Stray Kids threw down the gauntlet with March’s awesome District 9, blending hip-hop and rock for a refreshingly old-school sound that turned things up to eleven to harness K-pop’s unashamed energy. The song’s rock elements were toned down for August’s My Pace, and that continues to be the case with new single I Am YOU. I’m beginning to fear that the sound I fell in love with seven months ago was more of a red herring than a signature style.
In the post-BTS K-pop landscape, new emphasis has been put on the idea of authenticity. More idol groups are writing their own material, and naval-gazing lyricism is becoming just as important as a good hook. I Am YOU is clearly designed as a spotlight for Stray Kids’ growing maturity, putting more focus on mood and sentiment than innovative song construction. Those already engrossed in the Stray Kids narrative will likely be sucked in immediately. For those on the fence, the song doesn’t do much to stand out.
I Am YOU’s ever-present electric guitar is its strongest element, even though it’s never positioned as the song’s focal point. This instrumental backbone gives the track a unique texture and adds needed drama to the arrangement. It’s especially effective during YOU’s emotive chorus, which could have just as easily been framed by typical ballad tropes. The chugging bridge is also a standout, hinting at what could have been a much more anthemic track. It’s during the verses that I Am YOU starts to lose me. Yes, Stray Kids is home to some great rappers, and the flow here is assured in a way most idol groups struggle to match. However, much of the song passes by without the kind of carefully crafted hooks that would really drive this passion home. Unlike the quickly-tiresome My Pace, YOU’s restraint might actually end up as an asset in the long run. Still, I can’t help but miss the theatrical energy of the group’s uniquely dynamic debut.