Shuffle through Stray Kids' kaleidoscopic discography and you'll find a song for every existential crisis. There's the seething intensity of "District 9," from the Korean group's 2018 debut album I Am Not, in which they declare, "It’s our mission to prove who we are." There's the thrilling trance of "Side Effects," a disorienting portrait of anxiety and adolescence; the cacophonous "소리꾼 (Thunderous)" where they compare their presence to booming thunderclouds; and the lonely, more introspective "일상 (Another Day)" that finds them asking, gently, "Is everyone happy except me?"
So much of their music is shaped by the emotional upheaval of everyday life. Be yourself. Feel everything. Forge your own path. And do so with impenetrable confidence. But on their latest release, MAXIDENT, K-pop's bards of noise confront something new: love.
It's not that Stray Kids have never explored themes of love and its many shapes in their music; it's just never been this brazen before. Over the years, they've pondered it, ripped open the seams and analyzed its insides — always thinking through these feelings in past tense and never really acting on them. Until now. Their recent single, "Case 143," expresses an urgent attraction — the kind of instant infatuation that is both inexplicable and all-consuming. And Bang Chan, Lee Know, Changbin, Hyunjin, Han, Felix, Seungmin and I.N collide with it head-on. "I cannot explain this reaction," they sing on the hook, "1-4-3 I love you!"
This isn't some grand, romanticized love song. It's vibrant, witty and, structurally, a little odd. In other words, it's a Stray Kids song. "I feel like love songs can be kind of sweet and vanilla," Bang Chan, the group's industrious leader tells PAPER. "Like, 'I love you, you're so beautiful.' Those kinds of lyrics. But we just wanted to express love in our own Stray Kids way."
That means going big while also keeping it grounded in real emotion, so that somewhere in those lyrics the listener can see themselves. Bang Chan, Changbin and Han, better known as 3RACHA, form the act's prolific production team. They are credited as songwriters and producers on nearly every Stray Kids track in their oeuvre, giving the group an unprecedented level of creative control in an industry that's often stereotyped as being manufactured. And it's not just 3RACHA who express themselves through music; you'll find each member's name in the liner notes of their extensive catalog that spans two albums, 10 EPs and one holiday trap-banger. So they're all acutely aware of what makes a Stray Kids song, well, so distinctly them: Punchy rap verses, dirty bass lines, rhythmic flexibility and potent contrast. "Case 143" is richly textured, with its catchy descending chromatic scale and bright energy, exemplifying the group's ability to cut and paste various genres and sounds to make something entirely new. Or, as bright-eyed, deep-voiced Felix says, "It's fun and it's very chaotic."
Vocalist I.N explains, "I initially heard the song without the melody and lyrics, and I actually didn’t think it would be a love song. It was quite unique. Parts of the melody and rap were also very new and fresh, so it felt different to other love songs."
"And plus," vocalist Seungmin adds in English, "In the middle of the song, Changbin gets mad, like, 'Grrrrr.'" Seungmin growls, mimicking the caustic power and characteristic tone of the group's fiery rapper. His powder-keg delivery is direct and to the point, and he cuts through the second verse with precision. "Even if I'm greedy, I want to be your soulmate," he raps, more determined than angry.
Their fans love how real they are about their struggles, even when those struggles are "rolling in the deep inside my head/ You got me bad." It's a key component to their steady success. Their songs rack up hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify. In March, they topped the Billboard 200 chart with their EP, ODDINARY. In doing so, they became the face of the next wave of K-pop acts looking to break through in the West. And if there was any doubt whether lightning could strike twice, MAXIDENTrecorded over 2.2 million stock pre-orders in the days leading up to its release — a new milestone for the group.
Bang Chan would be lying if he said he didn't feel any pressure. Of course he wants even more success for the group he calls his family, but success isn't always measured in albums sales and streams. It's something he, Changbin and Han talk through a lot. For Stray Kids, success is challenging themselves to do something different, to surprise people — it's the sound of sirens over undulous synths and the delirious laughter that erupts in the studio when the three of them are together. More than 100 songs into their career and they can still find novelty in it.
You can hear it on MAXIDENT. "Super Board" weaves dark-synth riffs with propulsive drum to create an eclectic cyberpunk atmosphere; "Give Me Your TMI" is pure, haphazard glitch hop — a funky take on getting to know your crush; and "Chill," produced by Han, depicts a relationship in its cool-off period with a mellow rhythm and a keen understanding that love and heartbreak are one continuous arc. The album also gives all of the members an opportunity to further develop their songwriting and production skills through a series of three unit tracks.
Dancers Lee Know, Hyunjin and Felix team up on "Taste," a dark, sensual exploration on desire and possession. While producing the track, Hyunjin wanted to convey the message, "Don't look at others, only look at us," while expressing the theme of love "in a deep and sexy way." Felix and Lee Know contributed additional lyrics and melodies. "We wanted to express a more deep, mature love, so I had to consider this aspect when writing the melody," Lee Know says, adding that the unit's performance was also integral to the creative process.
Meanwhile, vocalists Seungmin and I.N focused on creating a mood. As the group's youngest members, they wanted to lean into their youth. "Can't Stop," Seungmin says, demonstrates a heart-fluttering love "that only those of a similar age can express and feel." They wrote the lyrics alongside seasoned producer Hong Jisang, who brings his proficiency for crafting dynamic chord progressions and harmonies to the pop-rock record. For I.N, the goal was simple: make an upbeat song "fans can sing along to."
3RACHA took a different approach. On the eponymous drill track, the trio revisits their scrappy origins. It opens with Changbin, more forceful than ever, announcing, "1, 2, 3RACHA get spotlight" — a nod to the very first track 3RACHA ever made together. The lyric connects them to their past through the lens of the present. A few years ago, they were gangly teens who uploaded their mixtapes to SoundCloud and online hip-hop forums, asking for anyone to listen. Now, they sell out arenas around the world.
"There's a fine line between arrogance and confidence," Changbin raps, asserting that their confidence is what has pushed them to the top. By now, it's a well-worn assuredness, earned with age.
"When you listen back to our earlier music, it’s definitely very cute and fresh," Han smiles. There's a glint of mirth in the agile rapper's eyes as he continues, "More than the artistic and vocal skills and ideas of the music, our early work reminds you of young sheep moving forward with great dreams and ambitions. You can see that we were bound together with this strong passion. Now, we've matured and grown in terms of our ideas, skills, and the messages that we want to convey. We can’t imitate what we did in our earlier years. Our lyrics weren’t as flexible as they are now. They were too raw."
Changbin adds, "I don’t think too much has changed." This is what makes Han and Changbin's dynamic so potent; they can disagree, yet come to similar conclusions. "The emotions I felt in the past and feel in the present are quite similar. But I think my perspective has changed. Even if it’s the same issue, the way I look at things have changed. When something happens, the way I think and respond to it has changed, and I think this shift in perspective is reflected in my music. My view? Perspective? Values? My perspective has changed."
From Changbin's point-of-view, you can understand why Stray Kids took nearly five years to sing about love. It's easier to let it unfurl instead of forcing it. Now, as a group of 20-somethings, they can examine it with a mature perspective.
"Mature?" Bang Chan says, "If you look at us, look at the way we act together, I don't think we're mature." He smiles. Han laughs. Maybe they can't see it yet. But their fans can hear it.
Photos courtesy of JYP Entertainment
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