Stray Kids are fighting with their fans to determine who adores the other most. The fans started it, erupting into an impromptu chant inside Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles: "We love you! We love you!," they shout, repeatedly. The sound is deafening, catching the boy band off guard. The eight members retaliate with their own impassioned chorus. "We love Stay," they respond, referencing their legions of international devotees. Both sides scream until, ultimately, Stray Kids admit defeat; they stand awkwardly onstage, apparently unsure how to receive the unrivaled adulation. Bang Chan, the Korean group's steadfast leader, looks around the venue in awe, while sensible vocalist Seungmin makes a heart with his hands and points to the crowd, resolved to have the last word.
This is not the first time Stray Kids has lost the battle of who-loves-who. It’s happened in cities across the United States, from New York to Dallas, amidst their District 9: Unlock world tour. It's canon, chiseled into the group's short but colorful history, alongside such viral moments as "Seungmin in the building" and "I'm not gonna leave you behind." Displays of affection between idols and fans are nothing new but, with Stray Kids, they’re never forced.
"It doesn't matter how old you are," Bang Chan tells the crowd mid-show, intensity building with every word. "It doesn't matter if you're a boy or a girl, or whoever you choose to be. It doesn't matter where you're from — everyone is welcome in our special district."
Two weeks prior to this performance, Stray Kids — Bang Chan, Lee Know, Changbin, Hyunjin, Han, Felix, Seungmin, and I.N — are gazing from a conference room in a Times Square skyscraper. The sky is gray, but that doesn't deter Hyunjin from posing for a series of selfies against the floor-to-ceiling window. As the lithe dancer works his angles, his bandmates are scattered throughout the room. Han props his phone against the room’s A/V controls to watch an anime; Bang Chan hunches over his own phone, thumbing the screen intently; Lee Know rests his eyes; and Australia-born Felix gossips about last night's Grammy Awards. Like any teen, he's obsessed with Billie Eilish, and her historic Grammys sweep is hard for him to fathom. "Can you believe it?" he says, eyes wide and sparkling. "She's only 18. It's amazing."
But at 19, the deep-voiced rapper, whose delicate features betray his cherry-red hair, has similarly found success at a young age. Within a year of their 2018 debut, Stray Kids received 11 rookie awards and released five EPs. In fact, while Eilish and her brother Finneas were crafting homemade beats in a Highland Park bedroom, JYP Entertainment's tenacious boy wonders were honing their own unique sound in a small studio in Seoul, South Korea. Members Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han comprise the group's primary production trio, 3RACHA, and they've been making music together since their trainee days in 2017. Introspective early tracks like "Start Line" and "Runner's High" laid the foundation for Stray Kids' sonic identity: With the disruptive power of punk, they deliver astute, poignant lyrics about the bristly experience of growing up and its side effects.
"The things we worry about and the things Stay worry about — we share a lot of the same struggles," Han tells MTV News. "Even though our ambitions are different, we work hard just the same. It becomes our inspiration musically." As the creative force behind two of the group's more vulnerable cuts, "19" and "Sunshine," the 19-year-old rapper reveals his innermost thoughts and anxieties to the fans. But that honesty can be frightening.
"It's nerve-racking for us," Bang Chan says. "Sometimes we think, 'If we talk about this, will people understand? Will they relate?' We're always thinking about how we can reach people through our lyrics because we want our music to help."
That empathy has been woven throughout their music from the beginning. Stray Kids’ first singles, the pre-debut track "Hellevator" and the darkly riotous "District 9," are full of angst and aggression, soundtracks for those who balk at societal pressures and follow their own rules. "My Pace" is an empowering anthem teeming with energy and affirmations. ("Don't compare yourself with others," Bang Chan sings on the hook. "It's OK to run slower.") Songs like "Voices" and "Side Effects" offer an intimate glimpse into the tumultuous mind of a young person still figuring out their place in the world, while "Miroh" and "Victory Song" are bursting with big sounds and youthful bravado.
"Young people today may feel a bit trapped, like you're constantly being told what to do and you feel like you can't speak for yourself," Bang Chan says. "So we want people our age to feel comfortable speaking out and talking about what they think."
By encouraging their fans to examine their own growing pains, to feel everything, they ensure that their message is never didactic. "All strayed steps come together to make a new road," they say at their concert. And with their latest release, "Levanter," off their sixth EP Clé: Levanter, Stray Kids come to the understanding that the journey is more meaningful than the destination, and the path ahead is ultimately theirs to define. So they double knot their shoelaces and dash full-speed ahead. "We might not know what the actual goal is, but as long as we're running hard and we're running as a group, whatever comes is going to be good anyway," Bang Chan says. "We just wish that a lot of people out there could listen to our music and get a lot of energy and hope from it."
Like 25-year-old Selina, who connects to their lyrics because she's "still on that journey of figuring out what I want to do and who I want to be," she says, clutching her Stray Kids light stick (a compass, now featuring Bang Chan's name written on the handle) outside of Microsoft Theater. Her friend Joseline, 18, likes that the members "have other priorities and interests outside of being a K-pop idol" that they reveal through daily Instagram posts, livestreams on the V Live app, TikToks, and weekly YouTube videos and vlogs. "He's not just Han from Stray Kids, he's Han Jisung — rapper, producer, and person," she adds.
For Kambree, 17, the group has a "positive vibe" that makes her feel happy and accepted. "They make us feel like family, no matter who you are or what you look like," she adds. Her best friend Lexxie, 17, says Stray Kids "make me feel like I'm not alone with my issues." And So Yun, 30, finds their mix of "hard-hitting EDM" and "super angsty" lyrics reminiscent of the emo bands she listened to in high school. "It's the same rebellious spirit that I felt as a teen when you want to be your own person and figure out your own voice."
Their music has given Louis, 30, a newfound perspective. "I like the ['Levanter'] lyric, 'I want to be myself, I don't care' — that line resonates with me because we live in a society where people try to mold you, but at the same time, I just want to myself and at this point, I really don't care!"
Best friends Ella and Jazlynn, both 19, met online through their mutual love of Stray Kids, and they've customized their light sticks with glitters and holographic stickers of their favorite members' names. "Half of the group is technically my age, so I can look at them and see how successful they are, and it gives me inspiration to work harder," Jazlynn says, an I.N banner at her side. And while they do feel comforted by the authenticity in the group's songs, as Ella explains, it's who they are off-stage that many fans connect with most. "When you see Felix do the Renegade, it's like, 'I do that too!'"
Their ability to ignite the stage with powerful performances while staying true to themselves behind the scenes — as both K-pop's reigning meme kings and young men navigating adulthood — is what makes Stray Kids so relatable to a generation that experiences much of their lives online. "This generation is comfortable being alone," Changbin says. "We have our phones. We don't always need to be talking to each other to be together. Sometimes a text is fine."
And they're pretty normal, too. Bang Chan and Changbin watch videos from Tomorrowland and Ultra Music Festival to help clear their minds in the studio; the tracks "Road Not Taken" and "Stop" are the direct results of such self-care. Han's idea of a perfect day would be to "not come out of my room for 24 hours." If he could spend all day watching YouTube videos, he would. In fact, he says "Sunshine" was inspired by a scene in the Korean drama Boys Over Flowers, where the main characters travel to an idyllic private island. Though Han’s larger-than-life presence dominates the stage, he identifies as an introvert and admits he hopes to "overcome" his shyness. "On my ideal perfect day, I'd try new experiences and meet new people comfortably, do the things that normally scare me," he says. "You can do it!" Bang Chan adds, encouragingly.
Youngest member I.N makes time to go shopping, though he prefers to "chill" on his days off. And when Felix isn't playing video games or destroying kitchens with Seungmin, he frequents Seoul's finest dog cafes. "We have so many dog lovers in our group," he says, smiling. "I've been looking at a lot of dogs, and I feel like they help you feel better. I really want a dog with the team." Han points at Seungmin, whose nickname is "puppy," and Bang Chan adds, "We already have one." Seungmin scrunches his nose and says, "No way!" (But Han insists the diligent singer is a "really bad boy.")
Meanwhile, Hyunjin, who’s known by fans for his theatrics and commanding stage presence is extremely open with his emotions. He frequents V Live, where he offers personal advice to viewers of his video series Hyunjin’s Counseling Center. But the 19-year-old admits that opening up to Stay has helped him, too. "I don't always have a lot of confidence," he says. “When I want to be comforted or when I’m feeling kind of sad, Stay are really good at consoling me. I want to be able to repay that comfort in full."
"The connection between Stay and Stray Kids would be family," Felix adds. Han jokes that they're the "annoying and mischievous" little brothers. But it's that sense of connection, among the group as well as with their fans, that has cemented Stray Kids as the vital voices of their generation.
"The struggles we're going through — anxiety, stress, school, love — they tell us to take our time and see where our path leads," Selina says. "It's OK to stray from it. Just stay true to yourself. I always associate that with them. The idea of 'You Make Stray Kids Stay' is to find out what it is that grounds you and just keep going."
And Stray Kids don't plan to slow down any time soon. Having wrapped their Clé series at the end of last year with Levanter, 2020 offers an exciting fresh page for new musical experimentations, starting with the three original unit songs the group produced for the tour. "Wow" is a sexy R&B track from dancers Lee Know, Hyunjin, and Felix. It's also their first explicit love song. "We wanted to try a sexy song because it's a special stage," Hyunjin says, explaining that the dancers worked on their own lyrics in addition to helping with the slinky choreography. "We wanted to include moves that we haven't tried before," Lee Know adds, noting that they wanted something sexy and powerful. "So it was a new experience."
"My Universe," featuring vocalists Seungmin and I.N with an assist from Changbin, is a bright pop ballad. "I always wanted to try something like that," I.N says, eyes smiling. Seungmin tells Changbin from across the table, "Thanks for helping." And 3RACHA's "We Go" oozes confidence over a scorching trap beat. "We made 'We Go' last time we were here [in the United States]," Bang Chan says. "We made around three to four songs in one day… The performance is really fun as well. And those two [he points to Han and Changbin] got to have the chance to use Autotune live."
They also released their first English singles in January, a process that rapper Changbin, known for his furious flow, calls "difficult." ("It was fun," Hyunjin argues beside him.) "I was listening to Changbin's rap [in 'Double Knot'] like, 'Why is this so fast? What am I going to write?'" Bang Chan says. "I tried to write it as easy as possible so that he could speak it well. I'm really glad that they could record it really well for me."
In March, they'll debut in Japan. And there's another mixtape project in the works, kicked off by the digital release of "Gone Days," a relaxed, Autotune-laced anthem for the "OK Boomer" generation. A play on the Korean word kkondae, it describes someone who pushes outdated ideas and expectations onto another based only on their age and status — and signals the arrival of a bold new direction. "I think [young people] now just need to be more comfortable with themselves," Bang Chan says of his inspiration for the track. "By being yourself, you never know what's going to happen."
"I always believe that one person can change the world," he adds. "So if you have a thought or an idea, just let it out. Because who knows? You can make the world a much better place."