Last Friday night at the Populux in Detroit, I waited in line behind Yung Lean to order pizza. Just like in his videos, he ordered iced tea in a thick Swedish accent, yet no one identified him besides a handful of kids in obviously fake Japanese streetwear. You’d think the turquoise hair would be a dead giveaway. He was understandably brief with everyone, but I managed to sneak in a quick dap and told him I looked forward to the show. The whole “Sad Boys” label is particularly hilarious after seeing them quietly avoid eye contact while eating pizza in Detroit.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Yung Lean is only 19 years old. He’s been in the public eye for so long, and undergone so many bizarre phases, that he’s now expected to communicate some sort of adulthood. When he burst onto the scene, it was his Nordic interpretation of Western hip-hop culture that caught everyone’s attention. His videos featured all of the choreography and movement of Chicago drill rap, but with white kids in Nike tech fleece. I can’t help but feel that their early obsession with Arizona Iced Tea had as much to do with the word “Arizona” as the vaporwave color palette on the cans.
Aging well was always going to be a test for him, though — how would he transition from kitschy nostalgia to making music that was actually about him? At what point would the N64 references go away? What does he actually have to say, anyway? I entered the show almost certain that Yung Lean himself had basically expired.
Before his set, fans were treated to an hour of indiscernible wailing from Thaiboy Goon. While the performance was largely forgettable, I admired his willingness to keep going when not a single person in the audience knew the words. One of my favorite parts of the entire show was when Thaiboy brought out Bladee, who wore an oversized Chucky shirt that went down to his knees. He kept doing this thing where he put his hands up to his temples and his eyes would roll into the back of his head. He might’ve been singing in Swedish for most of his set and no one would’ve known. I don’t know how much of this is for show, and how much is for real; they might actually just be this weird.
After the official Sad Boys Weed Carriers™ finished their set, Yung Lean himself stormed the stage performing “Hoover.” All hell broke loose. I’ve been to some rowdy shows, but never have I been shoved into a subwoofer that the actual artist was performing on top of. There was a ten-minute period where my sole focus was just finding a way to stand upright. With my palms pushing back on the stage, and the force of ten dudes in Thrasher hoodies pressed against my back, I couldn’t help but wonder what GG Allin shows might have been like. People were being dragged out of the crowd left and right; there were actual screams of pain flying around the stage. Lean chuckled and said, “This is one of the craziest shows we’ve had. I love Detroit.”
The front row was a circus act about as entertaining as the show itself. A guy in a tie-dye hoodie turned to me and said in a deadpan drawl, “I’m on 12 hits of acid right now,” and he wasn’t smiling. A girl in a t-shirt covered in frownie faces reached as far as possible, yelling “Please Yung Lean! Just one touch!” There was a guy in a Windows ’95 sweater. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.
I noticed that Lean had a more noticeably punk sound when performing his newest album, Warlord. He’s definitely trying to transition into some sort of Scandinavian rockstar, but as a teenager who still watches Chief Keef videos. Like child actors who often get typecast into roles before they establish an identity, Lean’s fans have come to expect more of his early meme-rap.
With that said, the crowd was obviously more excited to hear Lean’s older and more playful work. Less than four years old, “Ginseng Strip 2002” already feels like an Internet-rap staple. Everyone in the audience probably remembered where they were when they heard it for the first time. “Kyoto” had the entire crowd jumping and rapping in unison, though you could tell Lean has largely moved on from the faux-Japanese influence on his music.
When it was all over, the crowd slowly dispersed out of the Populux, mostly limping. As I reached the exit, a tattered can of Arizona Iced Tea caught my eye. A small crowd quickly assembled around it to take pictures of the symbolic remnants, probably to post on Tumblr or something.