Stray Kids celebrated 1 year of debut with the release of their fourth EP, Clé 1 : Miroh. The group was one of the most successful rookies of 2018, and the numerous teasers for this release set high expectations. The group’s previous I am… series explored various coming-of-age motifs, experimenting with sounds that drifted from the remarkable rock and nu metal influences of their debut EP, Mixtape. Clé 1 : Miroh marks a return to those roots, while embracing the group’s growth not only as artists, but also as humans.

The structure of this EP is similar to previous ones, with seven tracks — of which the first is an intro — and a CD-only mixtape. This organization is helpful in outlining the overall narrative of the group, acknowledging moments in their career like pages in a book. “Clé” means “key” in French, and “miro” means “maze” in Korean, making the intro, “Entrance,” a fit start for this new era.

Leader Bang Chan, who produced the track, mentioned that it represents the moment right before entering the maze — “Où suis-je?” (“Where am I?” in French) wanders the opening verse. The track is a chaotic mashup of textures and voice samples from other songs in the album, creating an enticing wildland that builds anticipation for what is to come.

And so begins “Miroh,” the explosive title track. In it, the group’s impressive rap skills are powered to the maximum with an EDM background, animal roars, and Congolese chants. The result is bound to be a highlight of their concerts, as it has an anthemic quality that often works better live than in studio recordings. Furthermore, while the song’s powerful drop is a staple in electronic music, its anchoring with Bang Chan and I.N’s verses is a brilliant combination that gets better with each listen. In terms of lyrics, “Miroh” has the group facing the jungle of life with newfound confidence:

Run through the maze like a beast

I’m avoiding all the familiar paths

Though inexperienced, it’s a new challenge

Imma Bear Grylls anything that blocks my dream

I’m going to eat it up

I run, it’s the adventure for my dream

“Victory Song,” the B-side being promoted alongside “Miroh,” keeps up the momentum. Produced by 3Racha (a unit consisting of Bang Chan, Changbin and Han) in conjunction with Earattack, the latter’s characteristic heavy style is the most prominent feature in this track. Got7’s “Hard Carry” instantly comes to mind, as the framework for both songs are quite similar, with clashing hooks and chanted toplines. “Victory Song” builds up where “Miroh” leaves off, with the group boasting about feeling victorious even before the battle starts.

These overconfident feelings take the backseat as Stray Kids remember the past in the next track, “Maze of Memories.” A haunting piano adds depth and melancholy to the rap verses in the beginning, but the sound is abruptly substituted by aggressive guitar riffs, emphasizing the anger and frustration in the lyrics. The track progressively morphs into a nightmarish soundscape, with police sirens and vulture hisses that create an impending sense of doom. In the latter half, Felix, Seungmin, and Bang Chan’s English raps offer particularly poignant thoughts on the process of chasing dreams:

And so, should I give up?

But really, can I give up?

We live in a time and space, a world full of blinds

It makes me wanna give up

But then again, no I shouldn’t give up

I feel it inside, don’t wanna give up

We live in a time and space, a world full of blinds

Now I’ve had enough

Fortunately, “Maze of Memories” ends on a hopeful note, reaffirming their never-give-up attitude. This positivity spreads to “Boxer,” a combat in the format of a song. The marimba sounds in the beginning might suggest a lighter, happier track, but once the first ring at 00:46 hits, it is clear that Stray Kids is ready to fight. Although a catchy chorus could have elevated this track even more, the experimentalism of the whole package is striking. You can almost see a boxing match take place in your mind with all the frenetic synths, cheering, ringing sounds, and the literal “jab, Stray Kids, jab” verses.

Following close after is “Chronosaurus.” The title’s ingenious combination of “chrono” (Greek prefix related to time) and “saurus” (Greek suffix used to name dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles) plays with the idea of time being an unattainable, untameable beast. Melancholic distortions, desperate vocals, and an ever-ticking clock set a compelling atmosphere to what is arguably one of Stray Kids’ best works to date. “Chronosaurus” is a chill-inducing dive into the universal anxiety of being trapped by time, showcasing the group’s outstanding ability in capturing human essence in a relatable yet unique way.

The album prepares for closure with the introspective “19,” a track written by Han and produced by 3Racha. In the trio’s pre-talk with JYP, Han mentions that this song is about the excitement of turning 20, but also the apprehension of leaving your teenage years behind. It is definitely a relatable song to anyone who has gone through that age, and the song possesses a vulnerability rarely seen in K-pop. The concept of time is explored once more in emotional lyrics that dwell on wanting to grow up but feeling nostalgic at the same time:

It’s too fast

I’ve waited for this moment, what about you?

Are you a little scared? Or are you excited?

To be honest, it hurts to send you away

The final track, “Mixtape #4,” is a rearranged version of 3Racha’s “Broken Compass.” With a more polished instrumental and newly added singing verses, the trio’s growth shines through while honoring their past — a touching conclusion to the EP. It is also a thoughtful gift for fans who have been following them since the beginning, reinforcing the importance of attending to your own compass, even if it looks broken to outsiders

Overall, Clé 1 : Miroh reveals itself to be both a powerful journey and a thoughtful memoir. Travelling through the highs and lows of youth, it documents the fascinating process of growing up in a heartfelt way. While Stray Kids are still discovering themselves in K-pop’s bewildering maze, their burgeoning talents suggest they are already forces to be reckoned with.

(Youtube. Lyrics via Color Coded Lyrics and LyricsKpop. Images via JYP Entertainment.)