Updated: 6 days ago
By Toyosi Begbaaji
Up until the release of ODDINARY, I had always known about Stray Kids, of course — all the way from their pre-debut in 2017. From 2018 to 2019, they fell off my radar, though the occasional song would end up on my long-winded playlist. Then, they released God’s Menu, the title track for their first full-length album, Go Live, in 2020. Then, came Domino off their second full-length album, Noeasy, in 2021. Then, finally, came the first MANIAC music video teaser, posted just ahead of the release of their next mini album ODDINARY. And I decided that I would tune in for this album, if only so that I could hear the full version of MANIAC. And the rest is history.
STRAY KIDS at the ODDINARY Press Conference, provided to Korea Times by JYP Entertainment
ODDINARY (a play on the word “ordinary”) may be the most quintessentially Stray Kids they’ve ever released. It’s cohesive and dynamic, showing off the Kids’ skill at deciding on an album concept and seeing it through from initial teasers to release day. ODDINARY consists of seven tracks: VENOM, the title track MANIAC, Charmer, FREEZE, Lonely St., Waiting for Us (a vocal unit song), and Muddy Water (a rap unit song).
Like a leisurely bat out of hell, Stray Kids set the tone for ODDINARY with VENOM. The song begins with what I can only describe as crunchy synths that bring to mind (fittingly) a spiderweb being spun before our eyes and deep in our ears. As the opening builds, a whining siren mixed with the synths growing steadily louder, they all drop away for the first lyric and the song’s main hook to be sung in unison – “Geomichul.” (거미줄, trans: spiderweb)
VENOM oozes charisma and confidence, beginning with rapper Changbin throughout the entire first verse. Seungmin, Lee Know, and Bang Chan get a chance to show off vocally in the pre-chorus as (like in the intro) the song builds to the hook through an anti-drop into the chorus. Then, comes the second verse, a back-to-back rap section with Hyunjin and Han that plays off their different styles of rapping – Hyunjin’s leisure delivery set against Han’s manic flow. Once again, the pre-chorus is a chance for their vocals to shine, bringing in maknae I.N, just ahead of another drop — though, this time into the song’s bridge. Changbin returns, carrying that same confidence over a downright disrespectful 808 bass line that carves deep into your skull. VENOM’s bridge is entirely rapline focused, moving from Changbin to Felix – the deep-voiced Aussie rapper – then to Hyunjin, and finally ending with Han.
Screenshot from the VENOM Official Music Video (Image Credit: YouTube, Stray Kids - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pM-jOfy_1jM&ab_channel=StrayKids)
The chorus now seemingly re-contextualised, it plays one final time before transitioning into the song’s outro. Seungmin and Felix (presumably mixed with the other members as well) sing:
I’m trapped in a spiderweb, trapped in a spiderweb
Still haven’t escaped, got me got me got me
I’m trapped in a spiderweb, trapped in a spiderweb
With no thought of escaping
This outro is something like the song’s thesis, encapsulating the entirety of its meaning into one refrain: they’re captured (and they actually like it).
I knew I’d like MANIAC from the first teasers, but I didn’t realise just how much I’d love it until the song was released in full. Beginning with an earworm-y distorted guitar riff, the song brings in similarly distorted drums, all discordant and deliberately computerised. Bang Chan begins the song, singing lusciously about wanting to break out from the curse of acting and appearing normal, accusing others of being just as crazy as him despite their attempts to hide behind socially accepted facades. Vocalists I.N, Lee Know, and Seungmin continue on much the same thought, while Han decries the fact that being kind has fallen out of fashion, but that he can ignore it. Changbin handles the pre-chorus, carrying the song and us on a wave crashing into the chorus, sung by Felix. Felix’s voice here is as addicting as ever, deep and full, practically growling, “MANIAC, going crazy, like I have a loose screw.” When Hyunjin takes over in the second half of the chorus, the song’s instrumental explodes, buzzy synths reminiscent of VENOM scratching at your ears as the chorus spins and spins into the second verse.
Screenshot from the MANIAC Official Music Video (Image Credit: YouTube, JYP Entertainment - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvioeS1ZZ7o)
MANIAC feels as manic as its title implies, while still being restrained in certain aspects to make the more bombastic sections hit harder. The second verse carries the same melodic line from the intro and chorus, making use of a new instrument to keep it sonically different but still cohesive within the song. Whenever I notice these details in the production of Stray Kids’ music, I appreciate the amount of work 3RACHA (their in-group producing/rapping unit made up of leader Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han) does when writing and composing their music.
MANIAC’s bridge isn’t too special on its own, but Bang Chan’s “You cannot stop with this feeling,” as a lead-in to the especially triumphant final chorus/outro makes the song feel epic in its conclusion. Choreography-wise, Lee Know (the oldest member of DANCERACHA, who are the main/lead dancers of the group) very confidently leads the group through a different bit of choreo, unhinged in nature and fitting with the final cry of, “MANIAC, going crazy, like I have a loose screw.” The song ends with the sound of a running screwdriver, slightly tweaked to be more resonant and melodic for the song, a perfect end to this wild and experimental song.
I love MANIAC. I love how melodically playful it is while making use of interesting textures and sounds for its soundscape. I love how it gives each member a time to really shine, whether in the singing or rapping or choreography. I especially love the song’s message, a nugget of genuine social commentary hidden amidst the silliness and bird noises. I love that it comes after VENOM, a song about feeling happily trapped. I love how Stray Kids have consistently played around with the messages and stories told through their music, because it reminds me of myself as a writer.
And we’re still only two songs in.
On my initial listen, I felt that Charmer was good, but could be better. Unlike VENOM and MANIAC, it’s less experimental, more formulaic in its choice of samples and instruments. I did (and still do) love its raps, particularly Han starting off the song quite coolly with, “living in big Seoul city,” which is disrespectful (complimentary) in its delivery. I found the chorus a bit expected, but did amuse myself on first listen by noticing that the flute-like melody in the chorus was like a snake charmer’s flute (like the title of the song!).
Screenshot from the CHARMER Beyond Live Performance (Image Credit: YouTube, chan's room - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9yOQoKPloI)
Now that I’ve had time to reflect, I realised that Charmer isn’t trying to be experimental, and that’s the entire point. The song succeeds in how it carries the same confidence exhibited in the prior two songs through use of more standard instrumentals, like the staccato synth bass line and KSHMR-esque melody sample. What makes Charmer stand out, then, is Stray Kids’ delivery and flow — all the stuff that ride on top of the beat. Changbin’s beatboxed rap is a notable moment of them playing around with how to deliver their individual parts. Now that I’ve had time for Charmer to properly grab me, I find myself listening to it as often as I do my other favourite songs on the album.
I think the best way to describe Charmer (and I don’t say this in a derogatory way) is like this: if you’re new to and/or not a fan of Stray Kids’ experimental songs, you’ll love this song. And once you love this song, it’s only a matter of time until it acts as a gateway to the rest of their music.
This song delighted and amused me on first listen. Coming right after the more formulaic Charmer, FREEZE is balls-to-the-wall crazy with its choice to be full, 2014 dubstep madness. I did enjoy the verses, particularly with the rap-line going one after another, showcasing their individual styles of rapping. From Changbin’s somewhat nasal but addicting voice to Felix’s deep and commanding voice, to Hyunjin and Han sounding nearly identical with the slightest deviation, it’s a killer of an opening. The high-energy nature of the song is kept up even through the pre-chorus where the vocalists get their moments to flex.
Then comes the chorus, which can be hit or miss, but for me (now, at least) most certainly hits. The aggressiveness of the music dropping out before an authoritative shouts the titular, “Freeze!”, followed by a single, chopped, “Ddaeng,” heightens the following soup of dubstep-style instrumentals. A cacophonous battle between siren-like electronic stings, growling 808’s, and abrupt pauses in the entire song. Like a dialup modem trapped inside a dishwasher. And I love it. It’s intentionally too much, intentionally goofy (if Changbin’s ad libbed, “water gun!” is anything to go off of).
The one aspect of FREEZE I still find unsatisfying is its ending. After a killer second verse begun with Felix’s sultry, snake-like vocals and another loop of the chorus, FREEZE’s bridge builds brilliantly, with Bang Chan’s soaring falsetto played overtop a subdued, synth chord soundscape. The song continues to build and build, tumbling you towards what you anticipate will be an epic conclusion built off of the previous two choruses. As the song pauses with Han’s final lines, going up like a wisp of smoke, we’re treated once again to the shouted, “Freeze! [...] Ddaeng.” …And it’s then when the song ends.
Screenshot from the FREEZE Official Music Video (Image Credit: YouTube, Stray Kids - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etjQd0wgUTo)
It’s jarring, to say the least. Like being left on the edge of a cliff but frozen in time, just before you can tumble over the edge. It’s unsatisfying, most certainly, but as I’ve had time to sit with the song, I don’t think it takes away from the song. A more standard construction of the song would’ve ended with a bombastic outro — yes. But again — this is ODDINARY by Stray Kids, who refuse to do anything even remotely standard if they can’t play around with it. Because FREEZE lacks a total conclusion, I find it difficult to listen to on its own. That being said, it fits in beautifully with ODDINARY as a whole and flows shockingly well into the next song.
If you’ve read my review of STAYC’s YOUNG-LUV.COM, I mentioned how pop punk has been having a bit of a moment lately in K-pop, taking over from the previous retro/disco sound of 2020 and 2021. Lonely St. continues with that trend, but unashamedly makes heavy use of stylistic autotune that may turn off first-time listeners. Stray Kids’ use of autotune has never been to cover shoddy vocals, but to enhance the delivery of the emotions of the lyrics. And I think, in this song especially, it’s fitting.
Screenshot from the Lonely St. Official Music Video (Image Credit: YouTube, Stray Kids - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxwFUMvd-fY&ab_channel=StrayKids)
The lyrics of Lonely St. call to mind the struggles of being mentally ill, or perhaps burned out, or generally sad, with a music video that strongly resonated with me, especially suffering from depression of my own. I, unfortunately, don’t have much to say about Lonely St., due to it being very standard in construction and the shortest song on the album. That being said, don’t think that I don’t like Lonely St. — it’s a song that might, at first, seem out of place with the other high-energy songs on ODDINARY, but in reality is closer lyrically to MANIAC than any other track on the album.
How does one include a pop punk ballad on an album that starts with something like VENOM? On an album that has a title track like MANIAC? That even includes a song like FREEZE? In my opinion, you place it after Lonely St. and before Muddy Water.
The most sincere song of the bunch, Waiting For Us allows Stray Kids’ vocalists – including Bang Chan, Lee Know, and VOCALRACHA members Seungmin and I.N – to flex their skills. And flex, they do. Singing about waiting for the day when they can reunite with a lost one (in this case, their fans, who they hadn’t been able to see over the 2 ½ years during which concerts were shuttered due to the pandemic), Stray Kids show off one of their less discussed strengths: their skill at writing wholesome, gut-punching and emotional songs. Waiting For Us falls in the same realm as songs like Sunshine, The View, and Hero’s Soup – songs that are more conventional in their structure and melodies, but create a specific mood and nostalgia that are heightened by the lyrics and singing.
Bang Chan once jokingly agreed with a comment during a livestream that Waiting For Us sounds like the kind of song you’d hear sung in church. I agree with this idea, if only because it points to the sincerity and earnestness carried in this song. In many ways, Waiting For Us feels like Stray Kids’ version of Spring Day by BTS, if only because of how they add to the wider understanding of the bands’ relationship with their fans – allusions to waiting for a spring to bloom where they can meet each other. Waiting For Us’s lyric, “After a long wait, the cold air has settled,” feels made of the same stuff as Spring Day’s lyric, “Because no darkness or no season can last forever.”
I’d like to mention one last thing about Waiting For Us and its construction: very intelligently, the song does not show all of its cards too quickly. The song begins with a soft acoustic guitar that carries through the opening verses, perfectly complimenting Lee Know and Seungmin’s voices. Rather than immediately moving into a first chorus after what certainly feels like a pre-chorus (sung by Seungmin and I.N), the song geniusly holds itself back, instead having a vamping transition into what is either a) a second verse, or b) the second part of the first verse. Either way, it keeps Waiting For Us from being entirely conventional. More instruments (drums, bass, piano, etc..) join the guitar as the song continues its build toward the main refrain and chorus of the song, taken and beautifully belted by Bang Chan. I think this combination – the introduction of the main melodic line, the introduction of the song’s title, all sung by a new voice, and sung by the group’s leader no less – make Waiting For Us into the emotional climax of ODDINARY. If an album can be understood like a film, this song is the moment in the transition from the second to the third act, when everything comes to a head and the tears start flowing.
Screenshot from the Waiting For Us Beyond Live Performance (Image Credit: YouTube, chan's room - https://youtu.be/JBdTIzW7950)
I love Waiting For Us but I especially love its placement on the album. As the penultimate song, it’s a perfect breather after everything that’s come before it and the one song to come after it. It’s beautiful. It’s emotional. It’s one of the most powerful ballads I’ve ever heard. And when it ends, it feels like the end of a long, well-deserved exhale.
Finally, ODDINARY comes to a close with this rap-line unit song and one of the best rap-focused songs in K-pop. Beginning with a jaunty ragtime piano tune, complete with period-accurate vinyl grain, Muddy Water then transitions into the main melodic loop that it will make use of throughout the majority of the song. Which is fine, because the rapping is absolutely killer.
Starting off with Felix, whose deep voice, Australian pronunciation, and all-English lyrics set a perfect stage for this song – we’re treated to punny wordplay. My favourite bit being, “Execute the shadows all around me, call me Demon Slayer.” In typical Stray Kids fashion, they make use of lyric-accurate sound FX to enhance the song (the crowd cheering when Felix says “team player” as well as the sword unsheathing at “Demon Slayer”) while still remaining delightfully tongue in cheek. Hyunjin follows up Felix, riding the beat with a lackadaisical flow, sounding coolly bored while still utterly engaged at the same time. In the (paraphrased) words of a friend: “Hyunjin can spit, forreal.”
Now comes, I’d argue, the best part of all of ODDINARY: the back-and-forth shared rap between Changbin and Han. While back-and-forth raps have been done before, I can’t think of a recent instance as effective as this, in which the duo sound so alike yet clearly different, each taking individual words in a single lyric before switching off to the other.
Screenshot from the Muddy Water Beyond Live Performance (Image Credit: YouTube, chan's room - https://youtu.be/EuOG1sD0gR4)
Because the pre-chorus (though it could arguably just be seen as the chorus, depending on how you divvy it up) is so stacked, the main refrain is much simpler – all four members chant in unison, “Muddy water.” As a phrase, “muddy(ing) water(s)” can refer to making an issue or situation more complicated through intentionally introducing complications. It’s fitting, then, that as a part of the chorus to Muddy Water, Felix remarks, “This is our flow, just step off the show.” In short – quit muddying up our waters and get out of our way.
Very smartly, Muddy Water begins with Felix and Hyunjin (the sub-rappers of the groups) so it leaves the bulk of the second verse for Changbin and Han to take and utterly shine. Changbin’s verse is dirty and gritty, old school rap MC-style in how he spits out his words while playing with his rhythm and cadence. My jaw quite literally dropped the first time I heard his verse. Then, comes Han, undoubtedly known for his rapping speed. He shows off here, starting off slower and closer to the beat before intentionally slipping off, allowing him to tumble into a double time triplet flow that makes you feel like being caught in the spinning wheels of a car.
Muddy Water ends with the chorus like an anthem, the kind you chant in an arena full of other fans to feel the energy filling up the room. It’s poetic and perfect that the song (and therefore also, the album) ends with Felix’s line, “This is our flow, just step off the show,” before a piano outro. If VENOM contained ODDINARY’s thesis, MANIAC was the main idea, and Waiting For Us was its climax, then Muddy Water is the lingering epic conclusion that Stray Kids wish to leave you with to ponder as you (try) to go about the rest of your day.
Well-crafted is one way I can describe ODDINARY. Perfection is another. The ODDINARY era began with a simple question, poised at the end of their comeback announcement trailer: “Do you want to be ODDINARY?” A simple question, but a challenge all the same. At the time of the comeback announcement, I didn’t consider myself a Stay, much less a fan of Stray Kids aside from those few songs. But, with ODDINARY and the combined deeper diver into their discography, I found a group not only worthy of my time and love, but worthy of yours as well. So, to wrap up this review, I ask you:
2. Muddy Water
Honourable Mention: Charmer