Each time I write about a Stray Kids comeback, it feels like the group’s popularity has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s daunting to watch these idol fanbases multiply. For my part, I’ve been a rather casual Stay. I loved their debut, absolutely adored their 2019 material and thought that 2020’s Go Live album was excellent and varied. But amongst the standouts, there’ve been songs that haven’t fully connected and it’s been a while since I fell hard for a Stray Kids title track. New single Maniac is unlikely to change that, but the song offers a few welcome surprises.
For as long as I’ve been a K-pop fan, the industry has thrived on its willingness to bend genre in service to a catchy hook. Stick around long enough and these musical mash-ups won’t feel nearly as experimental as they once did. Too often, today’s K-pop comebacks are simply disparate pieces clanging together. Sometimes, they’re not even trying to connect. Given the debut of JYP Entertainment’s new group NMIXX, the agency seems intent on this fractured approach. But, Stray Kids have always had more creative freedom and it’s interesting to hear them forge together Maniac‘s ornery ingredients.
As always, the sum is only as strong as its parts, and Maniac is a mixed bag. Its chorus is a winner, creeping over undulous synth and once again utilizing Felix’s cavernous tone as its ace in the hole. I think the track could have gone bigger here (especially as we move toward the climax), but it’s cool to hear the group try on a new texture. The first half of Maniac’s verses is also successful, perched over a wholly different synth riff. The energy is lighter and funkier, with the synth melody working as a springboard rather than a template for the vocals.
I’m not a huge fan of the pre-chorus (?) that’s wedged between these two segments. I mean, it’s pretty much Stray Kids being Stray Kids, but it feels like the most generic portion of the track. It’s also two times longer than it needs to be, providing an awkward transition between two wildly divergent pieces. If Maniac had woven all its ideas into an aural tapestry for a knock-your-socks-off finale, its disjointedness would have had a bigger payoff. Instead, the track reveals most of its tricks in the first minute and doesn’t grow much from there. Lucky for us, they’re highly entertaining tricks!