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Album Review: 5-STAR by Stray Kids

Stray Kids


Release: June 2, 2023

Review by Aaron Oppheim

Photo courtesy of JYP Entertainment

In a time where the unfamiliar has become natural, Stray Kids continue to push the boundaries of the music industry. With an unprecedented 5.13 million copies in pre-orders, they write history as the highest recorded pre-order sales in history, and with no clear distinction between Korean and international audiences, their third studio album, 5-STAR, is polarising and grandiose.

With its suspenseful, deep soundscapes, we have Hall of Fame opening the album. From the very first lyric, "I write my name into stars right now (...) yeah, I'm the spotlight", Stray Kids establish exactly who and what they are; gritty, experimental and here to stay. It's already apparent this is a different comeback to their previous, Maxident. 5-STAR is abrasive, empirical and entirely assured in its qualities.

특 (S-Class), title track of the album, is a homage to Seoul and Stray Kids's home in its landscape and is a melting pot of different subcultural aspects. "This is Seoul City; numerous miracles have come true", Changbin raps. It's a brave title track, heavily experimental in both rhythm and flow. For fans of noisy kpop, this is a goldmine. There are twists and turns behind every syllable, never letting up on its effortless playfulness. On its sound, group member Lee Know says, "I think you first need to think 'this is weird, what is it' in order for it to fit us well."

ITEM builds on the deep sonic experience with Changbin's distinctive explosive diction that effortlessly overflows and seeps into the expression of the other members. It plays with the relationship between innovation and nostalgia in its use of video game references lyrically and sonically, and we see them playing with the "kids" aspect of their name where curiosity and fearlessness lie.

"No pressure, we ain't gonna taste failure", Felix boldly states, clearly taking a dig at the criticism the group, especially 3Racha, the group's producer trio consisting of Bang Chan, Changbin and Han, has faced over the years. Having gone from being doubted and belittled for their refusal to conform to the kpop industry's rigid standards to being considered a weapon, not only in Stray Kids but as producers and trailblazers within their company and the industry as a whole.

That being said, the five remaining members are not to be overlooked. With an insatiable drive and talent to match, Lee Know, Hyunjin, Felix, Seungmin and I.N continue to push the group to new heights. Hyunjin states, "I think Stray Kids' uniqueness is the ambition of each member."

TOPLINE ft. Tiger JK was originally a song simply made for Stray Kids, with no intentions of being released. During the 2022 MAMA Awards, where 3Racha performed alongside Korean-American rapper, producer and entrepreneur Tiger JK, a dream collaboration was set into motion. Han describes the collaboration as something unreal as he's listened to Tiger JK and admired his work since he was a teenager. There was a feeling of a grandness maximised working with him and a hope not to pale in comparison. TOPLINE was teased prior to the album release and was one of the most anticipated songs off the record.

"We're in a time where the unfamiliar has become more natural. Someone can watch a performance and think, 'This isn't my style', yet keep watching. It almost bothers you that it's so funnily annoying it blurs your sense of judgement. I think that's our colour now," Changbin ponders.

Fusing elements and bending genres are staples in Stray Kids' discography. Bang Chan describes music as their playground, and The Sound, first released in Japanese on their The Sound EP earlier this year, effortlessly conveys just how playful music can be. DLC and 죽어보다 (GET LIT) both heavily lean into a more light and upbeat state of mind sonically. DLC is about releasing stagnant energy through movement and finding back to yourself even in difficult times.

STAY quickly drew connections between a frame in the unveil video for DLC to the British coming-of-age drama Billy Elliot (2000), a movie about a young boy torn between his sexuality and new-found talent for ballet and who he is expected to be as a man growing up in a conservative working-class England. Though this hasn't been mentioned by the group themselves, the parallels have become a fond easter egg for their listeners, especially us LGBTQIA+ STAY, as Stray Kids continue to be a beacon for inclusivity.

Much like its precursor, 죽어보다 (GET LIT) turns to movement and flow for solace. Both, despite being sonically lighthearted, hold a certain melancholy in their lyrics. Following this theme, 충돌 (Collision) is a love song in typical Han fashion, where poetry laced with pettiness shines brightly: "we're like stars in the sky, as time passed we met and broke. The traces of it remain throughout the universe tonight."

Photo courtesy of JYP Entertainment

FNF is Bang Chan and Felix's, the Aussies of Stray Kids, love letter to Australia. FNF stands for Flora n Fauna and holds an intense longing for what's lost and missing. "I wanted to write a song with a sad and upset heart, but it's not super direct. I wrote it in a way where I'm missing someone. Everyone will leave one day, and the words 'I'm catching up' have the meaning of I'll catch up to you soon.. I'll soon.. Leave", Bang Chan told us in the introduction to the album.

Stray Kids and STAY have an indescribable bond. Bang Chan's Youtiful is a promise, a safe space for us to come back to. "When people lose their way, they instinctively keep trying to find their way back. I think in our hearts, each of us are wandering in a sense, but as we move forward, we improve, and we learn, and I hope that we make our wanderings never end," Han concludes.

5-STAR is out now via JYP Entertainment and Republic Records.

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