Welcome, dear friends, to what may be the single biggest debut of the year: Stray Kids’ first official album “I Am NOT.” It’s certainly the biggest debut so far, having been preceded by a wildly popular survival show featuring the members as well as multiple predebut releases, not to mention the fact that this is JYP Entertainment’s first boy group in over four years. What had me most fired up for “I Am NOT,” personally, was the concentrated spark of genius in January’s predebut release “Mixtape.” The musical styles on the debut album don’t range quite as widely as those on “Mixtape”—Stray Kids seems to have zeroed in on what they do best, which is, without a doubt, the raging rock-hiphop fusion that drives debut track “District 9.” Exclusively self-written and almost totally self-produced, “District 9” heads up an album with the power to solidify the start of a new trend that may change K-pop completely.
Plenty of K-pop acts have used electric guitar before, but no one has ever, I’ll dare to say, integrated it into their identity quite as unapologetically as Stray Kids have. That’s what Stray Kids are, though: unapologetic. Forget edgy; these guys are full-blown flipping tables at the metaphorical K-pop dinner party. And you know what? It’s exhilarating. When was the last time a K-pop artist told their audience to “get lost, this is our district,” that “you don’t belong here”? Yet, at the same time, the song is calling to “stray kids everywhere all around the world,” telling them, “Don’t wander around, get over here.” It creates a space where any young person who identifies with the message can become part of the “we,” and society at large is the “you.” In this way, “District 9” isn’t just for Stray Kids, but for their fans as well, while people like parents, teachers, or figures of authority can be excluded. Yeah, it’s a concept, but since it’s a self-written and self-produced, it transcends the concept and becomes an attitude. Every element of the song is full of it: the lyrics, the grungy production, the members’ performances (!), the structure that draws out hook after hook without blinking an eye.
Let’s talk about the sounds you hear in “District 9.” The song starts off with a noise that mimics a siren, howling over an alarm-like guitar note that repeats on the rhythm and then briefly in syncopation with it. Right off the bat, we know we’re in for something audacious. The shuffling percussion that kicks in shortly after feels like someone’s beating on trash cans, and then the electric riff comes in, incredibly aggressive but still sonically balanced. Every second of it screams, “If you can’t handle this, then you shouldn’t be here.” The brashness is backed up by whole heaps of pure talent. Everyone’s aware, I’m sure, of how impressive this group’s rapline is, but can I just—? Changbin! The guy’s voice is…it’s insane! I mean, yes, every member of this rapline is alarmingly good, and they’re young, too. (Like, since when can Minho rap like that? Did I miss something?) That’s not even to mention vocal talents such as Woojin and Chan, who hold the song together in between ferocious rap verses with necessary melodic moments.
Now that I’ve sung the praises of “District 9,” I do have to make a quick note in the interest of objectivity. While “District 9” is very good, it’s not outstanding in the way that “Grr” was. The predebut single was brilliantly organized chaos, but “District 9” doesn’t pull together quite like “Grr” did, in the sense that all of its parts work in perfect tandem with one another and flow together without a hiccup. For example, “Grr” had that excellent prechorus that used melody to build up the energy to the hook, but “District 9” kind of skips the whole prechorus thing altogether. I’m crossing my fingers that Stray Kids’ first comeback demonstrates the compositional cohesion that “Grr” had, the feeling that everything was tied together through rap moments, vocal moments and dance breaks. “District 9” may not be the mind-blower that “Grr” was, but’s still a game-changer, and should be remembered as such.
And if I have anything to say about the rest of the album, it’s that you’ve got to hear it. Seriously. Don’t skip a minute, either, not even the introduction. If I had to single out the highlights, I’d have to give it to the head-banging “Awaken” and the desolate, gorgeous “3rd Eye,” which for me are the tracks that best expand and develop Stray Kids’ musical identity. Part of the reason “3rd Eye” is so incredible is that it throws structure to the wind, abandoning the call for hooks or organization, and it’s still a stunner. You almost never see that in pop, Korean or otherwise. Of course, none of this can really be called pop, but that’s a discussion for another day.
So in summary, this debut is one of the most remarkable in recent memory. I can’t help but compare Stray Kids to BIGBANG and BTS, leaders of preceding generations of K-pop, who have rocked the industry by self-writing and pursuing their own agenda. Stray Kids is in a position to be the next group to change the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years, we look back on this moment as the beginning of the fifth generation of K-pop. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a group that just debuted, of course, so for now I guess I’ll just look forward to their comeback and see how things go.
DISTRICT 9: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? B a n g e r.
Take a look at Stray Kids’ “District 9” MV below: