Stray Kids' Seungmin and I.N 'Can't Stop' Striving for Perfection
K-Pop

Stray Kids' Seungmin and I.N 'Can't Stop' Striving for Perfection

by Crystal Bell

Think about the last time you had a crush. Not a passing attraction or glint of a spark, an actual crush — the kind that makes your heart flutter and butterflies dance in the depths of your stomach. That's the kind of puppy love Seungmin and I.N wanted to express when they teamed up to write "Can't Stop" for MAXIDENT, the latest album from K-pop stars Stray Kids.

"Our song expresses love in a fresh, honest and heartwarming way that can only be experienced at our age," Seugmin tells PAPER from a Seoul conference room, where he and I.N have gathered to talk about their unit track. If you didn't know any better, you'd think they were a pair of college kids in the middle of class, Seungmin in a gray hoodie and I.N sporting a flannel button-down and newly dyed pink-purple hair. They look relaxed and cozy, yet completely attentive.

In some ways, that's the halcyon vibe of "Can't Stop." It takes you back to a simpler place and time — a school hallway, a classroom — where your biggest worry of any given day was "does my crush like me back?" On "Can't Stop," Seungmin and I.N sing about their crush in screaming technicolor, over energetic guitar riffs and bright harmonies. They're crushing hard and they want you to know.

"We wanted to capture the moments when that special someone makes your heart flutter, and wanted to illustrate these cute moments in our lyrics," Seungmin says. Beside him, I.N leans forward, hands clasped on the desk, "I think the song matches our image quite well," the youngest member adds. "We might not be able to perform a bright song like this as time goes on."

I.N

He's not wrong. When they debuted in 2018, Stray Kids' music captured the experience of growing up, the anxieties and angst. As they've matured, so has their music. In that sense, "Can't Stop" feels spiritually connected to earlier work like "School Life" and "Grow Up," songs that will remain forever young.

Then, Seungmin adds, "It's our first try." He's referring to the fact that Stray Kids don't have much experience singing about love. On MAXIDENT, love is depicted in all of its stages through various genres. "I used to wonder when we would be able to explore [love] in our music," he says. "And the time came a little faster than what I had anticipated."

They worked on "Can't Stop" with producer Hong Jisang, a longtime collaborator of labelmates DAY6, who just so happen to be Seungmin's favorite band. "We wanted the song to have a rock sound," Seungmin explains in English. "We know that Hong Jisang is really good at making those sounds, so we gave it a try with him and a nice song came out. I'm really happy. We both love band music." The song came together in about a day. Seungmin and I.N took a taxi to Hong's Seoul studio, where they workshopped lyrics. Overall, I.N describes the process as smooth. "Jisang taught us a lot about songwriting," he says. "It was a fun, enjoyable journey for us. We were a little worried at first, but the song came out great."

As the group's vocal line (meaning, their primary role within the group is to sing), Seungmin and I.N spend a lot of time together — too much time, if Seungmin is being honest. "I think we're growing closer because we share the same dorm," he says. "Even to the point we want to stop getting so close." He looks at I.N and pretends to push him away. "Go away," he shouts. I.N just stares forward, exasperated, beside him. It's a joke and I.N is used to that playful ribbing (and he can dish it right back). It's what makes Seungmin and I.N's teamwork so strong. There's an understanding between them. "We think alike and we also talk a lot about vocals because we take vocal lessons together, as well," I.N explains. This is something that happened gradually, adds Seungmin. "Because we share similar thoughts and concerns, I feel that our relationship, as well as our paths and direction, is becoming more aligned — in a good way," the elder says.

A lot of that was forged to and from vocal lessons. A few years ago, Seungmin decided he wanted to get vocal lessons outside of their company, JYP Entertainment. He hired his own teacher, and over the course of several months he noticed a huge change in his voice. It was richer and more powerful. He had more control. A stunning 2021 performance of IU's "Love Poem" — in which he sang alongside BTOB’s Eunkwang, ATEEZ‘s Jongho in the competition series Kingdom: Legendary War — solidified his place among the top idol singers of his generation. (It even caught the attention of IU herself.) After that, everyone took notice, especially I.N.

"Last summer, I took I.N to my teacher," Seungmin says. "So we started attending vocal lessons together. That made our relationship deeper. We share a lot of the same thoughts about our singing skills and the things that we need to improve." According to I.N, they also learn from each other. "We watch each other’s classes," he explains. "It makes it a more dynamic learning experience."

Seungmin

Seungmin says he envies I.N's "bright" tone. "He's very good at conveying truthful emotions. [His voice] is really clean and pure." Meanwhile, Seungmin's tone is deeper and more agile. "I’ve learned a lot from Seungmin’s vocal skills and his ability to adapt to a variety of songs," I.N says. "I haven’t told him this before, but I’ve listened to a lot of his cover videos." ("Thank you, I.N," Seungmin says earnestly.)

The cover videos Seungmin and I.N upload to the group's official channel allow them to express themselves in ways they can't always showcase as members of Stray Kids. The group's eclectic sonic identity might not always vibe with their more pop sensibilities — not to mention, I.N's interest in old-school Korean trot music, a genre known for pulling on heartstrings — but that's what makes the idea of unit songs so appealing. Despite not knowing what the other teams were working on, all three units executed songs in different genres, from rock to drill to R&B. "It wasn’t intentional," I.N says, "but we wanted to upgrade the color of each unit, and that’s why each song came out with its own sound."

It's a balance, Seungmin says, to commit yourself to a group while also trying to fulfill your own needs as a young singer still in development of their own artistic identity. He describes it as 80/20 — he gives 80% to Stray Kids and 20% to himself, improving his skills and making spaces for himself to just exist as a normal young person. "That's the perfect percentage of the best quality." He's confident in that. It's a mindset I.N shares. "You need to be able to work on yourself individually to be able to contribute to the color of the team and support the team when we’re working on a song together," he says. "When working in a team, the other members are there to compliment my weaknesses. But when working separately, it’s a time of stretching for me to further work on myself."

Those growing pains can lead to major breakthroughs. I.N relies on this feedback to further improve his skills, and now when he faces setbacks, he's learned to adapt. "I would be lying to say that there is no pressure," he adds, "but I definitely feel that this pressure has gotten lighter over time. I’ve been trying to hold onto the mindset that failure is an opportunity for growth, and I know that all of our members go on stage with this same attitude. Regardless, we are always practicing to show the best version of ourselves on stage."

"I believe that it’s important to be able to experience failure on your personal journey of growth," Seungmin says. However, when they're performing, idols seek perfection. "We want to be able to show the perfect version of ourselves to our fans," he adds, "to make them happy."

That's what makes a song like "Can't Stop" so refreshing. It's not about perfectly executing choreography or hitting all of the right notes; it's about having fun. By allowing themselves to let loose, they're encouraging their fans to do the same — to give into the moment, with fluttering hearts and butterflies in their stomachs.

Photos courtesy of JYP Entertainment

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