“Where the hell did you find this?” a confused friend asks while watching and listening to Yung Lean’s “Hurt” music video for the first time. The video features a random compilation of images and clips — Japanese writing, neon colors everywhere, Lean “cooking” with Arizona Iced Tea, computer screens from the early ’00s. I think of a response to explain that the Swedish rapper’s style and overall aesthetic is meant to be ironic and that its perplexing nature is purposeful.
Even then I am faced with more questions. Yes, he knows that it’s not actually 2002. No, he is not always a “sad boy.” I don’t know if he actually has a Louis duffle bag filled with heroin. No, this isn’t a joke — well, not really.
Despite my efforts, I could not find the words to communicate the appeal of Lean’s backward sound.
This encounter took place well over a year ago, and I am still unable to fully encapsulate the enigma that is Yung Lean. I think he is something you “get” immediately or will never really appreciate.
Lean’s flow is fairly relaxed, rapping his lyrics with a slack style. With contrast to the mainstream rappers of today, with artists like Wacka Flocka and Joey Bada$$, there is no urgency in his delivery. Rather, his style is more closely linked to other less-than-conventional rappers like Lil B.
Mumbling his way through lyrics that don’t make sense most of the time, Lean somehow manages to create something infectious. For the most part, he sticks to the general rap lyric agenda — bragging about various states of inebriation and his ability to “get with” women — while somehow maintaining his “emotional boy” persona. Though entirely unprecedented, after a few listens, you can’t deny Lean’s swagger.
Even more striking than the lyrics are the beats supporting Lean’s voice. Most tracks include some combination of classic hip-hop snare drums and electronic-based melodies. The instrumentation is so intricate that, even without Lean’s vocals, it could stand on its own as a chill electro beat. There are hints of synth, echoing background vocals and round, rolling tones to create a sound that is undeniably Lean’s.
Traditionally, one would think that such low-key background music and slack style wouldn’t allow for an ignorant rap feel, yet Lean manages to defy these conventions. Tracks like “Ghosttown” and “Ginsberg Strip 2002” are hype in their own sense of the word, they do not need to be in your face to get their point across.
What may be the most intriguing aspect of Lean’s identity is the way in which he presents himself and his music. Typifying his character are the bucket hats, the references to himself and his crew as “sad boys,” filling his music videos with psychedelic colors and making frequent references to years 2001-2003. The way in which he markets himself is truly a product of the Internet. It makes no cohesive sense, but it’s cool and it works.
Maybe Yung Lean’s strength is that he is undefinable — he can be compared to others while still running a league all his own. I don’t think I will ever know how or why Yung Lean does what he does, all I know is that I’m hooked.