As Sam Johnson wrote in her ‘Permission to Dance‘ review: “The best kind of art is often equated to that which comes from pain and uncertainty.” It is not an understatement to say that Stray Kids and their fandom, Stays, have been through a lot of pain and uncertainty in 2021. Hwang Hyunjin, the main dancer, rapper and vocalist of the band, was involved in a bullying scandal and had to go on hiatus in February until the scandal and rumours cleared. Stays were outraged that Hyunjin was being treated as he was and loyally stuck by Stray Kids throughout the whole ordeal. However, Hyunjin is now back and, boy, did he come back with an entrance. All one can say is go and look at Hyunjin’s choreography to ‘Play With Fire‘.
Following Hyunjin’s return, Stray Kids have released a new album, ‘NOEASY‘. Their previous album, ‘IN LIFE‘, was released in 2020 and featured strong and loud pieces, such as ‘God’s Menu‘ and ‘Easy‘. The majority of Stray Kids’ songs are heavily dependant on rap and the heavy, club-like bass, which is what makes them different from most other K-pop groups. However, their previous songs have been branded as “noise” by some listeners and after facing such criticism one would think that Stray Kids would tone it down. Unfortunately for those criticisers, they haven’t. Fortunately for Stays, their new album is noisier than ever and every song is an absolute banger!
Please remember, my interpretations of the songs and lyrics are based upon my thoughts and feelings when listening to the songs. Everyone feels and thinks differently, so my interpretations may not be the same as those who are reading this.
So the first track, ‘Cheese‘, has a deep bass that vibrates through your whole body and emits underground club vibes. You can almost imagine yourself in an intense film, walking in slow motion through a crowded club as people are dancing around you, the only source of light is the multicoloured lights above the DJ and this song plays in the background. There are also elements of an electric guitar in verse one that oozes rock and roll, a complete contrast to the club-like bass but the two sounds work together. The song is a musically genius way to retaliate to the criticisms that their music is just “noise”, with the chorus consisting of a bass, drums and electronic beats, it’s a loud f-you to the haters. It’s not just the music that creates this vibe but the lyrics too, when you act out the lyrics: “thumb, index finger, ring finger, baby finger” from the pre-chorus you will find yourself holding up the middle finger. What a brilliant and clever way to portray that they do not care what others have to say about them or their music, very tongue and cheek! There are many links to their previous hit, ‘God’s Menu‘, within this song too. At the beginning of the chorus’, there are six “Du” that resemble the six “Du” in the pre-chorus of ‘God’s Menu‘. Also, near the end of every chorus in ‘Cheese’, the lyrics: “Is the pigeon and the magpie funny to you? Is the crow’s crowing funny to you?” are similar to the ‘God’s Menu‘ lyrics: “Even passing travellers, pigeons, magpies and crows.” Simply another clever way to address the criticism against their songs, it is almost as if they are saying: “You want to say that a little louder?” In addition, the lyrics: “crows crowing” symbolises the boys themselves, that they are the crows and they are “crowing” when singing. It is an inventive metaphor to compare themselves to crows as the birds are known to group together when fighting predators and that is exactly what the boys are doing with this song. It is a great way to begin the album as the song, and the boys, prides itself on the noise.
Then in comes the next track, ‘Thunderous‘, which opens with a victorious melody of trumpets that gives an illusion that the victors, the gods, have descended upon us. However, the trumpets swiftly transform into a catchy beat and bass with Changbin and Han, two main rappers, spitting a sick rap verse. Changbin also opened ‘God’s Menu‘, so he has now kicked off two Stray Kids eras, which is definitely not a complaint since Changbin is one of the fastest rappers in K-pop. The dramatic switch poses as a reminder of who Stray Kids are, a hip-hop EDM boyband. The chorus conquers the listener’s ears and minds with a hypnotising drum and trumpet tune which only becomes even more addicting to listen to when symbols are added in the second half of the chorus. All these sounds mixed together causes goosebumps to stand to attention on your arms, it creates hair-raising electricity to shoot through the body like you have been struck by lightning. Like the previous track, ‘Thunderous‘ is a song that exudes a cocky and proud ‘this is who we are’ vibe and the lyrics accentuate this. Throughout the song, there are many connotations to the boys comparing themselves to thunder. In the first pre-chorus the band’s leader, Bang Chan, sings: “All eyes on the gathering of the famous thunderous ones”, as well as Changbin’s lyrics in the post-chorus: “Rumble, snap, crack, thunder”. Not only are creating thunder-like music with the drums and trumpets, but with the lyrics, they are stating that it’s not just the music that is thunder, that they themselves are thunder; they are the “noise”. There is also a lot of onomatopoetic speak within the song with the: “Bang, bang, bang, boom” that highlights the thunder in their voice. The implication that they are thunder creates an illusion that they are gods as thunder and lightning strongly symbolises the wrath of the gods, it is like the song poses as a warning to anyone who wants to carry on criticising their work. The song ends strongly with Felix’s deep, god-like voice singing: “Keep on talking, we don’t play by the rules” and if that ending, the thunder and the triumphant trumpets are not a warning of Stray Kids’ wrath then what is? Even though ‘Cheese‘ in their introductory song, ‘Thunderous‘ is, musically, their comeback song.
Next is the addicting rap-based track, ‘DOMINO‘. The song begins with a moment of silence, one that forces you to check that the song has actually started, and suddenly an electronic bass blasts through the speaker like the song itself is pounding its way into your mind. From the moment the intense bass booms in the opening of the song, the boys have the listener’s attention. Changbin starts with a rap verse, which leads on to Lee Know, I.N and Han and similar in verse two, Han, Felix, Changbin and Hynjin rap one after the other. Now, the rapping is faster than the melody like a tumbling set of dominos, especially with each member one after the other, as though there is no end. This is accentuated by the pre-chorus: “It starts with me, they follow me, the domino effect”, it does indeed create a domino effect. This is simply a chain reaction, something will happen and it sets off something else and that then sets something else off and this will happen like a constant loop. Think of it like standing dominos one after the other, when you push one the rest fall as well. To relate this theory to Stray Kids, this song reiterates the recent ups and downs they have experienced over the past year. It began with their previous album, ‘IN LIFE’, which included the massive hit, ‘God’s Menu‘. Suddenly, the rumours surrounding Hyunjin came out to the world and they had to deal with those. Then came their win on Kingdom, a Korean TV competition where bands compete against each other in multiple categories, judged on their performance and are awarded points. Now they have released a new album, all these successes and obstacles are happening like a chain reaction. Then, after the sick rap verses, the chorus kicks in and along with it a tumbling xylophone tune that descends on a chromatic scale. Further into the song, the tone switches from an R&B tune to EDM during the bridge. The switch of musical genre really plays into Stays not getting enough noise.
So, if there had to be one song on this album that represents their successes and is a massive flex, it’s ‘SSICK’. With the catchy beat and rap during the verses, the need to vibe along with this song is unstoppable. When the song beings, it almost sounds like SuperM’s song, ‘Jopping’. That being said, the melody is not as strong in this song compared to the others but that carries a message within itself, the message being to not listen to the music but what is being said. However, that does not mean that the song cowers among the others as this song has a seamless genre transition from hip-hop during the verses and EDM during the chorus. Also, the lyrics make up for what the tune may lack. The whole song is filled with confident lyrics, like: “I am even your friend’s pick”, “I smirk with only one side of my mouth, ssick” and “I’m busy being called”. These lyrics show how confident in their musical ability the boys are, and as they should be! This song is a perfect mix of the band’s musical strengths. The rapping and the vocals work together and mesh well. For example, Changbin raps in staccato in the first verse that puts a sharp emphasis on each of his words. If you listen hard in verse three, you can hear a faint siren in the background, where have Stays heard a siren before? Stray Kids’ debut song, ‘District 9′, of course! Everyone has heard the phrase ‘started from the bottom and now we’re here’ and that is exactly what this song translates.
In contrast, ‘The View’ is a beautiful song with a gentle melody during the verses, the tender beat is pleasant to the ears and gives the song a dream-like feel. However, it bursts into life when the chorus hits with an EDM tune and listeners suddenly go from floating in a dream to having the time of their life at a summer festival. It is not only the melody that feels gentle but the meaning behind the lyrics does too. Hyunjin opens the song and is the only band member to have a verse to himself throughout the whole song. Hyunjin’s opening verse is full of heart-warming lyrics like: “I feel so refreshed. Yesterday felt so stuck” and “But today, I feel comfortable without those frustrating feelings”. These lyrics clearly point to the rumours and hiatus Hyunjin faced earlier this year and that not he’s back with the boys he feels much better. “The view” for Hyunjin is overcoming that dark time and now he can see his band, his fans and his future. The song not only mentions Hyunjin’s struggles but the others as well. In the second pre-chorus, Bang Chan sings: “I didn’t know, the road in front of me seemed dark”. In a 2020 interview with Zach Sang, Bang Chan opened up about his past as a trainee and watching other trainees debut before him, which caused him to become depressed. Through Bang Chan’s baritone voice, you can feel the elation of being a leader, of debuting and having a career. Not only this but Bang Chan’s rich voice can usually be heard in the pre-chorus, bridging a gap between a heavy rap verse and a melodious chorus. His voice is incredibly suited to link the different tones of voices in the group and complements his role of leader. So the message in this song is clear, the boys are happy where they are right now and not thinking of the future, there is no better song that captures their journey than this one. While the previous songs on the album have been addressing the haters and doubts of the group, this song is purely a message to Stays and nicely airs out the heat from the tension-filled songs.
Another song that is tender to the ears is ‘Sorry, I love you‘. The song begins with soft piano keys in the background and Changbin singing the chorus, not rapping. It is uncommon to hear Changbin singing so that immediately catches the listener’s attention. Changbin’s singing voice has a grit to it, a raspy baritone voice that complements the tone of regret within the song. The song itself seems to tell the story of someone confessing their romantic feelings for another, only by the time the outro is sung, they regret it. There is never a part of this song dedicated to one singer, a verse or chorus has multiple members singing, it’s almost like a conversation between two people. This song really dials back on the heavy messages that Stray Kids usually like to convey in their songs, which can be difficult for fans to relate to, but this song reaches out to the fans. The melody is formulaic and the pitch within all their vocals gives the song a ballad-esque feel, however, the song does not quite reach it. It feels more like it’s a prequel to the ballad later on in this album.
Now, this is going to be a little weird but it has to be written. The beginning of the next song, ‘Silent Cry‘, sounds like the sinister chimes from Dead by Daylight. However, if your gamer-head is not distracted by this similar introduction then you will hear the sounds of movement, such as rain, footsteps and a door slamming. These sound effects make the song feel alive. It’s as though listeners are there in that moment. Picture it, the rain and menacing tune create a sense of tension and something is amiss, the footsteps are loud and have a purpose as though the person knows exactly where they are going and why. They enter the room and it is clearly into an empty space due to the echo of the squeaky door. Just from that sound effect of a squeaky door, the tone switches from menacing to abandonment, a feeling of loneliness and emptiness exudes. It’s quite weird yet marvelous that their use of those sound effects can make one switch emotions like the flip of a switch. Then a beat kicks in and Felix’s low, bass voice comes out of nowhere, like it’s calling out and pulling listeners from a thick fog. However, the pre-chorus and chorus sound like they are from an anime introduction, which completely switches the tone of the song. While the melody may be upbeat and EDM, the lyrics tell a story. A story about noticing someone’s pain, someone who gets overlooked and ignored by society but is suffering deeply. The narrator within the lyrics wants this someone to open up to them and wants to be the one who ends their suffering. There is so much emotion and pleading within the boys’ voices, take Bang Chan’s ethereal high note in verse one when he sings: “You always say ‘I’m okay’ but I can see everything”. As the lyrics and music creates a story, it is a touching message from the boys to their fans, that the boys will always be there for their down days, to be their savior in the rain. For example, the lyrics: “How your heart sobs when you’re alone” creates the sense that you’re navigating a lonely maze of grief and sadness by yourself but Strays Kids are using their music to guide you through it. The whole song is uncharted territory for them but it definitely something that I, as a fan, would love to hear more of.
The emotion continues in ‘Secret Secret’ as soft guitar strums, that emanate Post Malone vibes, draw a listener in. The gentle strokes of the guitar evoke feelings of tranquil sadness, you feel at peace but the melody pulls at your own heartstrings. There is a quiet, soft echo behind the guitar, like a choir. An angelic feel that heightens the tranquility. This track is entirely vocal-based with Han and I.N open the song beautifully with their tenor pitches, much different from Felix’s bass pitch when he sings the pre-chorus. It is a stark contrast like someone has thrown cold water over you in the summer’s heat, yet just like that cold water, it is refreshing. It’s like you have taken a deep breath of fresh air or you have come up for air within a deep body of water. Just to add to the angelic feel of the song, Seungmin’s vocals in the first chorus are heavenly and it feels like your soul is ascending into the sky just listening to him. Even Changbin’s rapping, notorious for being hardcore and fast, is humble in verse two, which clearly demonstrates that this is a touchy topic for the boys. This is not something they want to express through their usual upbeat ways, but to tenderly tell their story. While ‘Silent Cry‘ was about another party’s emptiness, this song is about them losing everything and everyone around them, even themselves. Again, they use pathetic fallacy as a way to convey emotion with the lyrics: “I shout louder in the sound of rain”. Rain is used within music videos and films to intensify a sad scene and like in this song, it reinforces the tone of loss. The emotionally strained vocals and sentimental lyrics are a reminder that this album is for Stays and while the song is about loss, they have not yet lost themselves among the hate and celebrity lifestyle.
Next comes a song that gives off OST track vibes. ‘Star Lost‘ feels like a song that would be used in a K-drama; that moment at the end where the two main protagonists realise they’re in love, come together and then viewers get flashes of their future relationship as an ending. The song is packed with much more cliche pop than the others on the tracklist and has more of a ‘K-pop’ feel to it. The electronic chimes at the beginning of the song accentuates the stars and space theme of the song like you have just pressed on ‘ON’ button of an old, space arcade game. The musical build-up during the pre-chorus is loud and gets the heart racing with anticipation, wondering how hyped the chorus is going to be and the chorus does not disappoint. The repetition of: “I’m trippin’, trippin’, trippin'” makes the chorus catchy. The song is packed with passion and love, with lyrics like: “I even miss you in my dreams” and “No matter where you are, I believe I will find you”. It is clear that whoever wrote this song was in love at one point, or is currently in love and has written this song as a promise that they will together one day. This song does play on your heartstrings and you really sympathise with the lost love, your heart yearns for this love to be reunited. This message behind the song is incredibly sweet and that they are nothing without their significant other. Relating this to their fans, it’s a message to Stays that they are nothing without them, that Stays are the stars in the night sky and they follow Stays to find their way home. Not only are the lyrics and message sweet but so are the vocals and melody, it’s synth-heavy and celestial. Felix uses a higher register in this song and the other band members’ higher vocals support him. With this song, they have played it safe which they have not done with the other songs and it shows how adaptable they are with their musical abilities.
However, what is definitely not safe is ‘Red Lights‘. Possibly one of the raunchiest songs ever made by Stray Kids, well Bang Chan and Hyunjin. It is the first song on the album that does not include all the members and it’s hot! The first time you listen to it, you question whether it’s the same boys you have just been listening to. No joke, it sounds like a song that would be on the Fifty Shades soundtrack. The song begins with breathy pants, an incredibly sexual sound that catches you off-guard and not only are they in the beginning but also throughout the song. They keep the sensual atmosphere alive and suffocating. These breath staccatos match with the first line: “I cannot breathe without you being right by my side” that lures listeners in and the line would actually be quite sweet if it was not for the sultry stringed instruments. The seduction does not stop there, the line at the end of every verse: “I already lost control” and “I absolutely can’t let you go” creates a warm flush throughout the body. Listeners are teased with the vocals, Bang Chan’s low, deep voice at the end of verse two accentuates the human’s natural instinct to lower their voice when they are attracted to someone, only adding to the sensuality. Hyunjin’s slightly higher pitch compliments Bang Chan’s, especially in the line: “Ssh, you know I can’t leave you alone” which switches from one member to another on the last word. The music behind the lyrics carries the seduction with heavy bass and electric guitar that adds a wild note to the song, reflecting a dangerous and untamed passion. Then there is the symbolism within the song, the colour red exudes so many emotions, it is a colour of passion, lust and love. So the repetition of “red lights” throughout the song emits a sexy vibe. However, does the song also convey a different meaning? Reading over the lyrics already mentioned: “I cannot breath without you” and “can’t let you go” also alludes to obsession and possessiveness, as though the love has taken an uncertain path. It does not help that red also represents danger. Is this a warning of the dangers of love? The cherry on top is Hyunjin’s last note that ends abruptly as it’s not finished, another way to tease the fans and leave them high and dry.
Then, just like listeners have not been strung along and seduced, Lee Know, Changbin and Felix pop up with ‘Surfin‘. A complete contrast to the previous song and takes listeners away to a tropical, exotic place. A steelpan drum kicks in that emits Caribbean vibes and transports us to a warm, lush vacation. The boys start the song with some banter and talking, messing with each other and laughing. It adds the boy’s personality to the song by hearing them interact and the brotherly bond they have. Also, there is nothing better on this album than hearing Changbin’s laugh, it’s contagious and will certainly make others laugh. The music gives off a Chris Brown vibe, with the R&B and rapping in the verses and then some smooth vocals during the chorus. To match this suave song is a chill message that they are “surfin'” through life. With lyrics like: “Ride on the waves and fly away”, it alludes to being free and living the dream. Idol life is hard, their training days are brutal and they have to constantly shine with their songs and dance routines. After their recent successes, they have the right to cruize through life and ride the wave of their success. Like: “The sea breeze”, the song is a breath of fresh air, the songs on the tracklist are quite heavy with feeling, meaning and emotion, whereas this one is simply chill. This song really showcases Lee Know’s hoarse vocals, they are increasingly prominent in the album never mind just this song and as they should be! Compared to previous albums, Lee Know’s voice shines through a lot more and it is uplifting to hear his vocals being used. Also, just like ‘Star Lost’, Felix sings in a higher register that exhibits his vocal growth.
Following this comes the ballad! ‘Gone Away’ is another song that sounds as if it has been created purposefully for a K-drama. The song is sung by Han, Seungmin and I.N, all of who have tenor vocals, so the whole song sounds as though it is being sung by angels. Scratch that, this is the song I would sing if I had broken my love’s heart and tried to win them back by standing on the street with a stereo serenading them. If I had to compare this song to another, it gives Adele vibes. It starts with a beautiful piano melody that expresses a lovestruck tragedy. Han’s breathy high notes in verse two and strong vocals in the last chorus remind me of his breathtaking voice in ‘Neverending Story‘, the song Stray Kids wrote for the K-drama, Extraordinary You. Han’s spectacular vocals in this song remind you that he’s not only part of the rap line but he’s got an amazing singing voice as well. Seungmin’s powerful but soft vocals in the second chorus and mighty adlibs in the last chorus make goosebumps erupt. With vocals like Felix’s, Bang Chan’s and Hyunjin’s, Seungmin’s voice (in my opinion) can be overlooked by fans. However, this song proves just how good of a singer Suengmin is. Overall, you can hear the maturity in the boys’ voices, especially I.N and Seungmin. Their otherworldly vocals mesh well with the story behind the lyrics, it is a sorrowful one. A relationship that was once flourishing with happiness and love has broken down. The last lyric in the chorus: “I don’t think I can stop you from leaving anymore” is conveyed with such emotion in the boy’s voices. The way their voice’s become duller throughout that one line can break a heart, such sadness seeps through each word. The best part of when Han goes up a pitch for the last chorus, that’s how you know it’s a ballad. With a paradisiacal melodic flow of long notes, there is a nice blend of instrumentation and vocals, it’s a slow and sweet goodbye song.
Next comes an absolute powerhouse of a song. ‘Wolfgang’ was created for one of their Kingdom performances and since it was made to compete against other band’s songs, it highlights their strengths and showcases their power. However, since Hyunjin was on hiatus at that time, they had to make the song without him. Fortunately, Hyunjin has been added to the album version of the song. So, there I was, listening to the song whilst writing an article. Now, you know when you have heard a song so many times that you sing it in your head, in the singer’s voice? Well, I was ready for Han to begin verse two and suddenly Hyunjin’s voice comes through my AirPods. It was a welcoming surprise and Hyunjin’s voice felt like a missing piece to the ‘Wolfgang‘ puzzle. Although, back to the song! The song has a supernatural, wolf theme (watch their Kingdom performance) which is accentuated with wolf howls, eerie choir vocals, growls and a haunting organ. Changbin opens the first verse with “Focus”, as humans since we are used to hearing and following commands, it immediately demands our attention and our focus is on the song. Changbin’s voice at the end of the first chorus is incredibly raspy, the growl in his voice underlines the wolf connotations and adds brutality to the lyrics. With his raspy vocals and savage rapping, Changbin owned this song. In saying that, not one member specifically stands out and this plays into the wolf pack imagery. The boys are connoting to the fact that the band is like a wolfpack. Just like the reference to crows in ‘Cheese’, wolves are animals notorious for hunting in packs and being an immense unit when they’re together. This imagery is a portrayal of their strength when they are together, when all eight members are together they are undefeatable. Not only are the members included in the pack but Stays as well, the chant: “Wolfgang” in the post-chorus is something that the fans can be a part of during concerts. Imagine being stood among the other Stays in a stadium just chanting with the boys, the atmosphere will be electric. Interestingly, their Kingdom performance began with a tribute to Mozart. The famous composer’s name is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart’s pieces are famous all around the world, take ‘The Marriage of Figaro‘ as an example. Similar to my previous sentence, Stray Kids’ motto is “Stray Kids all around the world”. Are the references to Mozart a message of their future? Are they foreshadowing their own global success? Mozart never stuck to one music genre and was well-known for being successful in his experimental ways and that is what Stray Kids are doing.
Finally, the last track on the album is ‘Mixtape: OH‘. Like Wolfgang, this song was released before the album came out just after it was announced Hyunjin would return from hiatus. This is a beautiful love song that picks up from ‘Mixtape: ON‘, from ‘IN LIFE‘. The lyrics in the second verse: “You are my everything” and “My heart wants you, I want your heart more” are sickeningly sweet. With string instruments and a vocal focus, it feels like you’re in your own 00’s chick-flic but at the end where everything has worked out, you’re happy and you have the guy you’ve been pining for. When researching the meaning of “OH” in Korean, thanks to Google Translate, it translates to “Kid”. Since it’s a love song, it’s a cute message that this love makes them feel young again. It is a charming way to end the album. The song has such an uplifting beat and the boys’ vocal range in this song is stunning.
When you take a step back and look at the album as a whole, you will realise that it symbolises one big storm. At the beginning of the album, tracks like ‘Cheese‘, ‘Thunderous‘ and ‘SSICK’ represent the thunder and lightning. They are loud to clap back and drown out the sound of haters. Then come songs like ‘Sorry, I love you‘, ‘Silent Cry’ and ‘Secret Secret‘ that represent the rain. Take a listen to the intro of ‘Silent Cry‘ with the rain sound effects. These songs wash away the effects of the storm, to uncover all the raw emotions that make up Strays Kids and reveal them to the world; a rebirth. The album finishes with tracks ‘Surfin’ and ‘Mixtape: OH‘, these represent the calm after the storm, the shining of the sun that promises good things are coming.
If you have not gathered from the analysis in this review and actually listening to their album, you have to bask in the noise to understand Stray Kids. After their recent win on Kingdom, the return of Hyunjin and the release of their new album, which has already sold 830,000 pre-orders, these boys really have descended from above like gods and are ready to showcase their greatness. What’s next for Stray Kids? That is uncertain but what we do know is it’s going to be louder, noisier and more thunderous than before.
All English translations are from Genius.com