Release Date: March 26, 2018
- District 9
- 잘 하고 있어 (Grow Up)
- Mixtape #1
Total Runtime: 00:30:56
Recommended for: K-Pop fans ready for something fresh.
NOT recommended for: Those looking for love songs.
A big three debut is a big deal, and JYP’s newest group “Stray Kids” have to bear that burden. Fortunately, they seem to be living up to that pressure, as they’re placing on international charts, ranking high on music shows, and their debut music video broke the record for the highest amount of views within 24 hours. The group is turning heads with their debut album “I am NOT,” which is largely self-penned and self-composed. But are Stray Kids really something special, or are they merely riding on their company’s coattails?
Track 1 – Not!
“Not!” is a great intro track, and that’s because it boldly grabs your attention with both hands. The song starts with disjointed siren sounds blaring, and transitions into a drum beat layered underneath leader Bang Chan’s talk-rap. Admittedly, he sounds a little like a fifty year old conspiracy theorist babbling on about “brainwashing” and “the truth being hidden away.” However, the use of brass thankfully adds the drama necessary to dilute this a little. If this song only had one foot in the door, it wouldn’t work. Thankfully, “Not!” goes all out. The existential murmuring that follows is more muted, and the track’s clever production echoes these thoughts, allowing them to bounce around in your mind as if they were your own. The lyrics of the track are critical and cynical, and establish the overall theme of the album – reflecting on both society and one’s own identity.
Track 2 – District 9
Electric guitar has been a rising trend in K-Pop this year, so it’d be a miracle if we didn’t hear it incorporated into the music of Stray Kids, who already have a reputation for releasing intense music. Sure enough, the album’s title-track embraces this fad wholeheartedly. “District 9” is hard rock meets hiphop meets EDM, and it definitely makes for a full-on listening experience.
Whilst the rough instrumentation is a little too full on at times, the lyrics almost make that a point. “District 9” is refreshingly cold and accusing; chock-full of attitude. A K-Pop boyband telling their listeners to “get lost” and that they “don’t belong here” is so rare that it would almost feel laughable if they weren’t backed up by grungy production and an incredibly aggressive beat. The song’s intensity feels very intentional; it makes the world that they’re lashing out at feel unwelcome.
The song’s most successful points are its innovations; the rock influence that is scarcely found in K-Pop, the daring lyrics, the performance of the members, and the chorus that comes hurling at you full-throttle. The main issue with “District 9” is the choppy drop that follows the pre-chorus, because not only does it sound tired and overused, but also not at all necessary. The song also suffers on the account of being too rap-heavy.
Stray Kids’s oversupply of rappers is one of their strengths, but also one of their biggest weaknesses. Six of their nine members rap, and four have it as their primary position. “District 9” feels incredibly cluttered, as though it’s trying to squeeze in as many rap parts as possible. The group needs to utilise the versatility of the rappers who can sing, in order to decrease the number of rap lines. Instead, they’re doing the exact opposite by giving Seungmin, who is an exceptional vocalist, talk-rap lines.
Whilst “District 9” isn’t necessarily the most easy listen, it demonstrates an outside-the-box attitude and an unconventional music style that is sure to burn Stray Kids into your memory.
Track 3 – Mirror
After their iconic “Hellevator” pun, Stray Kids are back with a bilingual play on words. “Mirror” in english and “Maze” in Korean (“미로,” pronounced “milo”) sound pretty similar, and apparently the opportunity was too good to pass up. The song is all about identity confusion; looking in the mirror and feeling as though you don’t know who you are. “Mirror” is clearly intended for the vocal line to strut their stuff, but frankly the rap line outshines them.
The verses are exponentially better than the chorus, particularly the second, which is driven by a fusion of hip hop and funk. The melody in the hook unfortunately isn’t as captivating as it aspires to be, and Felix’s reprising verse becomes the highlight instead. The tasteful backing vocals and the mischievous pan-flute that pops up every now and then are unfortunately too small of an effort to lift the song up. Overall, “Mirror” could have stood to be a little more experimental.
Track 4 – Awaken
Stray Kids absolutely hit the nail on the head with the album’s central track. “Awaken” is a breath of fresh air; it sounds more like an early 2000s emo song than a K-Pop B-Side. The song holds nothing back, and the entire piece is charged with energy. “Awaken” expresses the storm of confusion that accompanies self-awareness through autobiographical lyrics delivered passionately. The song starts off right with member Felix singing (a rarity for the deep-voiced seventeen year old) before immediately kicking into the crunchy hook. The fast-paced rap verses are layered on top of electric guitar and aggressive drums, almost giving off an air of panic. “Awaken” screams existential crisis, executed brilliantly through powerful rap and vocal performances, along with kick-ass instrumentation.
Track 5 – Rock
Many Stray Kids fans expressed confusion with the release of “Rock.” “But this is an EDM song,” they said. In actuality, the track’s title doesn’t refer to Rock n’ Roll at all, but rather a literal rock or stone. As it turns out, “Rock” is about the desire to literally become a rock. I’m not even kidding here.
To elaborate, Stray Kids are expressing envy towards inanimate objects, since they can’t think or feel. Though the song’s concept may sound a little ridiculous, some pretty dark metaphors can be drawn from the lyrics. There are some overtly ominous lines such as “unconscious minds are untroubled” and “what is it like to go black?” It’s pretty impressive that Stray Kids are already grappling with sensitive subject matter given that this is just their debut album, and I sincerely hope that this isn’t the first and last time that they do so.
It’s important to note that “Rock” is a song that you’d never expect to have lyrical substance at first listen. The track was labelled by fans as a “hype song” reasonably quickly for its quality of excitement. However, it’s that very excitement that ties into the lyrical content. The explosive hook taps into those darker themes, as it seems to be trying to drown out the anxiety of the verses. The ever-repeating “rock or let me know me” challenges the listener to answer the complicated questions issued in the verses, or else submit to the music and “rock” along to it. The energetic hook provides some degree of solace, despite the underlying angst that fuels it.
“Rock” is one of those rare songs that is somehow lyrically and musically intense at the same time, and that’s why it works.
Track 6 –잘 하고 있어 (Grow Up)
“Soft kids” is a concept that everyone is here for, and track six is the embodiment of that concept. “Grow Up” is a feel-good song that encourages the listener to keep trying their best in the face of adversity. It’s a decent ballad, but the song ultimately lacks a little substance. Stray Kids’s specialty is breaking the mould, but unfortunately “Grow Up” is every ambiguous ‘you can do it’ song ever. Despite that, the track is still undeniably uplifting and well delivered. It’s also a very necessary addition to the album, as the minimalistic piano piece provides a necessary break from the intense sound of the earlier songs.
Track 7 – 3rd Eye
“3rd Eye” is the epitome of the brand that Stray Kids are trying to build. It’s kooky, unconventional, and defies typical song structure. The instrumentation has a haunting ambience to it, complemented perfectly by dreamy production on the vocals. Part of the track’s appeal is it’s unpredictability; some parts of the song are chaotic, and some are totally stripped back. The first verse is merely a muffled drum beat against Felix’s unfiltered voice, but that abruptly segues into a hazy wall of sound. At one point, a gentle whisper of “open your eyes” enters your ear. Shortly after, distorted arguing can be heard.
Despite being the selling-point of the song, sometimes the experimentation is unsuccessful. For example, although the ‘arguing’ sounds are relevant to the theme of the song, they sound a little harsh against the soft backdrop of the track, which compromises the song’s relaxing quality a little. Despite that, the inventiveness is admirable, and the unusual sounds pay off for the most part.
“3rd Eye” is about seeking an illusive answer to something that you already know deep down. It’s a feeling that’s on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite articulate. Similarly, listening to “3rd Eye” is an experience difficult to put into words.
Track 8 – Mixtape #1
The album’s CD-only song “Mixtape #1” is a re-imagining of “Placebo,” a 3RACHA (3RACHA are the group’s pre-debut hiphop sub-unit consisting of Chan, Changbin and Han) track. The original song is great, and thankfully “Mixtape #1” doesn’t let its predecessor down.
Whilst “Mixtape #1” is a fairly generic tropical house piece, it serves as a solid conclusion to “I am NOT,” an album that tells a story. The lyrics perfectly tie together all of the confusion and chaos expressed in the album’s other tracks, accepting things as they are rather than trying to change them. The song is inspired by the placebo effect, and emphasises the importance of having a good mindset in order to achieve success. All of the members participated in writing lyrics for the track, and subsequently, the personality of each member really shines. Overall, “Mixtape #1” doesn’t radiate musical authenticity like the rest of the album, but it certainly provides closure and a feeling of hope.
“I am NOT” is a conceptually brilliant debut album, focused on self-exploration rather than a love interest. In fact, this is one of the first K-Pop albums that I’ve heard in a very long time that doesn’t have even a single love song. It’s also incredibly rare to see a rookie group so closely involved in the creation of their music. Actually, I can definitely picture 3RACHA becoming big-name composers years from now. Stray Kids’s debut album couldn’t be more conceptually appropriate, as they’re a rookie group still trying to figure out who they are and where they’re going. Personally, I hope that we get to see Stray Kids’s perspective evolve with every album that they release.