discovered a new side of my own self on this, you know, and I really want to acknowledge and appreciate Dress, who extracted that out of me. Like, I didn’t even do it myself. It’s impossible for me to make a song alone and make ‘Golden Hour’.”
A string of early tracks with NCT (particularly ‘The 7th Sense’, ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘Mad City’) meant that by the age of 18, Mark had established himself as one of the best rappers the K-Pop industry had to offer. Him rattling off light-speed bars back to back with 127 leader Taeyong was an instant NCT staple and shaped their sound over the years, bleeding over into SuperM’s discography, where they were hired as the group’s rap duo. So when it came to putting out a solo single, that sound was almost completely abandoned.
“I’m stepping closer and closer to knowing who I truly am”MARK
‘Child’, released a year ago, leaned into a more alternative sound, favouring stripped-back production that mirrored its more emotional subject matter, and more vocals than rapping, a first for Mark. It’s a change-up he largely credits to Dress, too.
“‘Child’ was the first song that I made with Dress, it was our first session, and I honestly didn’t really feel like it was my style. But he had this vision of me not just rapping; I guess he felt like it’s too cliche for me to just be rapping, and he felt like I had the potential to vocally do a song.”
He explains that ‘Child’ wasn’t even his first choice for a solo debut, that he’d actually brought a different track to the label that he was certain of, but they didn’t feel the same and rejected it. Although unintentional, it still comes back to Mark’s desire to do something unexpected.
“I didn’t have all this planned from the start,” he says. “But I have to say, I have this feeling for almost all the things that happen to me in life, not just music. The way situations kind of unfold themselves. In hindsight, I feel like it was probably destined to happen this way.”
With ‘Child’ exploring Mark’s adolescence and ‘Golden Hour’ representing a new, more mature side to him, at 23, Mark’s coming of age is upon us. It feels like an odd thing to say about an artist who, for most fans, has grown up right in front of them, but internally it’s taken Mark a little longer.
“I think music made me grow up the most. After diving into music, I guess then wanting to be the best musician that I can be, that made me have to explore myself, and that exploration made me think of a bunch of complicated things. That kind of links with the story of ‘Child’; it talks about my complexes too. For that to be my first solo, it builds my narrative.
“There’s so many different ways for me to explain this,” he continues, “but I feel like the biggest one is I’m stepping closer and closer to knowing who I truly am. I think that’s a vital factor for all artists, to know your identity. Naturally, it just comes out in your art, so to really be the true artist you want to be, you have to know who you are. I think that’s the biggest development that I’ve had from my debut to now.”
Identity is something Mark has always struggled with. Born in Toronto, moving to New York and back to Vancouver throughout his childhood, before coming to South Korea in his high school years to join SM Entertainment, he notes he never really knew which city felt like home. When he debuted, he was caught between being the near-youngest of 127 and the oldest of DREAM, feeling the pressure to deliver in both groups.
“I can go very personal with this,” he says. “But I honestly felt like my whole life has led me to that question: who am I truly? And that’s why finding who I really am, it was imperative for me to get that answer, which I’m still kind of finding. It was a similar feeling to how I’m juggling everything, all the teams that I’m in, and I feel like the more I do it, the more I realise that I really can juggle all of them at once as long as I know who I am. I try my best not to affect my team or bring damage to my team in any way. I just try to do my best and bring the best quality that I can.”
“My whole life has led me to that question: who am I truly?”MARK
We reassure that no 23-year-old has truly found themselves. “A lot of people told me that,” he replies. “But I’m not really good at taking other people’s advice with my internal stuff.”
As young as Mark still is, he’s made enough of an impact on the industry for the next generation of idols to look up to him. He recalls how younger groups would approach him at music shows (FYI, South Korea still runs weekly chart shows where artists perform their latest releases and fans vote for a winner – think Top Of The Pops on steroids) to let him know they admire him.
“Wow, am I already at that position right now?” he seems surprised at the notion. “I don’t even feel like I finished half my journey.” Being a person who’s been at both ends of the age spectrum, it’s sometimes strange for him. “I honestly prefer to be in the position where I have a lot of seniors above me rather than me being a senior and having a lot of juniors. That’s my comfortable stance. But I guess it’s just the way time goes, and you gotta adjust to where you’re at. That makes me want to be better so that I can be worthy of their respect, you know?”
Mark is right; his journey is far from over. There’s no time to ask where he’s going next – we snag 20 minutes with him in between a rigorous touring schedule – but it’s likely he doesn’t have that planned out yet. He’s been listening to Slowthai’s latest album ‘UGLY’, noting that he admires his artistry and shouts out PinkPantheress, for whom the love is mutual.
“I saw that she was following a couple of our members myself, and I feel like I need to do a collab with her; I don’t know if she would do it with me,” he wonders. Considering she dubs NCT 127 her favourite K-Pop group, she’d probably jump at the chance (although he’s gutted when we let him know neither PinkPantheress nor Ice Spice selected him as their favourite member in a recent TikTok).
For as far as Mark’s journey has taken him, there’s one place he’s not too fond of: the kitchen. His inability to cook an egg is nailed on for life.
“I’m better than I was when all this first started,” he admits, “but I can’t say that I’m a pro yet. I’m gonna be honest; I’m kind of leaving myself that way, though. I feel like I always have to be bad at cooking. It’s part of who I am now.” ■
MARK’s new track ‘Golden Hour’ is out now. Follow Dork’s The Cut Spotify playlist here.