Following the departure of the hugely popular Got7 from JYP Entertainment early last year and veteran group 2PM still in their military, all eyes were on the company’s only remaining active boy group Stray Kids. As expected from nearly every Big 3 act, the group had a strong start since debuting in 2018, but they have only since catapulted into international stardom thanks to a steady stream of well-received music releases with no signs of stopping. Silencing sceptics on their status in the industry, Stray Kids proved the extent of their appeal, clinching the crown at Mnet’s performance-centric survival show Kingdom last year against other popular boy groups.

Eight months since the commercially successful “Thunderous” and accompanying studio album Noeasy, Stray Kids finally make their much anticipated Korean comeback with “Maniac”. As with most of their releases, wordplay and puns are used to convey the album’s overarching theme Oddinary and its title track. Stray Kids cleverly subvert expectations by developing their own definition of a maniac — people who are perceived as odd because of their nonconformity to the ordinary.

With a song title like “Maniac”, dark, crazed concepts come to mind and the song surprises from the get-go with its ear-catching opening that is anchored by a droning yet bright synth line. Complementing the music is a cheery and fun colour palette in its opening shot, accented by juvenile animation effects and graffiti-like doodles. Soon, the MV establishes a connection between two alternate realities through a contrast between darker and bright versions of each backdrop. Stray Kids are seen in different parts of a seemingly abandoned town — the bright side portraying the normal world filled with people, and the dark side where only Stray Kids exist and they let themselves loose. 

Despite a strong opening, the track begins to lose its momentum as its verses progress, even as it picks up on speed. The similarities between its first and second verse also mean that the song stops surprising musically after the first chorus. Fortunately, “Maniac” knows that its ultimate strength lies in its strong chorus and builds appropriate anticipation for it every time with the effective use of silence, rhythm changes, and sound effects, distracting from its weaker parts. The progression from restraint to explosive energy in its chorus is pop perfection when paired with its irresistibly catchy melody as well as a full-sounding bass to accompany the lower vocals. With a chorus as strong as it is, it is a pity that it was not extended for a surprise second part to fully exploit its glory, along with adding more melodic interest. 

A highlight of “Maniac” is definitely its dance shots. It is clear that the track’s choreography was made with the camera in mind with a worthwhile payoff. The formations and gestures add plenty of interest from a viewer’s perspective and the changes between solo and group shots give different members a chance to shine. Stray Kids, in particular Felix, does an excellent job at executing the song’s concept, striking a necessary balance between being powerful and also relaxed to avoid coming across as too overbearing or phoney. Credit must also be given to their hair and makeup team. Coloured contact lenses and multiple bright hair colours, though common in K-pop, are a hit-and-miss affair, but it was a logical and well-executed choice here to bring out the intense yet campiness of the song’s concept.

Drawing comparisons to Frankenstein in its lyrics, the song references the crazed, uncontrollable, and unstoppable image of a maniac that comes to mind. Stray Kids, hence, present themselves as being an alternate embodiment of the word, playing outcasts that are othered for holding different beliefs, even though they appear to be just regular people.

The MV’s primary strength lies in how it cleverly brings to life the track’s choreography and its lyrics without being too literal. This execution comes through in the incorporation of a drill as a prop on top of the gestures in its choreography and the lyrics “laugh like I have a loose screw”. Fire appears when the lyrics mention it, smoke and fog fill up the background in time with the lyrics but is well-incorporated in a way that doesn’t feel too obvious. Another notable moment is in its second verse, where Seungmin snips off an animated thread as the scene transitions smoothly to Han, who is seen gripping onto a train handle in a crowded train, all as the lyrics say:

The seam of a torn doll

Eventually, you’ll expose your real self

In this not easy life, it ain’t “live”, it’s “holding on”

Unfortunately, “Maniac” still fails to fully leverage upon the creative possibilities its lyrics and concept offered. While the MV is a visually stunning affair that clearly spared no effort nor budget, it is starkly lacking clarity in its aesthetic direction and overall world-building that made their other recent MVs a more compelling watch. It is a fun video and does not do a disservice to the track, offering a few impressive moments and highlighting the group’s consistently interesting choreography. However, with the resources and Stray Kids’ stronger track record to boot, “Maniac” slightly misses the mark simply because it had the potential to be so much more. 

At the final chorus, the full group dances in the light for the first time in the video, seemingly suggesting that Stray Kids have reached a point of cathartic liberation — their true selves are no longer hidden in the dark, and they are showcasing their maniac sides to the world. As the video draws to a close, the loud chaos and adventure end suddenly, replaced by silence and the sound of birds chirping as Stray Kids hang around chatting and working in what appears to be a diner in the real world. Perhaps intentionally so, the stark switch to normalcy forces viewers to pay attention, and suddenly even normalcy feels odd.

The career-defining hit for Stray Kids thus far is undoubtedly 2020’s unorthodox “God’s Menu”, which achieved acclaim for its unique chef theme and accompanying choreography. But another salient, buzz-worthy aspect of the comeback was its music video, which made use of creative and impressively sleek camera movements and shot transitions. Since then, director Bang Jae Yeob has established a reliable and dynamic partnership with Stray Kids and their team, working on “Back Door”, “Thunderous”, and their Japanese single “Scars” to create a consistent and compelling visual universe in their music videos. 

It is not known whether Bong participated in “Maniac”. Though the cuts and transitions do seem to heavily take inspiration from this successful partnership, there seem to be some differences in the style of sets and effects in this video compared to their other recent releases. Musically, “Maniac” also seems to signal a shift away from the last three Stray Kids titles that adhered to the “God’s Menu” formula to varying degrees of success. “Maniac” hence seems to mark a transition for the group as they toy around with new styles and sounds without too bold a shift. For that, “Maniac” more than works. It succeeds in being a safe and fun track that still maintains a clear Stray Kids identity, but it is missing just that extra oomph to make it a career-best. But with Stray Kids’ ambition, it is more than likely the members are reaching for the stars, and who’s to say they won’t get there?

(YouTube. Images via JYP Entertainment.)