Yung Lean is Still the Same Guy Smoking Loud Pack
The year is 2013: memes exist, but the most popular ones all follow the same "TOP TEXT," "BOTTOM TEXT" template from a set of about a dozen images ranging from Bad Luck Brian to the Philosoraptor. Simpler times. 2013 was also the year that Yung Lean released "Hurt," with a music video that became a meme in its own right. It depicted a Swedish teenager standing in front of a green screen vaporwave aesthetic flexing his Arizona Iced Tea and Hershey's Strawberry Syrup. The "Hurt" video was a glimpse into the oversaturated, mindless future of social media and internet culture wrought by our current age of decadence. That's a pretty wordy and contrived analysis for a 16-year-old showing off his Pokemon card collection and talking about his Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with heroin, but such an interpretation has been made before and exists for a reason. Lean himself is amused by the layered, in-depth breakdowns of some of his most thoughtless and straightforward early work.
"You can put any type of aspect into my music as you want and that's what you should do, I love that." Lean said at a Q&A event at Trinity College late last year. "I hear a Beach Boys song and I think they're talking about waves, but they're just talking about their morning."
With his latest album Starz, Lean's sonic palette and lyrics have come a long way from his teenage years. As he's matured he's turned shocking lines: "Popping pills like zits / While someone vomits on your mosquito tits" from "Ginseng Strip 2002" into wittier bars: "Hang with me I make a fortune / My style ain't got no father like an orphan" on "Pikachu." Lean's music has always been honest: he said in the Trinity Q&A that "Ginseng Strip is as genuine as Blue Plastic," and although the subject matter may evolve, the feelings expressed remain just as lucid. Listen to an old Yung Lean song and he may sound young, but not dated. That's a credit to not just him but the entire "Sad Boys" and "Drain Gang" collectives, consisting of Yung Sherman, Gud, whitearmor, Bladee, Ecoo2K, and Thaiboy Digital, who now seem like pioneers of the moody and raw Soundcloud era as well as furthering the "cloud rap" subgenre started by other internet-based artists like Lil B, SpaceGhostPurpp, and Clams Casino. The Swedish teenagers also deserve credit for embracing the growing "mumble rap" and melodic trends that now dominate the genre, and it's no surprise that contemporary rap stars like Playboi Carti and Travis Scott are fans of Lean and have sought collaborations. His influence on modern rap music is undeniable, and on his latest album he's never sounded more comfortable in his own skin.
Lean's music has always been a colorful report on his past, and Starz is the most complete summation of his life yet, reflecting the sentiment of an elder 23-year-old who just wants to feel like a kid again. This is probably Lean's most youthful sounding album since 2014's Unknown Memory, perhaps a credit to the fact that it's the first album he's made mostly sober, giving his lyrics and melodies a lucidity that matches the delicate instrumentals on tracks like "Outta My Head" and "Acid at 7/11." There are numerous subtle and obvious allusions to boyhood on Starz, be it in the names of the songs or through the lyrics, like how he sets the scene of "Butterfly Paralyzed" with summer vacation imagery, or wishing that he could go back to the days when he would sleep in grass on "Starz." He yearns for a simplicity that may no longer exist, and his honesty makes those cravings even more relatable: it may be irrational, but he wants his partner to "feed [him] lies" and not talk about their feelings, pleading with them to "just live in the moment" on "Outta My Head." For someone who has been through hell, it's therapeutic to hear him fall back into place on Starz.
The serenity of many Starz tracks is especially notable considering the dark and chaotic sounds that defined 2016's Warlord. Substance abuse and a loss of control are key themes of Warlord, be it him rapping about how when the cocaine enters his system he feels invincible but also trapped on "Hocus Pocus," or when he's rotting his lungs to deliver the memorable hook "I don't give a mothefuck / Watching Star Wars smoking pot" on the rap-metal hybrid "Miami Ultras." These habits made for captivating music, but an unsustainable lifestyle. A formative trip to Miami where much of Warlord was recorded turned tragic with the well documented death of a friend, and it changed the direction of Lean's music. Whereas the "Sad Boys" moniker began as somewhat of a joke intended to draw interest with subject matter that never went much "sadder" than heartbreak, it took a more serious turn after Warlord, with Lean and his producers exploring darker topics such as trauma, addiction, and depression. The fallout from Miami put Lean in a mental hospital and eventually back to Sweden to live with his parents, and his 2017 follow-up Stranger includes references to hospitalizations that included hallucinations of hearing "shooters on the roof" and an inability to finish his sentences. If Warlord was the bender that got out of hand, then Stranger and 2018's Poison Ivy are Lean attempting to pick up the pieces.
Lean himself wasn't sure if he'd make it out of Miami alive, and he grapples with feelings of guilt and despair on many post-Miami tracks. But some of those feelings were just too harsh to share under the Yung Lean name, leading him to release his most "brutally honest" work under the jonatanleandoer96 alias. Since Warlord, it seems like a part of Lean died, a part which is fully fleshed out under jonatanleandoer96, with Lean embracing his bare voice over stripped back, gothic instrumentals to give the sense that he really may not want to exist anymore. He began mixing the two personas on Stranger and Poison Ivy, but aside from a couple standouts like "Agony" and "Yellowman" it made for an awkward fit. Starz is Lean's most fully realized project in blending the two identities. The album opener, "My Agenda," begins with a sinister and distorted beat drop, and the accompanying video complements the schizophrenic instrumental as well as his varied flows. The video depicts him being chased and shot by a devilish figure that turns out to also be himself, who at one point puts the "good" Lean in a coffin. It's as if he's at war with himself, but it may be a moot point considering that Lean is unable to best his evil side and it seems to suggest that he is already dead. The song sounds out of place in relation to the rest of the album, yet it paints the picture of an anarchic world that Lean seeks to escape from but knows will always be a part of him.
There are other examples of jonatanleandoer96 influence that are not as extreme and make for a more fluid mix, like his soft delivery on "Low," which combines his rapping ability with the singing voice that he experiments more frequently with under his alternate alias. ”Low” has elements of a jonatanleandoer96 song meshed with whitearmor's futuristic production, and he references the Miami events in a more meditative tone with the lines, "My dreams are in heaven I won't sell you them / Yeah, I lost a friend but we will meet again." The merging of the two identities is a new sound for Lean, and he seems more at peace than ever. When he says that he doesn't care about being famous, you believe him, and in an April interview with Kerwin Frost Lean spoke about how it now feels like being normal is the new way of being different.
"Now everyone wants to be a rapper, everyone wants to be a photographer; no one wants to be regular." Lean told Kerwin Frost. "Being regular is the most honest thing you can be."
At a time when it feels like almost nothing is normal, Starz provides a much-needed 44-minute escape. It may no longer be possible for Lean to return to the simple life that he craves throughout Starz, but the radiant world that he's built in its place should suit him just fine.