Yung Lean is wack to the fullest extent. Wack enough, apparently, to have his tour bus shot at, which happened Mar. 18 after a Pittsburgh show. Scary, yes, but more than anything this shooting seemed to signal to the music world that the 19-year-old was somehow still relevant after two studio album releases that ranged from shaky (Unknown Memory) to flat out questionable (Warlord). Much has been written about the enigmatic 19-year-old Swede; Lean (real name: Jonatan Aron Leandoer Håstad) initially unearthed a hotbed of rap fandom through his use of early to mid-2000s cultural references and proved sneakily introspective while spitting out lines that scream in the language of phony — on “Kyoto,” off of Lavender EP (2013), he claims, “I got an empire of emotional squad / see me cruisin,’ cruisin,’ in my go kart / I’m War ho, I’m Warhol / I’m Wario when I’m in Mario Kart.”
The first time I heard Yung Lean was, appropriately, during my December 2013 trip to Israel. My first thought was that it was kind of funny. My second thought was questioning why I was listening to a 17-year-old rap about getting his balls licked by a Zooey Deschanel lookalike. My final thought was questioning why I was listening to this adolescent rap about getting his balls licked by a Zooey Deschanel lookalike while I was in a car ride from Masada to Jerusalem. My scenery consisted of beautiful, pure landscapes en route to arguably the world’s holiest city, and nothing about life at that moment felt kosher. Listening to “Ginseng Strip 2002” felt so wrong, yet so right, and I loved it. It was then that I understood the true essence of Yung Lean; he was the best type of joke.
What initially cultivated his brand was his expert tiptoeing of the line between innovation and idiocy. He started a bucket hat-wearing, probably not lean-consuming cult by taking what other rappers didn’t take seriously and making it his own. There wasn’t much substance in his raps, but his absurdity, heavily complemented by fairly unpredictable production from buds Yung Gud and Yung Sherman, presented a different, totally welcome total rap package.
Everything since then has been, for lack of a better word, confusing. He’s started taking himself more seriously, which is probably a good thing for his natural human development, but definitely a bad thing for his career prospects.
When he put out Warlord in February, I finished listening to it in a state of disarray. On “Hoover” he quipped, “Wake up with some liquor in me / wake up, and the world is empty / wake up, bet my bag is empty / wake up, take a trip to Paris.” What came out of this album was just dread — I wasn’t expecting a Justin Bieber-esque character shift for the worse, I didn’t want such dark, trappy production and I definitely wasn’t comfortable with a seemingly alcoholic Yung Lean.
If the young rapper wants to maintain his unique spot in hip-hop, the most sensible move would be to halt such a transition. Yung Lean is fun, but he’s most fun when he’s making the type of “meme rap” that people don’t really need to take seriously. The current climate of the genre allows room for something like this, and hopefully he provides it. There’ll continue to be quite a few “sadboys” alongside me if not.