Tomorrow Stray Kids release IN生, the repackage of their latest comeback, GO生. With seven mini albums, one compilation, a full-album, and a handful of singles and Japanese songs, they are a versatile group of artists that constantly surprise and push their abilities.
To get ready for IN生, let us journey through the B-sides of Stray Kids. But it will not just be any of their B-sides. As a K-pop group well-known for their loud and brash title tracks, such as their debut “District 9,” the dizzying “Side Effects,” and the chaotic “God’s Menu,” their softer side tends to fly under the radar. In these eight tracks, one for each album released (save the compilation SKZ2020), let us look at Stray Kids from a new perspective.
“Glow,” from their Mixtape, their pre-debut project, sets the tone immediately. It is the other side of the coin of “Hellevator.” While the title track comes out swinging with the group’s signature EDM-based sound, “Glow” focuses on its vulnerable storytelling, another—sometimes underrated—ingredient of Stray Kids’ music. The Stray Kids-style ballad opens with Seungmin’s clear voice with trills of piano chords. In “Glow,” the members express their debut anxiety, the worries only intensifying as their dreams come close to being a reality:
What will be the result of our practice?
Asking this to ourselves in the studio mirror every day
Like a test error, seems like there’s two answers
Top or the bottom, I don’t know where we’ll go
So much pressure behind the word debut
I can’t handle this dream sometimes even though my future is dark
The lights in the studio shine brighter
The lights in my eyes turn on too
So I can find paths that weren’t there before
This uncertainty also permeates “3rd Eye” from I am Not, the first album of their I am series. There is a darkness that hovers, particularly in the group’s earlier discography. This is evident in “3rd Eye” with its warped instrumentals and incoherent voices in the beginning that transition into a steady beat under Felix’s rap and Han’s frantic verse.
Stray Kids also wrestle with unrestrained emotions and the permanence of the unknown—especially about themselves—through lyrics that resonate with many: “I know there is a part of me that I don’t know / But I don’t don’t know what that is.”
A notable B-side from I am Who is “M.I.A.,” where Stray Kids experiment, dipping their toes into a romantic story. The not knowing found in the lyrics of “3rd Eye” also resonate in “M.I.A.” with an added level of betrayal and confusion as the person they were with shows another side to them. They balance this narrative with a dose of autotune that warps their voices against an uncomplicated background of an impactful beat and the occasional electric guitar phrase.
The acronym M.I.A. means “missing in action” in English, but, in Korean, it has a more specific definition—미아 (mia) is a lost child. This song, in a way, combines the two to be a metaphor for Stray Kids losing the person they had feelings for and the young love that seemed to be blossoming.
I am You is an album stacked with B-sides for every occasion. There is the quirky “극과 극(N/S)” (complete with the homemade MV), the lighthearted “Get Cool,” and the song commemorating their debut, “0325.” The B-side smack in the middle of the album, “해장국 Hero’s Soup,” often goes unnoticed, although the song is a testament to Stray Kids’ storytelling strength. The concluding lyrics circle back to the opening ones, forming a distinct beginning and end as well as a memorable narrative.
I am my father’s son
That’s why I want to know
The speaker answers his question from the beginning, but there is a sadness and resignation to his final words:
I am my father’s son
That’s why I know
That’s why I can tell
The meaning behind songs like “해장국 Hero’s Soup” may not always be clear, but the emotion and perspective (this time, from a child looking on to their father drinking “hero’s soup”) pull listeners into a scene unfolding.
“Maze of Memories” from Clé 1: Miroh does not possess the “softness” of some of the other B-sides mentioned, but Stray Kids’ vulnerability seeps into every lyric, every rhythm, every instrumental choice. There is already a musical battle in the opening as the sound pushes and pulls listeners to a piano motif playing in a minor key. Listeners hurry through the maze of this song as Stray Kids fights their way through, each part of the journey marked by a variety of rhythms and rapping speeds.
As the sentimental person I am, Cle 2: Yellow Woods’s “Mixtape #2” (and “Mixtape #3” as an honorable mention) hits its emotional mark every single time. Similar to “Glow,” Stray Kids reminiscence about their trainee days and unload their post-debut struggles, a transparency that is not seen often. This emotional weight is paired with a simple acoustic guitar that allows for the members’ voices and their words to take the spotlight.
I wake up, my happy dreams fade away
I can’t breathe, it’s so complicated
Same actions keep replaying
I can’t feel it even after time
In my head, colorless voices
Stepping in my heart, hopeless choices
I know I can’t succeed if I feed like this
Leave like this
Scarred and feared pain like this, yeah
However, as Hyunjin raps in his verse, “Let’s just comfortably laugh / Just think simply / Just work hard,” there are things they can—and cannot—control. In the end, all they can do is be the best they can be as Stray Kids.
Most of the songs on Clé: Levanter are on the group’s softer and sweeter side, but “Sunshine” makes an impact, and not only because it was written by Han. Stray Kids relax in the moment and let their worries slide off of them. They take the critical time to reset and to “sit in the sunshine and close [their] eyes,” although they are surrounded by the hustle of the city.
Stray Kids’ latest comeback, meanwhile, produced upbeat B-sides with addictive hooks such as “TA,” “Easy,” and “Phobia,” but “Another Day” possesses a familiarity and comfortableness that their past B-sides have exhibited. The lyrics of “Another Day” are reflective of songs like “Glow” and “Mixtape #2,” which are notable for their skillful narratives. Parallel to these two, “Another Day” reveals lyrics of everyday life, Stray Kids’ worries, as well as whatever else is on the members’ minds.
Bang Chan, for example, speaks of the overwhelming feeling of not having enough time to do everything he wants to do and the anxiety that comes along with it:
What was the most important task?
I wanted to do so many things
But I kept being chased by time
There are so many things in this world
But there wasn’t a space around for me to rest without worrying
The instrumentals do not take away from the poignance of the lyrics, as the acoustic guitar sets a mood of contemplation and keeps the listener’s attention without being distracting. You could almost imagine the members sitting on stools as they sing, one strumming the guitar in front of a small crowd. A light beat comes in during the second verse, but the song still remains sparse, especially in comparison to the rest of Stray Kids’ discography.
For a K-pop group that debuted a little more than two years ago (March 25, 2018), Stray Kids have such an extensive and rich discography with plenty of golden B-sides that showcase their versatility and their earnest storytelling. So dive right in and discover even more about Stray Kids before their upcoming comeback!