It’s easy to dismiss Yung Lean, almost on name alone, as the embodiment of the spacey lo-fi cloud rap that plagued the early 2010s with its appropriation of Japanese culture and melancholic vaporwave aesthetic. However, the evolution of his music in recent years challenges the simplistic portrait many critics like to paint. Characterized by a genuine expression of emotion and his straying away from the traditional drugs-and-money brand of rap, Yung Lean’s newer style commands respect.
Born Jonatan Leandoer Håstad in Sweden’s capital city Stockholm, Yung Lean got his musical start at an early age when he met fellow producers Yung Gud and Yung Sherman at a park in his hometown. At 15 years old, they were drinking beers and casually chatting when they realized they shared a love for American rap music. With dreams of one day being famous LA rappers, they decided to make something together – it was that simple. In 2012, the Sad Boys trio was formed and together they began producing and mixing music while Håstad wrote lyrics and recorded vocals. Shortly after, their downtrodden beats and bleak, pining lyrics began to gain popularity on SoundCloud. However, it wasn’t until the music video for “Ginseng Strip 2002” went viral in 2013, garnering over 2 million views, that the group achieved any mainstream attention.
Yung Lean, also known as Yung Leandoer in reference to his middle name, carved out a niche in the rap genre, combining aspects of hip-hop beats with themes of punk and emo-rock. His style of lyricism is characterized by a clever masking of genuine emotions and feelings of despondency with surrealistic imagery and wordplay. He is also known to openly portray his own experiences with mental illness and drug abuse.
Take for example these lines from his viral track “Ginseng Strip 2002,” “Poppin' pills like zits / While someone vomits on your mosquito tits / Slitting wrists while dark evil spirits like Slytherin.” It’s graphic, dark and remarkably vulgar for someone barely old enough to buy lottery tickets. This, in combination with the brilliant producing techniques of Gud and Sherman, has created a unique and instantly recognizable sound that has attracted fans across Scandinavia and the U.S.
His latest album “Stranger,” released in 2017, is without a doubt his most serious musical endeavor thus far. In a recent interview with Dazed, Lean admitted, “I don’t even know if I’m making hip-hop anymore.”
In that sense, the album title is certainly fitting. First released as a single, “Red Bottom Sky,” with its effervescent pop-synth and undeniably catchy chorus, has become one of his most popular songs in just a few shorts months.
The other single “Hunting in My Own Skin” is another stand-out track on the album. It is also noteworthy as a rare example of a song carried by Lean’s voice as opposed to the masterful mixing and sampling of his production team. His vocals are particularly crisp, bringing them to the forefront of your attention. It pairs beautifully with the more minimalistic sound design.
By no means does the album fizzle out as it progresses. It packs a powerful one-two punch in the last two songs, “Agony” and “Yellowman.” The latter being a reference to Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 story collection “The King in Yellow,” a group of supernatural horror stories that circle around a play that causes madness in those who read it. These themes of madness and otherworldliness tie into “Strangers” more broadly. Overall, in Yung Lean’s latest work, we glimpse the potential he has yet to fully realize.
Mitchell Clark is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.