Yung Lean is the kind of artist that only could have achieved fame with the aid of the Internet. He lives in between the lines of meme and artist so effectively that it’s hard to know whether he exists as parody or not. He is the rap game equivalent of an imitation Picasso painted by a golden retriever. If it looks like a Picasso and feels like a Picasso does it really matter? The answer depends on how seriously you take your art…
Lean rose to prominence in the last hay days of Tumblr. Like a last wish before it went to end of the garden to die, the social media platform offered us a 16-year-old Swedish rapper with a crazy thirst for Arizona ice tea. He had a bucket hat and apparently shot his videos in his mom’s office. He was already more famous than you.
None of that mattered. His debut track ‘Ginseng Strip 2002’ quickly amassed millions of views as people tried to make sense of what they were seeing. It was obviously ridiculous but also strangely good. The slowed down beat and vocal loop worked. Lean’s verses were amateur but charming. The video production was what you’d expect of someone who’d just finished their diploma in After Effects but people couldn’t stop watching it. Lean had hit on something.
The problem comes when attempting to traverse the gap between meme and artist. Stanger is Yung Lean’s third attempt to do so and is easily his most sophisticated. It employs the same themes as the Swedes’ earlier work – prescription drugs, money, sex – but comes alloyed with increasingly slick production. Early release ‘Skimask’ boasts a quintessential trap beat and ‘Metallic Intuition’ builds on the gothic/industrial sound developed on Warlord.
Lean has improved as a rapper as well. On ‘Saute/Pacman’ he shows off some uncharacteristically agile bars and on ‘Iceman’ he switches the tempo to half speed. But this isn’t really the point. Lean’s music was never really about the quality of the rapping or the production. His appeal was largely due to the lack of it. The real question is whether Yung Lean is as exciting as a serious artist as he was an amateur.
The obvious answer is “no”. But the longer you look the more complicated the question becomes. Tracks like ‘Hunting On My Own’ and ‘Red Bottom Sky’ offer the kind of bouncy pop that has mass appeal and ‘Agony’ is a genuinely game-changing track from the Swedish rapper. It’s a stripped back ballad with only a piano loop to accompany Lean’s characteristic monotone. This honest confessional style suits the rapper well and could offer a blueprint for the future.
There is still a lack of variety in sound and this remains a downfall in Lean’s work. Part of this is down to working with the same production team for all three LPs and partly due to the lack of features on Stranger. Songs like ‘Drop It/Scooter’ and ‘Fallen Demon’, while good in their own right, could be taken to the next level with some external input
But Stranger still retains an odd charm. Every time you start to switch off Lean pulls you back in with some off-script reference to The Simpsons or A Clockwork Orange. As an artist he remains more likeable than he is good, and that’s a pretty useful trait to have at the end of the day. Cal Byrne