Photo by Matt Barnes
Swedish rap star Yung Lean became a household name in the early 2010s with Ginseng Strip 2002. In 2020 Lean’s brand of faded, low energy trap is now widely accepted as far before its time and has laid the groundwork for contemporary hip-hop. Despite his early rise to internet popularity, Yung Lean has thrived in obscurity. Occasionally breaking the surface of the mainstream only to dive back into the depths of the underground, releasing minimally promoted mixtapes and genre-defying records under multiple pseudonyms, but Lean’s rise to fame as a 16 year old Swede was no internet fluke.
Yung Lean called it.
His heavily stylized, drug worshipping, depression addled brand of hip hop predated the SoundCloud boom of the mid naughts, spawning the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Xxxtentacion, Lil Peep and a slew of other artists who’ve made careers off of that same formula. Yung Lean embodies the Kurt Cobain style reclusive persona that many of these artists attempt to cultivate, without any of the pretension. Lean, along with his longtime collaborators, Yung Sherman, Yung Gud and their fellow Swedish affiliates Bladee, Ecco2K and Whitearmour of Drain Gang are exceedingly mysterious. They fade in and out of the mainstream at will and without regard for anything but the art. It’s their consistency in vision and aesthetic that draws the likes of Frank Ocean and Playboi Carti to work with them.
From teenagers in Stockholm to genre shattering artists, the only thing that has changed is the reception. The approach and sound have remained constant and Lean’s confidence unshakable. For Lean art is easy, the rest is far more complicated. Creation is the path of least resistance, and daily life is exceedingly difficult. Through his battles with mental illness and drug addiction Lean never stopped making music. It seems to flow out of him whether he likes it or not. That signature effortlessness and vision defines Lean’s newest record, Starz.
The beauty of Starz is in Yung Lean’s slavish commitment to his sound. Lean builds dynamic pop songs from the same formula that birthed Ginseng Strip 2002 and Happy Feet. He somehow creates material that feels fresh and mature without sacrificing the hallmarks of a Yung Lean track. Even when he plays into the tired tropes of ‘SoundCloud rap’ in “Iceheart” and “Hellraiser”, Lean’s charming one-liners and ethereal production make it feel distinct and nostalgic. Elements of Kanye and Frank Ocean are filtered through Lean’s trademarked strangeness. He inserts artistry and obscurity back into the genre he helped create.
When outsider artists make plays for mainstream success we often observe a translation of their sound to fit the structure of a modern pop song, with Starz we hear Lean doing the opposite. He translates traditional pop structure and molds it to serve him and his sound. He re-codes the genre he helped create, defamiliarizes it, and allows the would-be-corny elements of pop music to hit like they’re supposed to. Where NME.com reports “‘Iceheart’ sounds too much like the landfill SoundCloud rap that Lean helped inspire…” as if it’s a bad thing, it’s exactly that commonality that makes Starz shine.
Starz sounds like you’re listening to top 40 bullshit, high on acid, trying to buy wine coolers at 7/11. Reality is recognizable, but slightly off-kilter when filtered through a substance addled brain. Yung Lean gets it, he’s been there too. In his other records and projects, Lean has let us know, very articulately, what it’s like inside his head. With Starz, we get a chance to see the world with his eyes. It’s like a psychedelic corner market, disorienting fluorescent lights, bright colors shouting at you from snack bags and patterns emerging and disappearing, hinting at a hidden order behind the chaos.
For those that missed it and those who want to see it again, catch Yung Lean’s latest live stream performance here…