Three months after they released their first formal album I Am Not, Korean boy band Stray Kids stood on the stage at New Jersey’s Prudential Center on June 23. Part of the KCON 2018 NY concert lineup, the nonet was the newest act of the weekend, and showed the audience what they have to offer through a set full of music that was largely self-composed by the members.
With powerful choreography and raps propelling their lyrics of youthful angst on songs like “District 9” and “Hellevator,” the group’s ferocity belied the fact that they represent the future of K-pop.
Formed by K-pop “Big 3” label JYP Entertainment, currently home to the likes of TWICE and GOT7 and, Stray Kids made waves beginning last year, when the nine appeared on a South Korean television show of the same name. Though it was ostensibly a competition to see which members would make it through to the final group, all nine made it, and they saw much success with the release of their Mixtape, a “pre-debut” album that featured the songs they had crafted throughout the series; it went to No. 2 on the World Albums chart upon its release in January. The main focus of Mixtape was to make songs that “people our age could relate to,” says Bang Chan, who is part of the group’s internal production trio known as 3racha, and one of Stray Kids’ two Australian members.
The group’s next album was similarly thematically inspired, and went to No. 5 on the World Albums chart in May. The hip-hop and dramatic electronic-dance leanings of I Am Not kick off with the intro track “NOT!” where Bang Chan introduces things with a declarative that poses the act as being divergent from society’s norms: “They say people are born different/But why does it feel like we’re all the same/Us brainwashed into the same system/They expect perfection/So how can we be different/It wasn’t until I saw my reflection/That’s when I woke up and realized/That the truth had been hidden away from us/A sign, an omen, a, a glitch.”
“We thought of, I guess, identity crisis,” he tells Billboard. “Where kids think, ‘What’s my dream? What am I going for? Who am I?’” With I Am Not, the group intended to create a soundscape where other “stray kids” could find familiarity in, and gain the recognition that they’re not the only ones struggling with their lives and futures.
Single “District 9” was the epitome of that, as the group aimed to show listeners what they want to stand for. “We wanted to step out of the norm and we wanted to turn everything around, turn it upside [down],” says Changbin, another 3racha member; Han is the third. “Our message is kind of like, ‘To the people the want to follow us, follow us.’ A lot of people our age don’t know what they want to do with their lives, they don’t know if they’re going down the right road. Even the people that they’re living their life with, they’re not sure if they’re the people they should be with. So the story that we’re telling is for everyone who is around our age who is just questioning and figuring out their life and where they stand.” The members of Stray Kids are currently in their late teens and early twenties.
While it’s common for K-pop stars, especially male ones, to have a creative hand in their music, Stray Kids’ 3racha is atypical in that it is responsible for the majority of the group’s songs, which they make in collaboration with other songwriters and producers. “It might just be us three who are making music,” says Bang Chan, “But around us the team members always give us good ideas or which way to go, so that always helps.”
Though they’re still rookies, Stray Kids has seen a lot of love in their short lifespan. Ahead of appearing at KCON’s main stage, they performed to the smaller, pre-convention event known as Klub KCON. The members were quick to clarify that it was not a true club in the traditional sense of the word, as only eldest member Woojin is currently of age in the States, while the group’s youngest, I.N, turned 17 in February. “It was so unexpected for all nine of us to go on stage and see our New York fans,” Felix recalls. “We didn’t expect to have this many fans to come support us. Having to see that, gave me a lot of energy. It was crazy that day, everyone was.” The fervor from fans continued through the group’s appearance at the Prudential Center, where their performance was met by impassioned cheers from the crowd.
No new music from Stray Kids is currently announced, but they have plans. “I think that you guys can look forward to the growth of the group and what we can show in the possible future,” I.N. says.