I’m one of those people who can never give a straight answer to who my favourite artist is as my music library is a chaotic mess. With such a spectrum of genres, in a single playlist, I can go from Frank Ocean to Travis Scott in just one skip. However, while I can praise my library for its immense versatility, I soon came to realise that there was one genre I had wrongly neglected. K-Pop is no new phenomenon and idols like BTS have been taking over the global music community for a while now, but I had never taken the time to pay much attention to this genre of music. I definitely regret that now.
While BTS has also quickly made their way to the top of my January playlist (about three years too late), I wanted to shed some light on those smaller and yet just as brilliant K-Pop groups I have recently discovered. Stray Kids are a group that has spent the last few years navigating the K-Pop world while skilfully uniting an intense dynamism with empowering empathy into their music. Having handpicked their members, as well as having several producers in their team, Stray Kids have released a multitude of albums that feature both revolutionary and introspective songs. Listening to their creative work brought a great force of energy and motivation that so deeply stuck with me.
Their first studio album GO LIVE was released in June 2020 and the main title track, God’s Menu is insane, to say the least. As the first song I was recommended, this track had me from the opening verse. This hip-hop based dance song is on constant replay in my playlist and the most recognised of Stray Kids songs. As quite a heavy hip-hop fan myself I was obsessed with the song’s dynamism. Despite the common instrumentation that is often centred within that genre, rapper Changbin opens up with a solid verse that emphasises the track’s rap intensity. Already the song has delivered an immeasurable force of power just from the first 8 seconds. As a group with very strong and talented rappers, this verse instantly captivates you and lifts the song perfectly to blend into the pre-chorus. Already the energy level is through the roof.
Similar to a lot of their tracks, Gods Menu slows down into the pre-chorus but still, there is such a prevailing suspense that allows vocalists Bang Chan and Seungmin to showcase their own incredible ability. Upon my first listen, the language barrier didn’t even cross my mind as I was in complete awe at the vocal stretch of these members. Often music groups are instigated to have a wide vocal range, however, the vocal scope within Stray Kids is so spectacularly dynamic. Typically, there is that one member who can reach a remote high note and while this is also applicable to certain Stray Kids members, 20-year-old vocalist Felix Lee hits a new low octave that I didn’t think was possible. Just when I thought no one could match the deep vocals of YouTuber Corpse Husband, Felix comes in with the second verse.
Then with such a bold chorus, the ‘DU DU DU’ gives the song so much vibrancy and life that while almost every single Stray Kids song has made its way into my music library, Gods Menu still has a distinct place in my heart. Having watched the music video that debuted with this song, I was left in awe when I discovered that these seven boys were all between 20 and 23 and had managed to execute a song so brilliantly. While giving in to the demands of cathartic creative expression, this group manages a perfect alignment between the vision and performance of a song. Their high calibre music videos that support their tracks showcases the incredible visual economy that’s a predominant feature in K-Pop. This is unmatched by any other genre of music. So much detail goes into every aspect, from the fashion to the set the idols perform on. Stray Kids especially never shy away from unique fashion trends as their style often surpasses that of American pop idols.
Their most recent album, IN Life is essentially the repackage of GO LIVE that also delivers more of their signature bass sounds that cohere with their dynamic melodies. With a theme of self-reflection and the pressures of fame, Stray Kids balance out their style of music in a variety of genres that gives their audiences a little bit of everything. If you find songs like Gods Menu too heavy, there are other tracks such as Haven that offers a satisfying pop/dance track that builds to a joyous message.
However, while it is refreshing to have such a range dynamic of tracks in just one album, there is a must needed emphasis to be placed on the rap verses. One thing you don’t really hear from K-Pop groups as much is rap verses that are underlined with high-tempo beats. This is one of the reasons Stray Kids stick out so much for me. The bulk of songs often cruise along a designated groove and once a rapper is introduced, the track’s momentum can quickly change. Stray Kids, however, build on this drive rather than disrupt the continuity like I have found some K-Pop songs to do. From this, Stray Kids have made such an everlasting impression in this seamless execution of musical duality. While the groups’ rappers can hit you with a series of fast lines, the vocalists can chime in just seconds later with such a dreamy pre-chorus that just throws you. It shouldn’t work and yet it just does.
Of course, there is the inevitable issue of the language barrier as a large consensus of their music is in Korean. While they do deliver specific lines and lyrics in English, their music is rather difficult to sing along to. This can be quite a prominent negative that deters listeners from K-Pop music in general. That and for a lot of people, music’s ability to resonate with listeners is a key element in a song’s popularity and unless you are fluent in the language, the lyrical messages will most likely go straight over your head upon the first listen. However, while I too believed this would be a major issue, Stray Kids are the perfect example of groups who have curated such amazing melodies and backing tracks that fill this gap. Additionally, if you were feeling rather investigative, multiple verified sites offer the translated lyrics so that fans are still able to empathise with the expressive lines. By doing so myself, I understood that Stray Kids have definitely signalled a shift in the industries power dynamic. This concept of obtaining freedom is an idea that is central to the group’s message and another reason I became so obsessed so quick.
All in all, I was glad to have finally given this genre of music the chance it deserves. It might not be for everyone but as someone who resonates a lot with music it was more interesting to explore the K-Pop in general as the music and the industry on a whole are fascinating to learn about. For something that originally never really appealed to me, I was amazed to see how quickly I fell in love with this genre. Just having a bit of free time and an open mind allowed me to find some of my new favourite artists and Stray Kids are one group I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.