On first listen, the third studio album from Stray Kids will make you feel like you arrived at a party that’s already in full-swing – the atmosphere is electric if not a little intoxicating, the air thick with lively chatter and heavy bass that thumps in your chest, while you wander from room to room trying to find your bearings. ‘5-Star’ is disorienting in that way. But once your senses adapt to the frenzy and your body syncs to the rhythm, you lose yourself in its luminescence.
Since forming in 2017, Stray Kids have adopted a “play hard, work harder” mindset. Producer trio Bang Chan, Changbin and Han, known as 3RACHA, have purposefully crafted the group’s own unique sound, creating much of their prolific oeuvre and expanding their diverse sonic palette across genre lines. Their music is often defined by its intensity, wittiness and propensity to blow your eardrums – a tidal wave of joie de vivre served with a side of grit.
That genuine energy has scored the octet two (going on three) Number 1 albums on the Billboard 200, making them one of the most exciting, and highest-selling, acts in K-pop. Their biggest strength, however, has always been their willingness to experiment while staying true to their bespoke style. ‘5-Star’ demonstrates this skillful balancing act through a stacked lineup of tracks that emphasize the size and scale of Stray Kids’ ceaseless ambition.
Perhaps no song represents this new era better than the lead single, ‘S-Class’, a mishmash of seemingly incongruous parts fused together by 3RACHA’s shapeshifting production prowess. It’s an intricate puzzle of booming rap, thrumming bass, sultry electro, ’90s hip-hop, sparkling pop and grimy club, a sonorous Rubik’s cube as complex as it is enthralling.
On ‘S-Class’, they liken themselves to the most special star in the sky (its Korean title, ‘특’, means “special”). “The odd one, that’s me,” they shout, a continuation of the themes explored on last year’s ‘Oddinary’. In celebrating their celestial singularity, they’re inviting you to do the same: “Be the one to shine instead of chasing after what’s shiny,” Han raps over a boom-bap beat, a testament to the group’s own ethos.
Never ones to follow trends, Stray Kids exist in their own arena where their only competition is themselves. This determination to be on top courses through standout tracks ‘Hall of Fame’ and ‘Topline’, the latter of which features a smooth assist from legendary rapper Tiger JK. Opener ‘Hall of Fame’ is an exhilarating journey, from its whirring synths and heavenly vocal melodies (I.N sounds especially lovely) to its gritty percussion and distorted flourishes. In comparison, “Topline” places their impenetrable confidence amidst a laid-back flow. Casually cool in their delivery, Stray Kids have never sounded more composed.
There’s a level of cohesiveness on ‘5-Star’ that has evaded the group previously. ‘ITEM’, another heavy-hitter on the album, continues to shine a light on Stray Kids’ tenacity. “Started from the bottom, I made it mine,” Seungmin sings on the gorgeous pre-chorus. The track opens with a synth riff that sounds straight out of a video game and immediately barrels into the hook, delivered by Changbin with staccato force. “Even if I go all-in, I will never see loss,” Hyunjin raps with finely tuned dexterity. “Flex my talent, what I want is in both hands.”
The success of English track ‘Super Bowl’ – surprisingly, the original ‘God’s Menu’ – rides high off the group’s interstellar charisma. Only Stray Kids could make a lyric like “Finger lickin’, yeah, we cookin’ up a Super Bowl / In the kitchen, Michelin, irresistible” sound charming. While some artists might change their identity to conform to a new music market, Stray Kids fearlessly double down on the cheese.
Han flexes his pen on ‘Get Lit’ and ‘Collision’. Sonically, they couldn’t sound any more different, but you’ll see Han’s fingerprints all over them. ‘Get Lit’ is a rowdy party-rock anthem with an existential edge, while ‘Collision’ is the album’s most adult offering – a gently sensual take on lost love, the remnants of which linger in the sky like scattered space dust. This combination of sophisticated lyricism and R&B is where Han shines, and it could make for a compelling playground for Stray Kids to explore further in future releases.
3RACHA’s talent extends to the album’s softer moments too. ‘DLC’ is pure piano-driven dance-pop with Euro influences courtesy of Changbin; ‘FNF’ mixes sparkly EDM with social consciousness (written by Australian members Bang Chan and Felix, the song is dedicated to the nature and wildlife lost in the 2019 bush fires); and ‘Youtiful’ is sentimental without being too sweet.
In Changbin’s own words, they make music that’s so “funnily annoying that it blurs your sense of judgment’. Their sound is the aural equivalent of Kombucha Girl or the sweltering month of August: a jarring push and pull between euphoria and WTF. Yet, in a crowded industry that is increasingly embracing sparsity, polarizing art demands a response. Positive or negative, it doesn’t really matter once they already have your rapt attention – Stray Kids are flying so high above the crowd that they’re in a galaxy of their very own, where the parties are endless and the vibes are always five-star.
- Release date: June 2, 2023
- Record label: JYP Entertainment