Since their last tour in early 2020, the group’s popularity has boomed internationally. A string of dynamic singles and eye-catching performances resonated with people looking for respite from pandemic fatigue. Stray Kids seized every opportunity, blitzing the scene with back-to-back-to-back releases, hundreds of hours of content, and daily social media updates. Last year, they won the competition series Kingdom: Legendary War, which highlighted their ingenuity. Take, for example, the riotous Deadpool-inspired stage that led to a social media kinship with Ryan Reynolds. And their most recent EP, Maniac, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 in March, joining an exclusive club that includes behemoths BTS and K-pop supergroup SuperM.
“That was a dream,” Han calls their no. 1, nonplussed like he’s calling upon an apparition and not an actual career milestone.
The thing is, all of this success isn’t real to them — at least not yet, not when they haven’t experienced it in any tangible way. I ask them how it feels to sell out an entire arena tour, and Bang Chan replies, “I don’t know. I have no idea. That’s why we’re excited for the tour [so] we can see for ourselves.” Seungmin, always observant, adds from his cushioned perch, “So we can feel it.”
I will never know what it’s like to perform in front of 20,000 people at once, but watching Hyunjin and Lee Know lose themselves in the seething intensity of fans’ screams inside Chicago’s United Center, dancing with such potency, I can imagine it feels transcendent. Lee Know, whose power and precision has prompted billions of views on TikTok, describes it as both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. “I’m able to enjoy it even more because everyone enjoys it with me,” he says. On stage, Hyunjin is all limber lines and fluid motion, making brushstrokes with his body; the willowy dancer commands attention (and he receives plenty of it). In person, he makes himself smaller. Tucked away in the corner of the couch, his legs crossed, he lists the team’s performance strengths: powerful energy, raw emotion, and ambition.
Han, as if sensing the need for levity, adds another key element of the Stray Kids live experience: “our perfect visuals!” (Exasperated, youngest member I.N huffs, “Oh my gosh.”)
So they designed a live show that would underline their skills. Working with their company, JYP Entertainment, Stray Kids were involved in every detail, from curating a setlist that pushes the limits of their stamina (“all of our songs go way too hard,” the leader laughs) to producing their own rearrangements. A particular tour highlight is “Red Lights,” a sensual unit track from Bang Chan and Hyunjin that’s been retooled to incorporate the whole group. The “sexy version” was Hyunjin’s idea, and he helped stage direct the performance, in which all eight members don collars and appear tied up. (“[It’s] nothing kinky,” Bang Chan attests. Han adds, “It might look sexy, but we’re sweating a lot.”) The presence of a live band also makes reverberant songs like “God’s Menu” and “Thunderous” even more volcanic. The atmosphere is relentlessly hype.