It’s frustrating writing about Yung Lean, an artist I’ve come to appreciate very much in the last two years, because there’s a sizable contingent of the hip-hop community hell-bent on negating anything he might accomplish and disregarding the enormous following he’s been slowly gathering since his first YouTube video popped up. The Lord Jamars and Old Man Ebros of the world, on some mission to confirm what is and is not hip-hop, take their self-righteous vendettas to the tops of the mountains and yell down that we shouldn’t be listening to anyone who was discovered via the internet, attempting to invalidate artists like Yung Lean, Le1f, or RiFF RAFF. With his debut album, Unknown Memory, the 18-year-old Swede has proven that he can’t be disregarded, demanding both attention and respect with a sound that he and his Sadboys clan of producers continue to hone and mature.
There are few other rappers right now who have a following that at all compares to Yung Lean’s, and while some might be quick to point out that said following is largely comprised of teens who spend too much of their time in front of computers, they must be forgetting who Yung Lean is and that he’s exactly like the crowd he appeals to: a child of the internet age, raised on Pokémon, Myspace, and N64, just like most of his diehard fans. A recent Pigeons and Planes piece on Lean made a point that sums this up as well as I think is possible, by saying, “In many cases ‘internet rapper’ is an insult, but for him it’s just reality in the same way gangsta rap is for others. He has never known a world without the internet, and that is the reality for many of his fans and followers too.”
Saying that Yung Lean has matured in the time from Unknown Death 2002 to the release of Unknown Memory seems like a pointless observation to make, because obviously an 18-year-old won’t want to make the exact same kind of music he did when he was 16 (just look at Earl Sweatshirt). But something about the maturation of Yung Lean proves that not only is he worthy of the hype, but he’s well aware what is at stake and intends to make the most of the opportunity. His lyrics are darker and more introspective, but he hasn’t lost his youthful sense of humor, like when he expertly sandwiches a reference to his drink of choice between lines about knowing his true friends and remembering where he came from on “Sandman”. Gone is the mumbling outsider aesthetic, replaced by an artist now confident in his abilities and surrounded by the best kind of enablers, his Sadboy posse, who provide the production for the entire album.
Yung Gud, who continues to make a name for himself as one of the most engaging producers in the game, had a hand in eight of the thirteen tracks, three of which are entirely instrumental. The synergy between the two is palpable and has been since Lean first burst onto the scene, and it’s clear that the two are evolving together, from the Charmanders of the first mixtape to the Charmeleons we see before us now. Actually, let’s go with Squirtle, because I can’t think of a crew more like the Squirtle Squad than the Sadboys. The like-mindedness of the clique is what makes the sound click, akin to whenever Action Bronson and Party Supplies or Kool A.D. and Amaze 88 work together, and a connection like that is rare enough without adding on that these kids haven’t even hit 20 years old yet.
When Unknown Death 2002 came out, Lean didn’t yet have an army of detractors to deal with, but now as this album comes out, it’s well documented that he does, and he handles that with more aplomb than you could expect from a fresh-faced rapper. Usually, the first move of an insulted rapper is to go on the offensive, seeking out the weaknesses of the hater and attacking them; just look at Wale and his Complex fiasco. Lean not only lets others’ hate flow, but commends those doling it out. On “Volt”, a highlight of the album, he raps, “Thanks to everyone who hates me/ Only makes me fit my role.” To be so self-aware and able to handle criticism is something that Yung Lean should teach every other rapper/musician/human being. Not only is he aware of his critics, but the knock-off versions that come along with any rapper who finds his lane on the internet. The Sadboys production style isn’t a difficult one to ape, nor is Lean’s delivery, but no one does it the way they do it. And not for lack of trying, as Yung Lean addresses on “Monster”, saying, “Too many lames trying to do what I’ve done,” and then going on to talk about his custom silk loafers. The fact that there are so many Yung Lean knock-offs and none of them have risen to any sort of prominence begs the question: Why aren’t people taking Yung Lean more seriously? He’s a musician that people model their sound after, he has an aesthetic, goofy as it may be, that is far-reaching and connects with a huge number of listeners, and he continues to intrigue those who are willing to pay attention for more than a minute. Any musician worth their salt would aspire to hit those three targets, and Lean and the Sadboys have accomplished it with seemingly little trouble doing so.
Unknown Memory is a completely different beast than Unknown Death 2002, much less reliant on references and immature humor, and far more contemplative and atmospheric. “Ghost Town” is the only song with a feature, bringing Kanye West protégé Travi$ Scott into the fold, and has an anthemic chorus about Lean’s total lack of interest in anyone other than himself and a nod to his city. The hooks are stronger on this record, and for a young rapper, Yung Lean has always had a knack for crafting earworm hooks like on UD2002’s “Lemonade” and “Emails”. This time around it’s tracks like “Ghost Town” and especially “Ice Cold Smoke” (“Just got a check, might burn it up”) that will stick in the back of your head for weeks to come. Lead single “Yoshi City” is the strongest track on the album, with Yung Gud’s fluttering synths providing a perfect backdrop for a song where Lean does the most straightforward rapping you’ll hear on the entire album, mostly about loneliness and smoking weed. Surprisingly for a teenage Swede, there is a wealth of emotional depth as well as some of the more clever braggadocio you’ll hear from a rapper in 2014. I’m hesitant to call it satire because I don’t think there’s an intent to elicit laughter from the listener, but Yung Lean takes some of the more familiar rap game tropes and flips them on their heads in a way that only he is capable of. As long as he’s got his Louis duffel bag full of drugs and some fresh Nikes, he’s doing alright, and that makes for a pretty damn interesting approach if you ask me.
Essential Tracks: “Yoshi City”, “Volt”, and “Ice Cold Smoke”