Stray Kids’ Rock-Star is A Masterclass in Subtlety Within Chaos

On their electric new EP, Stray Kids convey power and vulnerability as two sides of the same coin.
Stray Kids for 'Rock-Star'. Photo: JYP.
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Stray Kids’ Rock-Star is A Masterclass in Subtlety Within Chaos

An ominous buzz and marching drums set an apocalyptic scene, while an emergency alarm hovers unsettlingly in the sky like clouds edging on torrential downpour. Something is about to happen, and the line between fear and excitement has never been blurrier. There’s a growl, then, “Un, deux, trois / Run along with the gods,” Felix counts in; Stray Kids charge, and the battle begins.  

Where the songs of their last album 5-Star live largely in the “S-Class” universe, one of flashy diamonds, luxury cars, and partying until sunrise, Rock-Star diverges with an explosively cinematic approach. It’s clear that each song will threaten to be its own feature film, crafted not to be contained, as Bang Chan signals from the jump: “First, second, third, fourth wall / We’re breaking them all.” 

Rock-Star then becomes a 25-minute master class in subtlety within that chaos; the album opener ‘MEGAVERSE’ is indeed one within itself. Some of the most compelling production choices come just over a minute into the album, throughout the second verse: after Changbin’s punchy staccato hits you where it counts, muddled echos of I.N’s middle register swim in the post-punch daze, taunting, “Gather up, spread around hooligans…Point a gun at the mouth talking nonsense, click.” Lee Know interjects like a war cry, and Han is then layered in a round that coincides with the line, “Next one, my word, power keeps growing,” before cleaning things up so that Hyunjin is heard loud and clear: “My place is at the top.” 

It’s evident now more than ever that the synergy of producer trio 3RACHA—composed of Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han—is rooted in their ability to challenge each other. “One of the hardest things as a producer is that we always have to show something new as Stray Kids,” said Changbin at the group’s EP release press conference. “I’m fully aware of people’s expectations, which do weigh heavily on my shoulders…But I talk with the other 3RACHA members about what we want and can do well, and that’s allowed me to grow together with them, instead of coming to my limit.”

And limitless they are. You’ll find early on that even the most seemingly trivial and sometimes conflicting sonic details are deliberate. The kinetic title track ‘LALALALA’ takes a nontraditional approach to what we understand as rock, buzzing within its unpredictable structure like a livewire threatening to burst. The few licks of airy falsetto are a welcome release in contrast to the song’s often disorienting, bass-heavy weight. It’s so manic at times, Hyunjin has to remind you to “Inhale, c’mon” in the song’s only breathable moment. 

That high energy flows into Shounen-anime ready “BLIND SPOT,” an electric Han favorite that courses with his verve. These days, much of Stray Kids’ discography assumes the lyrical perspective from atop the mountain of their fame and achievements, so it’s refreshing to see them savor the process that makes the triumphs worthwhile. Stray Kids have long been defined by this insatiable hunger, a charismatic trait that makes them intoxicating to watch and impossible not to root for. And they’re rooting for you, too, stating that together, “When we approach the end we’ve been hoping for / We’ll meet outside the blind spot.” They further underscore this spirit and their dynamic take on pop punk on the Korean version of “Social Path,” which features J-pop powerhouse LiSA.

Stray Kids for Rock-Star. Photo: JYP.

Rock-Star is not without the Kids’ trademark cheek, such as a callback to their Michelin-starred chef motif in the album’s opener (“Better prepare a big bowl, or else”) or the entirety of ‘COMFLEX’ (“Combine complex and flex,” Felix instructs in his signature booming delivery). I.N and Seungmin both sneak in an “I don’t give a shh” that sure shamelessly sounds like something else (Stray Kids are no strangers to a double entendre—see “Our dish here’s so bussin’” on 5-Star’s ‘Super Bowl’). 

Still, despite the smoke-and-mirrors air of cockiness, there lies a readiness to not only accept their flaws, but reclaim them. I.N’s declaration that “Not being perfect is all it takes / ‘Cause we’re perfect” is a complex flex for a rock star after all. 

Apart from the soft pop rock break up tune ‘Leave’ or the gritty reinvention of ‘LALALALA,’ perhaps the most properly structured rock song is 'Cover Me,' a surprising ballad that uncovers the fear that remains when the flashy, classy veneer is dropped. It’s a rare instance of Stray Kids empowering Seungmin to his full potential as a vocalist: his soaring cry of “Cover me now,” matched by Bang Chan’s own call, is arguably Rock-Star’s most precious and sincere moment. 

When Lee Know and Han follow with high notes we’ve already heard, rather than floating over the slide guitar, they both belt with new tenacity. The earnestness with which they yearn to be protected is a mirror to their showy, urgent perseverance and pride. For Stray Kids, power and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin.

Because being a rock star isn’t about the long hair and leather, ripped denim or chipped black nails, though they do wear those well. They’ve made it abundantly clear who they are: not a group of superhumans, but rather, eight Kids with no less pain and doubt than the rest of us, yet enough guts to last a lifetime. They don’t have the patience to wait for you to decide whether you like them or not. Stray Kids have nothing to hide, and if you ask me, that’s rock star as hell.

Rock-Star is out now. Stray Kids can be found on Instagram, Twitter and all streaming platforms.
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