[Review] Stray Kids’ baffling, thrilling “Side Effects” seems more fit for dancing than listening

Stray Kids are a difficult group to decipher, and I’m starting to think they like it that way. March’s “Miroh” was a watershed moment for them, and remains one of 2019’s finest singles. By bolstering their hard-hitting hip-hop sound with equally impactful EDM influence, the song seemed to spark a newfound ambition in the group’s trio of composers (also known as 3RACHA). Of course, ambition can cut both ways, and new single “Side Effects” is likely to baffle just as many listeners as it thrills.

On first listen, the song caught me completely off guard. Where was the chorus? Or rather, where was the melody? “Miroh” was built on layers of instantly-galvanizing melody — almost hypnotic in their chant-like repetition. “Side Effects” keeps the same energy intact, but lets its blustering instrumental do most of the heavy lifting.

In this way, the song initially comes across more like an album intro or dance showcase. There isn’t a whole lot for the members to do beyond grunts and guttural screams. Placed within K-pop’s ultra-catchy context, this approach feels equally frustrating and exciting. Further listens tease out some of the hooks, namely a pre-drop injection of emotive melody that fits right within the anthemic wheelhouse of “Miroh”. The rap verses are more scattershot, but delivered with the passion we’ve come to expect from this group.

Really, though, “Side Effects” is all about its tour de force instrumental. Built upon the psytrance sub-genre, the 1Take & TAK-produced track surges with unpredictable energy — pensive and subdued one moment and explosive the next. I’m not a fan of the slower, trap-inspired segments (shocker, right?), but when “Side Effects” gets going, it generates its own sort of magic. The central drop delivers an unrelenting, sledgehammer beat intertwined with psychology-based, English-language samples. Better yet is the combination of cinematic, klaxon synth and thumping percussion that first gets the song going. I could argue with how these elements are utilized (more pop melody, please!), but it’s utterly thrilling to hear new sounds within K-pop’s staid musical landscape. Say what you want about Stray Kids, but there’s definitely no predicting where they’ll go next.

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