Yung Lean: Your Favorite Rapper’s Grandfather

The self-proclaimed "sadboy" and hugely influential rapper has done a lot of growing up in the past few years, and he'd like to tell you how.

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Yung Lean: Your Favorite Rapper’s Grandfather

Liam Gill, Reporter

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In 2013, while top mainstream hits like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s critically acclaimed comeback LP “Random Access Memories” dominated global airwaves, a sixteen year old Swedish high school dropout was embarking on the early steps of a career that would define an entire movement in the underground hip hop scene, which would pave the way  for the emergence of the massively popular emo hip-hop genre topping today’s charts.

22 year old Jonatan Leandoer Håstad, better known by his stage name “Yung Lean” is perhaps one of hip hop’s strangest anomalies. Six years ago, the thought that he would collaborate with the likes of Frank Ocean and A$AP Ferg and release an album that would receive mainstream critical acclaim was a fever dream at best, and understandably so.

Lean’s early work was, for lack of a better term, a meme. Often accompanied by music videos riddled with strange, washed out, and artificially nostalgic vaporwave and seapunk visuals, painfully awkward dance moves, and a confusing fixation on Arizona Iced Tea, his music was ridiculous. Nonsensical and often absurdist lyrics about heavy drug usage and frequent shout outs to his collective, “Sad Boys” coupled with ethereal, spacey, and psychedelic trap influenced beats quickly became Lean’s trademark. His slapstick and vapid lyricism were potentiated by his weak grasp on the English language. A native speaker of Swedish, the majority of the English he knew at the time was learned largely through internet culture and a variety of American rap and hip hop artists, ranging from 50 Cent to Lil B, The BasedGod himself.

Needless to say, Yung Lean and the Sadboys quickly rose to underground notoriety. In 2013, “Ginseng Strip 2002” attained viral status, gaining two million views on YouTube that year (the video now sits at just over 21 million views as of September, 2018). His debut album, Unknown Death 2002, released shortly thereafter. The twelve track LP was by no means an artistic masterpiece, and, unsurprisingly, received low ratings from the few reputable publishings that even bothered to review it. But his underground following, sizable by now, knew that Lean was not here to maintain artistic integrity. He was here to rap about being sad, drinking Arizona Iced Tea, and ingesting copious amounts of illicit narcotics, and that’s exactly what he did. Many, like myself, first listened ironically, for the sake of the meme, but quickly grew genuinely fond of this weird, Swedish, self-proclaimed sadboy’s catchy, albeit vapid music, attending sold out shows across the US and Europe. Lean’s 2014 sophomore album Unknown Memory adopted a darker tone, with tracks like “Leanworld” showcasing a genuine attempt at introspection and vulnerability. However, the album as a whole was still riddled with the flaws his previous efforts shared: lazy and disinterested delivery and poor songwriting.

The Sadboys Aesthetic

In 2015 in Miami, as he was working on his next release, Warlord, Håstad suffered a mental breakdown as a result of an intense addiction to dangerous combinations of the prescription anti-anxiety medication Xanax, Cocaine, Lean, and Cannabis, as well as the fatal car crash of his close friend and manager Barron Machat. Håstad checked into a mental hospital, and weeks later returned to Sweden with his father, who helped rehabilitate him in his rural countryside home. Faders article, “Yung Lean’s Second Chance,” explores this turbulent year in much closer detail, and I highly recommend you give it a look. Håstad reflects on his hardship on the track “Miami Ultras” from Warlord, released in February 2016, but not by use of lyrical eloquence. Lean screams the entire song. The track sounds truly maniacal at points, releasing the emotion he had pent up over the past year  and invoking the disorder of his shattered psyche during his breakdown. For the first time, a Yung Lean song is truly visceral and knowing the events which inspired the song is actually sad. No irony, no memes, no spinning animations of frowny faces with Japanese text. There’s nothing funny about it. The music video features Lean donning a hospital gown and with an IV drip in his arm in the same cabin he and his father retreated to. He then begins to dig a hole in the front lot midst the rain, and one can’t help but infer that hole is the beginning of his own grave.

Still frame from “Miami Ultras”

After the Warlord album cycle, Håstad and the Sadboys, producers Yung Sherman and Gud, all got jobs at a local shampoo factory to regain a sense of structure and ground themselves. The Swedes felt very much out of place in Miami, and became infatuated with the rockstar lifestyle of “drugs, drugs, drugs, party, party, party” with no one to stop them. When asked about the subject by Fader, Håstad said “We come from a very non-materialistic lifestyle, and just, you know, anxiety. At 21, people in Sweden will be like, ‘My life is over, and I’ll just work for the rest of my life.’ So once you do get to the U.S. and someone meets you at the airport and gives you money and gives you drugs, we go too crazy.” Håstad quit drugs, and, in time, felt healthy enough both mentally and physically to return to music.

Stockholm, Sweden – Håstad’s hometown

In September 2017, Lean began his most minimal and intriguing album cycle yet, dropping three singles, all of which signaled a large stylistic change on the upcoming album. He released Stranger on November 10, with an accompanying eponymous short film. Yung Lean was back with a clear intention to make a name for himself as a legitimate artist, and it worked. Jonatan Håstad and Yung Lean finally met. Producers Whitearmor, Yung Sherman, and Gud deliver track after track of beautiful beats teeming with texture and complexity, displaying a mastery of the Cloud Rap genre they helped popularize. Lean, now 22 and with a firmer knowledge of English, hones in on a songwriting style, which maintains an element of abstract language from his past efforts, but is a far cry from absurdism. “Red Bottom Sky” and “Push / Lost Weekend,” which sonically call back to his ethereal Cloud Rap roots, are a great example of such songwriting. “Skimask” is the standout banger of the record, featuring fluttering trap influenced hi-hats over multiple layers of spacey synths, rooted in a bouncy, floor shaking melody of electronic bells and firm delivery of unapologetically braggadocious lyrics by Lean. The final three songs, “Fallen Demon,” “Agony,” and “Yellowman” are without a doubt Lean’s most mature and unique works to date.

 

“Fallen Demon” explores themes of addiction and depression, but not in the same way his previous works like “Oreomilkshake” did. He explores these themes, but he makes it clear that they do not define him, and offers meaningful insight to his experience with them:

 

I’m addicted to the feeling, I can’t get it out

I feel sick into the ceiling, hurt to see my life

(Third line omitted for explicit content)

So many fires in my grave, feels like on a jet

So many engines, like my diamonds need a serviette

They didn’t let me out for three weeks

Feel like a vet…

Ice, woke, neon diamonds

Get it faster with my guidance

Hell, lose, snow alliance

Love comes first, hate comes silent

No hate, just faith

Live my life through ultra violence

He recalls his highs, but also the incredibly dark lows that inevitably followed.

“Agony” is a complete departure from Lean’s style. Accompanied by a slightly detuned piano, and in the outro, an Icelandic children’s choir, Lean sings. His voice, broken and imperfect, is vulnerable. He reflects on his mental break and subsequent stay with his father in Sweden. The minimal instrumentation and hollow vocals come together to create an effective invocation of the emptiness and loneliness of drug addiction, but are momentarily offset in the refrain, where Lean sings of an unnamed love interest:

Take a pill and go to sleep

I’m chasing witches in the street

I’m the last page in your book

Can’t write a song, only do hooks

Watching horses in the fields

The dragon rests in agony

When I’m afraid, I lose my mind

It’s fine, it happens all the time

When I’m afraid, I lose my mind

It’s fine, it happens all the time

 

Isolation caved in

I adore you

The sound of your skin

 

So many lies that I found

Lord, Heaven, I stick to the ground

So many times I realize

What I seek for is right in front of my eyes

I’m alone in a hole in the ground

A theater of dogs is still around

My furniture has come alive

I’m dancing with a candlestick tonight

Flying kites reaping outside my widow

Smiles with fright

 

Six years ago, no one would have thought the bucket hat donning, Arizona Iced Tea sipping sadboy from Sweden could write a song with such poignance, let alone agree to sing over a piano, probably not even Lean himself.

The album received numerous favorable ratings from major publishings and critics, including Pitchfork Magazine and TheNeedleDrop’s Anthony Fantano. Stranger, while not perfect, is a massive step in the right direction for Yung Lean, and has me immensely excited for future projects as he continues to grow and find himself artistically.

Five days after Stranger’s release, Gustav Åhr, better known as Lil Peep, fatally overdosed on counterfeit Xanax cut with the extremely potent synthetic opioid known as Fentanyl in his tour bus outside of a venue in Tucson, Arizona. He had turned twenty-one just two weeks prior. Peep began making music in 2015, quickly gaining popularity within the same type of underground realm Lean did. He was touring North America for his debut album Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 1, released to significant mainstream acclaim in August of that year.

Unlike Lean, I discovered Peep’s music while he was still breaking out of the underground and was able to follow his journey to mainstream notoriety from a relatively early stage. He was the pioneer of a new hybrid genre, which blended elements of 2000’s emo music like melancholy electric guitar riffs and whiny vocals with elements hip-hop and trap, like half-sung half-rapped delivery, sputtering hi-hats, and 808 basslines. The somber subject matter and melancholic sound of the genre, qualities Yung Lean’s music shares, resonated with his fans, myself included. Peep’s death hit me and so many others with great force. I had never been so affected emotionally by the death of a celebrity until that night, when I opened a Snapchat from the same friend who recommended Peep to me: A black screen, with the words “RIP PEEP” in the center. “Emo Hip-Hop” has since exploded in popularity, with artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Juice WRLD at the forefront.

To listen to Stranger right after the death of Lil Peep, and to know the struggles Yung Lean endured that inspired much of the material on the album, allowed me to appreciate it on a much rawer and visceral plane. Two years ago, that “RIP PEEP” could just have easily been “RIP LEAN.” Perhaps if Peep had been discovered on his tour bus sooner, he would have survived the overdose and used the experience as an opportunity for self betterment.

Gustav Åhr (Lil Peep) for Balmain at Paris Fashion Week 2017

The glorification of drug usage in mainstream music is an issue. While Peep’s death spawned a significant dialogue within the hip-hop community about drugs, specifically Xanax, and the alarming frequency of overdoses and addiction among those in the scene, little progress has been made. Rapper Mac Miller fatally overdosed this month after a lifelong struggle with drug addiction. He was twenty-six. This period of popular music will forever be marked with the deaths of tragically young artists.

With a new industry-planted artist popping up seemingly every month, rapping about drugs and depression with alarming romanticization and little to no actual substance or meaningful takeaway, I fear this desensitization has become too severe to fully mend, but it can still be helped. Drugs are real. Addiction is real. Depression is real. Death is real. In a pop culture climate where these issues have been glamorized and marketed by labels, these realities are easily forgotten. Perhaps the scene should look back to Yung Lean, the man who paved the way for its success, and find inspiration and guidance in his story.  

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About the Writer
Liam Gill, Arts Editor

Liam Gill is a senior. This is his first year writing for the the KnightWatch, and in addition to occasional op-ed pieces, he focuses on music and its...

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