Despite debuting more than five years ago, NU’EST is only hitting its stride — and new Billboard chart heights — in 2017 after a hard, sometimes seemingly hopeless road.
An exciting start in 2012 only led to middling success for JR, Aron, Baekho, Minhyun and Ren, leading the band to sign up for the second seasons of TV singing competition Produce 101 as a potentially last-shot opportunity. The show’s concept was to let K-pop hopefuls get a head start in the industry by forming a superband of trainees that would promote for one year. JR, Baekho, Minhyun and Ren’s participation was an admission that they were still waiting for their big break.
Yet as interest and newfound popularity hit the guys thanks to their hard work on P101, viewers soon realized how much they had counted out the band. Previously unaware listeners began diving into their discography, pushing older tracks up the charts and securing a huge following of fans ready to support their next move.
The band recently made their first full-fledged release with W, Here, an EP released by JR, Baekho, Ren and Aron going by the name NU’EST W while Minhyun promotes for a year with Produce 101-created boy band Wanna One. With NU’EST hitting new heights on the charts — including their first Top 5 entry on the World Albums chart after previously failing to even enter the Top 10 with their previous releases — we take a look at why the group was always one of K-pop’s most exciting boy bands and deserved this attention.
1. They were putting out unique material from their debut — NU’EST debuted with “Face,” a single that touched on bullying and modern societal pressures, and instantly set them apart from other boy bands. Clever lyrics in Aron’s closing rap (“This is a story about a dwarf and giant / But it’s gonna end just like David and Goliath”), along with striking imagery in their music video, further distinguished them as an act with something to say and would become a theme throughout their careers.
2. Even their early B-sides were great — Most K-pop fans would agree that most groups don’t tend to have the strongest material in their beginning days, but NU’EST was a major exception. “NU, Establish, Style, Tempo,” the intro song to introduce “Face” on their first EP, was a fascinating blend of hard-hitting, of-the-moment dubstep, while the album cuts “Not Over Your” and “Sandy” on their Action EP from 2012 was the best kind of sugary, feel-good boy band pop.
3. “Face” held an impressive YouTube record — For several years, NU’EST held the record for the most-viewed debut music video among K-pop acts. The guys had accumulated nearly 50 million views on their debut visual until sensational acts like Twice and Blackpink surpassed those numbers with their first videos. Even now with more than 69 million views (at press time), the long-running YouTube success of “Face” showed why the guys were a rookie group to be reckoned with.
4. Their members have been challenging gender norms… — From Day 1, Ren stood out for his androgynous styling and began his journey of bending gender norms, making him a true trailblazer in South Korea’s conservative culture. In 2016, the singer starred in a campaign for the China-based online mall VIP Shop, slaying in long hair and a skirt. Ren shared a photo from the campaign on Twitter, writing, “Am I a boy or a girl? I am a man. Fashion makes a person and its impression,” further demonstrating his fluid approach to traditional gender constructs.
5. …and body standards in K-pop — On the other side of the spectrum, powerhouse vocalist Baekho stood out for his more muscular build in K-pop. Early promotional photos of NU’EST would typically see Baekho rocking short or cut-off sleeves to show off his impressive biceps, different from the slighter builds most commonly seen by young boy bands. With Ren and Baekho, NU’EST helped show diversity in the K-pop scene and prove that stars could come in all shapes and sizes.
6. They’ve been internationally minded from the start — NU’EST was always keen on hitting international markets. The guys performed at the very first KCON in 2012 in Irvine, Calif., and celebrated their first anniversary with a Japanese concert. The band even made official promotions in China as NU’EST-M, singing in Mandarin and recruiting Chinese singer Jason to join the group as a collaboration between their Korean label Pledis Entertainment and Yuehua Entertainment, one of China’s top music companies.
7. “Hello” was the hit ballad that got away — NU’EST could have become famous for their ballads if things had worked a little more in their favor with third single “Hello.” Released on Feb. 13, 2013, the emotive winter tune spoke to anyone heartbroken or confused in a relationship that Valentine’s Day, and it was their highest-charting single at the time. It looked likely to spur them into mainstream popularity before the band’s momentum curiously faded. Yet, the track began gaining loads of interest during the guys’ Produce 101 stint with the surge in newfound listeners proving the timeless power of the track.
8. The more they got involved, the more experimental their music became — With the release of 2016 EPs Q Is and Canvas, NU’EST started taking a much more active role in writing and producing their own music. That led to some of their most brilliant and experimental tracks that even stand out just from their titles like “VVITH,” “Love Paint” and “R.L.T.L (Real Love True Love) [One Morning].”
9. They’re pretty hilarious — Longtime NU’EST fans — affectionately called L.O.?.E. — know the guys have an irresistible charm that even their fellow members can’t deny. When they’re allowed to let loose a little, the guys will crack up at one another, bury their faces on each others’ sleeves, or poke fun at their band mates’ most embarrassing habits, all in the name of good, brotherly-like love.
10. They never gave up — Despite the odds quickly stacking against them and NU’EST themselves even saying they felt like giving up on their careers, NU’EST always pushed on with their journey. Even with a rocky and emotionnal start on Produce 101 — that included some low-ranking scores, along with judge and former label mate Kahi tearing up when she saw the four members auditioning — the guys pushed on and their talents were eventually recognized to lead them to the top of the charts and into more hearts than ever before.
NU’EST has become the textbook case for why there’s always a chance of reaching your dreams. Their story has seemingly inspiring a slew of spinoff TV shows in Korea about idols getting a second chance (look out for a slew of stars hoping for similar breaks on upcoming singing competitions The Unit, MixNine and an expected third season of Produce 101 in 2018), but no matter if they’re the first breakout star of second-chance idols, it will be hard to deny that NU’EST didn’t earn this big moment.