It seems like K-pop stans can talk about nothing but Stray Kids these days. Over the past few months, JYP put his new boy group through a so-called survival show for the sake of promotion, and now that it’s finished, the group has released a predebut studio album consisting of songs that appeared on the show. I did my best to stay out of the Stray Kids cyclone until more official music was released. But now that “Mixtape” has dropped, I’m suddenly, wholeheartedly, on board. There’s something here, guys. It took me a little while to figure it out. The production isn’t perfect, and the hooks aren’t always as strong as you want them to be. So why is it so thrillingly distinctive? What is it about this album that demands to be heard, to be engaged? I researched a bit further and suddenly, it clicked. The X-factor here is self-production. Each of the nine members had a hand in the writing and composition of the entire EP. They mean every word they sing and rap. And you can feel it.
Back in October when “Hellevator,” the boys’ first predebut single, kicked off the storm of hype, I was extremely impressed—but in the way you get impressed by talented rookies, not in the way that makes you say, “Wow, that’s music.” Now, I’m starting to lean towards the latter attitude. While the pop-based “Hellevator” is included as a B-side on the album, the new title track—“Grrr”—throws genres into a blender and whips out the most electrifying thing I’ve heard so far this year. Ostensibly a dance track, “Grrr” combines rock, trap, and hip-hop to yield something that sounds classic and original at the same time. It gathers enough energy for ten title tracks and winds it up tightly enough to fit into one song. The result is explosive.
Before I go on, let me admit that I did not, if you can believe it, love the song upon first listen. While the rap verses are exhilarating and the instrumental is addicting, I was held back by iffy feelings about the hook—to my ear, it sounded repetitive and a little disjointed. But that is my fault, not the song’s, and here’s why: The chorus strings together a series of words and phrases whose sounds are similar, but whose meanings vary. Soundplay like this is an essential element of good rap, but if you don’t speak the language you’re hearing, it’s likely to go right over your head—which is what happened to me when I heard Changbin rap the phrase “dabhae, da dabhae, dabdabhae” and got bored because I thought it was just a bunch of reiterations of the same word when actually, it has the meaning of “Answer, all of you, answer, it feels suffocating.” The whole hook is composed of wordplay like this. It’s one of those K-pop tracks that makes you want to stab yourself in the eye with a pencil because you’ve been dropping the ball on your Korean studies and now, you’re missing out on genius.
Again, I don’t know much about Stray Kids at this point, but if their two predebut singles are any indication, their concept is closely tied to their name. They’ve got the rebellious teenager thing going on, and that could get old so fast, but it doesn’t. I’m convinced it’s because they write their own songs. They’re sincere. The main message of “Grrr” comes down to “Don’t talk to me right now or I’ll bite your head off.” If this kind of track were written by someone else and given to Stray Kids to perform, the concept would come off as angsty at best and annoying at worst. But the members, most of whom are teenagers themselves (by Western standards at least), know exactly what they want to say and why they want to say it. They draw on their own experiences like they did for “Hellevator,” this time to craft a highly effective metaphor where the speaker likens himself to a mad dog. The metaphor gives birth to the wonderful “grrr” gimmick that allows the rappers to get away with rolling off their Rs every four seconds, as well as a whole pool of wordplay between related words with similar sounds.
Of course, even lyrics this solid would fall flat if the performance weren’t up to par. But Stray Kids bring the talent as expected. It’s interesting to see an idol group that puts rap at the center of their music and uses vocal melodies for structural support, rather than the other way around. But for Stray Kids, there’s no smarter move. They’ve got excellent vocalists, to be sure, but these rappers are on a different level. Changbin is a pistol and a half, and Jisung, who appears to be able to sing as well as he raps, has got to be one of the most talented idols JYP has trained in a while. In fact, every member is multitalented, and furthermore, every member has something to offer to the concept—no one looks or sounds out of place. You don’t always see that, especially with concepts as intense and specific as this one.
The rest of “Mixtape” attests to the group’s versatility, varying in sound and subject while never deviating far from their concept. This means that while they’re singing about their lives or their generation the entire time, they can sing about different aspects of it—anything from school to the stage to friendship, as well as frustration with adults or with the system. At times they come dangerously close to crossing the line from audacious into cringey, but the self-writing acts as a safety net, making everything they do feel believable instead of forced. “Yayaya” is a perfect example. The chorus is driven by a head-banging rock sound, which would be offputting if the members were not committed to it, a direct result of being able to express themselves through it. The verses describe the relationship between a performer and their audience; later, Felix raps, “This might be my greediness talking, but if you’re listening to this, watch me till the end.” These moments in the song make it clear that Jisung is addressing us, the listeners, when he says in the chorus, “In my dreams, you’re merciless. When I open my eyes, I feel like you’ll disappear before me.” The nerve to admit fear and insecurity at the same time that you single out your own audience as the cause of those feelings—that’s a kind of bravery that K-pop, as an industry and as a microcosm of a culture, rarely permits.
It’s not only the upbeat songs where the self-writing shines. “Glow” and “4419,” in their own respective ways, are poetry, using vividly specific details from the group’s everyday life to construct full stories. More than anything, I’d like to break down the lyrics of both of these songs right now, especially “Glow.” But if I did, I’d be here for two more hours and you’d be here for six more paragraphs, and this review is already too long. So before I wrap up, let me emphasize once more the impact that these boys’ writing has on the music. They’re so honest, it makes your heart bleed. It takes the album up a level—again, it’s an X-factor, adding a depth to the performance that a non-Korean speaker can detect even without being able to understand its origin. It’s this same X-factor that I think is the driving impetus behind BTS’s success and also that makes music by people like IU, DAY6, and ZICO so powerful. In the last year or so, we’ve seen several groups who do not traditionally self-write try their hand at it, but of course, it’s not enough to just put pen to paper and write down how you feel—you have to have the aptitude, and somebody in Stray Kids has got it. This is a truly exciting development in K-pop, and I’m sure it’s going to pick up momentum as quickly as Stray Kids will and already has.
GRRR: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? A bop of momentous proportions.
Take a look at Stray Kids’ “Grrr” MV below: