Stray Kids make a glorious return with their eighth mini album Oddinary, comprising seven tracks that demonstrate the group’s explosive abilities while showcasing their new musical colours. Oddinary is made up of the words “odd” and “ordinary”, which encapsulates the group’s main message of this album: everyone has an “odd” side to them, no matter how normal they appear on the surface, and these oddities are more ordinary than we think. This empowering sentiment is embodied through the experimental nature of Stray Kids’ music itself. Rather than sticking to established formulas for success–which this group has an abundance of–Stray Kids, and particularly its producing trio 3Racha, are always ready to try something different, and to create music that is norm-defying but uniquely theirs.

Title track “Maniac” is the best example of this. On first listen, it comes across as less hard-hitting than past title tracks such as “Thunderous” or “God’s Menu“–chart-topping tracks that have defined the group in recent years. Its laidback pace gives listeners more time to appreciate the various elements of the song, such as its addictive opening instrumental that undergirds the rest of the track or the many different styles of rap that appear in the song, not to mention its ear-worm chorus that feels custom-made for Felix‘s gorgeous deep voice. While Stray Kids’ title tracks typically tend to be rap-heavy, “Maniac” leans into this even more than usual, and the absence of a strong melody line to tie the entire song together threatens the cohesiveness of the track, causing it to sound slightly disjointed, although it follows a fairly predictable structure.

On a lyrical front, 3Racha demonstrates their prowess in their crafting of a song that redefines the concept of a maniac–not as a person who has lost his marbles, but as someone who is true to himself and is not afraid to show this to the world. This courage is laudable, especially when compared to the rest of the world who hang on a thread to their normal facades “like the seam of a torn doll”, even though there will always be a day when their true selves are fully exposed. It is a message of liberation packaged in an entertaining song, whose whole is greater than its individual parts.

The straight-forward structure of “Maniac” is thrown out of the window when it comes to “Venom”, the opening track of the album. It is captivating from first listen, bringing to life its lyrics, which compares fatal attraction to a person who is caught in a web but also has no desire to escape. The sound of stretching rubber playing across an intensifying instrumental is intriguing enough as an opening, bringing to mind an image of a literal spiderweb, which is the Korean title of this song. A whiplash transition between Changbin‘s rap verse to a beautiful melodic refrain (which really highlights the strength of vocalists like Seungmin and Bang Chan) follows before listeners are again plunged back into a heavily rhythmic section. Befitting a true rollercoaster ride, Hyunjin‘s rap verse comes next, with flows and melody lines that are completely unexpected yet fits perfectly with his voice and sense of rhythm.

This isn’t even the last of the surprises, since the stunning rap section that comes after the next refrain blows listeners’ expectations out of the park yet again, with the way it slows things down while dialling up the intensity of the track. “Venom” is an example of what “Maniac” could have been — it is stuffed full of diverse elements, but it stands as a cohesive track because it is pulled together by a catchy and familiar refrain. Such a track allows all eight members to shine, even though each of them has different roles and strengths.

The opening instrumentals of each track are fast becoming their identity markers, and “Charmer” has one of the most ear-catching openings of the album. A clever pun is employed in this song: the Korean word for resist, 참아 (cham-ah), sounds similar to “Charmer”, and is fitting for this track which speaks of a person who is unbelievably attractive and knows it (perhaps a counterpart to “Venom”?)

You can’t resist it, even when you struggle

You’ll dance to my spell

You can’t resist it, I’m the charmer

A flute-like instrumental that is evocative of snake charmers characterises the chorus, and the whole song is a refreshing expression of boundless confidence. Freedom is another theme of this track, and this time it comes from an utter lack of concern of any rivals or imitators who are trying to bring the song’s persona down. He knows he’s good and that’s enough. It is a powerful declaration from Stray Kids, who have been rising steadily through the years, and are currently one of the top artists among the 4th generation. They know what they excel at, and are going to continue being trailblazers, no matter what others may say about them.

Freedom is something that Stray Kids is going to strive for, even if they have to break massive icebergs that stand in their way. In the case of “Freeze”, these icebergs represent the things that keep one trapped, be it societal norms or strict regulations that suppress and cool one’s burning passion. They also represent potential failures, a “cold slab of ice” that causes one to “slip and slide on”, but Stray Kids would rather fall than lose this drive that keeps them going.

This fierce track contains their efforts to break these barriers down and run away from their chasers towards victory, just as in the game of freeze tag, which the Korean title of this track alludes to (땡”, or ttaeng, is onomotaepoia for the act of tagging). Since this hip-hop song is centred around ice, it is both colder and harder, characterised by a relentless beat and a largely electronic soundscape. This is particularly evident in its sparse chorus, which is largely devoid of vocals or lyrics. (It definitely has room for a great dance break though!) Instead, all the attention is directed to its distinctive instrumental riff, which could be a hit or miss for listeners.

A different side to the cool and tough exterior that is portrayed in “Freeze” is presented in “Lonely St.”, a track that shows listeners what it truly feels like to walk alone on an uncharted path. The inner conflicts, the self-doubt, the vulnerabilities and sheer exhaustion that come with crafting a brand new way forward — these emotions are conveyed deftly through evocative lyrics that give this song a lot of significance. Given Stray Kids’ constant mission to reach out to youths all over the world who feel lost, their admission that they themselves are “still astray”, but that they will also keep continuing on this difficult path, is extremely inspiring and empowering. Seungmin’s last line stands out, and the confident manner in which he declares “Just stuff it all ’cause I’mma go on my way” is a great way to end the song on.

Another reason why that line stood out is because it’s one of the few lines in the entire track that did not have heavy vocal effects applied to it. It feels stark compared to the other vocal parts, but it is also much clearer and more direct as a result. While I trust that these were all intentional stylistic choices, the overuse of these vocal effects, especially on vocals that are sufficiently beautiful on their own, takes away from my personal ability to relate to the emotions conveyed through this song, although its lyrics are some of my favourite from this album.

Thankfully, some of the members get to show off their stunning vocals in “Waiting For Us”, the first of two unit tracks that close off the album. The song was written and performed by Bang Chan, Lee Know, Seungmin and I.N, the “vocal unit” of this comeback. With its soft acoustic guitar opening, it stands out from the rest of this album’s electronic offerings, but it also distinguishes itself from a typical ballad with its flow and the intricate instrumentation that builds through the track.

As the main dancer of the group, Lee Know’s vocal skills have been largely underrated all this while, but that ends here, with his fantastic performance in this track. His stable voice reaches deep into the hearts of listeners and captures them, even without fancy techniques or embellishments. Each of the four vocalists get to show off their unique colours, but the years of working together as a team has also helped them to blend with each other seamlessly. There is something about this song that is both heartfelt and heartwarming, and its rich band instrumentation, complete with beautiful harmonies and ad-libs, make this a ballad for the books.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the rap unit’s offering, “Muddy Water”, which was created and performed by Changbin, Hyunjin, Han and Felix. Its playful Charlie Chaplin-like piano intro dissolves into Felix’s charismatic rap, and the track really takes off from there. As the enchanting piano track lurks in the background, the rappers put their skills on display and take turns to shine on the stage. As always, Changbin’s unique flow really stands out here, as does Han’s trademark rapid fire rap, but it’s refreshing that Felix and Hyunjin lead the first half of the song on their own, since Changbin and Han typically do that in Stray Kids’ songs. This enjoyable and instantly replayable rap track concludes Oddinary on a relatively chill note, an album that is testament of the diverse journey these seven tracks have brought listeners on.

Four years into their debut, Stray Kids is at the highest point of their careers yet, but their potential is still brimming. They have so much more to show, and they are ready to keep growing, to keep bettering themselves, no matter how hard or lonely that path may be. With their abilities, boldness and confidence, there are no mountains (or icebergs) too high for them to conquer.

(Images via JYP Entertainment. Lyrics via Genius. Youtube.)