Stray Kids Are More Popular Than Ever. But Their Music Stays Weird.


In this review, Crystal Bell unpacks the new Stray Kids EP, MAXIDENT, and the course they’re charting in their discography.

In pop music, the line between genuine, artistic expression and commercialism curves into a circle. One tends to serve the other. Artists who break through have something to say (even if it’s something you don’t care to hear); it’s how they connect with fans who stream their music, buy their merch, and attend their concerts. Yet, there’s still a fear that commercial success and popularity tarnishes artistic integrity, that appealing to the masses ultimately pleases no one but the record labels who endorse it.

It’s something I thought about while listening to Stray Kids‘ latest EP, MAXIDENT. The massive success of their previous album, ODDINARY, which topped the Billboard 200 chart and has since sold over 1.7 million units, in addition to a new partnership with Republic Records, put a lot of expectations on the K-pop group’s shoulders. And when it was announced that the album would explore themes of love — something that Stray Kids have typically shied away from in previous releases, at least explicitly — it raised some concerns among their fans who feared the Kids were becoming mainstream.

The reality is that MAXIDENT is an album about love, but it’s still characteristically Stray Kids. Lead single “Case 143” is a return to the group’s more playful side (think a quirkier, brighter version of March’s “Maniac,” or “Back Door” but somehow campier). It’s a pop song full of surprises: a descending chromatic scale that is instantly hummable; a key change; intense rap verses from Changbin and Han (in which Changbin asks, aggressively, “Can I be your boyfriend?”); and a rhythm so flexible and ever-shifting it might as well be an elastic band. In other words, there’s a lot going on. It’s a love song for someone who gets easily distracted.

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