The first thing you should know about Yung Lean is that he was 16 when he made “Unknown Death“. The second thing you should know is he’s from Sweden. Some readers may automatically be turned off by his age and brush him off as illegitimate but separate his young age from the music, as one would with an Earl Sweatshirt or any rapper under 18 for that matter, and you’ll find one of the most pleasurable listens of 2013. This is not to say that his rhymes are as poetic and impressive as Earl, but he is in the same age range and achieving viral success. Earlier this month, “Unknown Death 2002” hit the internet courtesy of Mishka. Since then, it’s been riding a wave of popularity as more and more people are introduced to these Swedish Sad Boys. In the end, this music is really just kids having fun, and you can’t look into it any deeper than that. You won’t find any uptempo club bangers here, “Unknown Death” is contemplative to an extent but playful at its core… which is to be expected from a 16 year old.
Stream: Yung Lean – Gatorade [prod Yung Gud]
In many ways “Unknown Death” draws many similarities to Harmony Korine’s recent movie “Spring Breakers”. He’s stated Korine is an inspiration on Twitter and both works are focused around white middle-class teenagers living out their gangster fantasies; both containing unsettling mixes of sex, violence, and childhood imagery. This escapism is illustrated here in lines such as “Optimus Prime/Do her from behind“, “I can buy you lemonade/I can buy you drugs” and “Posted in the Death Star/Snorting coke with Darth Vader“. Also, as in “Spring Breakers”, the violence and sex are acted out in an almost dream-like realm which is far removed from any moral repercussions or responsibility. Just as Vanessa Hudgens and company are content in the fact that “what happens on spring break stays on spring break“, Yung Lean is able to live out his own gun-slinging/drug-dealing/sci-fi/video-game dreams (in his own words “living life like we’re in Baltimore“) without actually having to deal with any of the harsh realities. Of course, many will criticize this attitude as being insensitive but you have to keep in mind that this is a 16 year old who grew up with Bricksquad Monopoly, video games, and the internet, so the result is hardly surprising.
Throughout the album, sad emotion is pushed through crooning auto-tune that hangs in the air along with his Sad Boys crew shoutouts. He’ll admit he’s crying at times and also reflect on his surroundings (“I love nature and everything around me” on “Lightsaber”) while using similar vernacular and wordplay (“I’m a reacher, I’m reaching out but I can’t reach her/You need me, well I guess I don’t need her” on “Emails”) that odes to living legends like Gucci Mane. Intermittent downpitches popularized by A$AP Rocky also pop up on “Unknown Death“; vocal modulation fluctuates between normalcy and Houston screwed. He practices varying flows ranging from the fast & dizzying to the slow & contemplative. These are songs that walk a line of absurdity, especially when you’re reminded this is a teenager saying these bizarre & explicit things. Referencing a range of hard drugs (“Louis dufflebag filled with heroin” on “Hurt”, “Neon green plants, Gucci on my pants/Coke on my teeth so I’m hard to understand” on “Emails”) and Arizona Ice Tea, “Unknown Death” is unlike anything you’ve heard in 2013 aside from maybe that last Hollywood Squadda EP.
Stream: Yung Lean – Lemonade [prod Yung Gud]
The second half of the album is when Lean’s case is made for legitimacy among cloud rap players, starting with”Lemonade”. If nothing else, the production is the standout feature of the record. Beats by Friendzone and newcomer suicideyear (a young beatmaker from Louisiana with a solid front-to-back tape titled Japan available now) come off as a cosign for the otherwise unknown rapper. The production covers the hazy to the spacey to the oriental to the based. Yung Lean could easily be lumped into the cloud rap/based genre along with acts like Main Attrakionz and Lil B on his production selection alone. The Lil B comparison stems from his delivery as both share in a monotone, swag-rap mentality that echos in Lean’s lyrics (“Bitches on my dick because I’m so luxurious” on “Lightsaber//Saviour”) and both hardly show much octave range; relying steadily on the emotional inflection in their voice. It is a very #based flow that falls off beat but doesn’t ruin the sound.
Although so far it seems like Lil B is the most common reference point, Yung Lean also holds a lot of similarities with other artists whom fiction is an important part of their work such as Kool Keith, MF Doom, and Madlib under his Quasimoto guise. For example, compare this line on Lean’s song “Nitevision”: “Watching Space Jam/Lean’s never sober” with this line from “Lost in Space” by Kool Keith: “Hotel unknown/drinking brew watching Sesame Street“. Although he’s not wearing a mask or disguising himself as a cartoon character, Yung Lean is just as fictional as either Madvillain or Quasimoto. This fictional aspect of his work may be ignored by many die-hard, old-school hip-hop fans who will be looking for an easy excuse to dismiss Lean due to his background. However, even if the issue of Lean’s upbringing is too much for some people, this point won’t do much to hold back his growing, global, web-savvy fanbase for whom his unusual background holds no weight on their listening habits.
Yung Lean’s visuals push Pokemon and Arizona Ice Tea heavily to the forefront, as seen in the official video for “Hurt”. The Pokemon resurgence was first spotted with Robb Bank$, an influence of Yung Lean, in his video for “Counting“. The relevance of Pokemon on Lean is unknown considering he was only 3 or 4 years old at the height of Pokemon’s popularity but the nostalgia and #rare factor work nevertheless. These visuals go to show just how much Yung Lean works off (specifically 90’s and early-00’s) aesthetics. Apparently he named himself Yung Lean because “it was funny“, so it’s not like he’s trying to achieve Pimp C levels of codeine intake. Coming from a “normal neighborhood with lots of hipsters”, he sticks to drinking beers and sipping Hennessey just as many teenagers do in their youth. While I doubt Lean is yelling “YOLO” with his Sad Boys, he is on probation upon being busted for smoking weed, meaning he’s a typical teenager; getting caught with petty drugs and fooling with music about much harder lifestyles than his own. It’s fun, enjoyable, and escapism at its Millenial core. The main point that can be drawn from an act like Yung Lean is essentially imitation at it’s finest; a teenager who’s pooled his influences along with resurgent aesthetics to form an identifiable name in a crowded room of bigger and better-established players.
Words by: Kyle Brayton & Warren O’Neill
Watch: Yung Lean – Hurt [prod Suicideyear]