by Robert Kerstens
Like most people, when I first heard Yung Lean, I thought it was a joke. It was 2013, and my friend was showing me the music video for ‘Hurt.’ I laughed at the Swedish teen, dancing in front of a green screen with his Pokémon card collection and Arizona Iced Teas. He looked and sounded like any high school burnout with dreams of moving to L.A. and being a rapper, with lines like “Louis duffel bag filled with heroin” so grossly appropriating rap tropes, it bordered on parody. In retrospect, the song has grown on me. Despite amateurish production, the song has a ghostly trap beat that became a landmark in the cloud rap movement. And although the delivery was clumsy and indifferent, the detachment was an earnest representation of what a 16-year-old ‘Sad Boy’ would sound like.
Drugs and depression have always been Yung Lean’s muse. In 2015, his substance abuse and mental health got the best of him during a period of songwriting in Miami. He grew delusional, detaching from reality and winding up in a mental hospital. Since undergoing treatment and recovering in his Swedish homeland, Lean (short for his middle name Leandoer) has grown noticeably more mature. His latest album Stranger is his most refined work to date. The lyrics are more honest, his delivery is more melodic, and the chilly production is icier than ever before. While in the past he has received a fair amount of criticism for being an outsider coasting on the innovations of more talented American rappers, Strangers makes a compelling case for Yung Lean as a singular voice infusing hip hop with the sounds of Scandinavia.
On opening track ‘Muddy Sea,’ Lean reflects on fame and the destruction it wrought on his emotional wellbeing. “Fuck being famous I don’t need all that shit,” he declares in a drowsy cadence. His numbing self-medication in Miami is painted through vivid metaphors like, “In a Percocet river I got gills like a fish.” In contrast with his prior releases, Lean’s lyrics on Stranger revel in an abstract expressionism that’s far more figurative than literal. Perhaps it’s the influence of his poet father, who nurtured Leandoer back to health in Sweden after his breakdown. The two had been estranged, but have grown close since reuniting under the unfortunate circumstances.
The lyrical imagery is even sharper on the next track ‘Red Bottom Sky.’ On the hook, he sings, “Ice dropping, red bottom sky / Ice on my feet I keep slipping,” evoking a glowing sunset over a frozen landscape. Lean’s voice sounds more confident than ever here, singing a tender melody in a stylistic leap from the apathetic mumbling of his previous releases. He skates gracefully over an icy Yung Sherman beat, cold and barren yet hauntingly beautiful, like an aurora borealis over the tundra.
As far as Yung Lean has come in terms of both delivery and lyrical dexterity on this album, he still has the disadvantage of having English as his second language. Then again, Yung Lean’s success has always leaned heavily on the contributions of his producers Yung Sherman and Yung Gud. The impact of their wind-swept beats on this album cannot be understated, lending a chilling atmosphere that perfectly reflects the bleak desolation of Lean’s past. Like Clams Casino by way of Sigur Ros, the minimal sound is distinctly Scandinavian. The beats are stark and skeletal, with analog synths fluttering gently like a flurry of snowflakes.
‘Skimask’ is the only hard-hitting track on this album, featuring a jagged industrial melody that cuts like glass over skittering hi-hats and subwoofer-rattling bass. But other than that, every other track takes a more subdued approach. On tracks like ‘Metallic Intuition’, Lean inhabits a bone-chilling ambiance as he explores his inner darkness. The drums are sparse and muted, with glassy keys floating through reverb like bubbles trapped in a frozen river. Any sharp edges are sanded down to give the tracks a smooth finish.
The album isn’t without its duds, however. On tracks like ‘Push/Lost Weekend’ and ‘Salute/Pacman,’ Lean drenches his voice in auto tune, masking lackluster lyrics about girls, cars, money, and drugs. It’s a confusing choice, since Lean proves to be more than capable of singing without auto tune on tracks like ‘Red Bottom Sky’ and ‘Drop it/Scooter.’ Lean is at his least interesting when he dips his pen in the same boastful materialism as every other rapper. When he drops the façade and lays bare his internal torment, Lean offers a glimpse at his full potential.
Before the album was released, Lean admitted in an interview that he wasn’t sure if he was making hip-hop anymore. Out of all the tracks on Stranger, ‘Agony’ strays the furthest from hip-hop, with nothing but an out-of-tune piano behind Lean’s forlorn verses. Far and away the best song on the album, the song explores Lean’s drug-induced psychosis in haunting detail. In a dark twist on Beauty and the Beast, he sings about his furniture coming to life and dancing with a candlestick. It may be a reference to when he destroyed his condo during his psychotic break, which was triggered by video-calling his girlfriend and getting a nosebleed at the same time as her. Lean refers to his girlfriend in passing several times throughout the album, but his love is never more raw than on the refrain, as he cries out in anguish, “I adore you, the sound of your skin.” His voice chokes as he describes his mental isolation as being “alone in a hole in the ground.” The song ends with an unsettling Icelandic children’s choir that settles in like a cold fog. Lean is at his most despondent and vulnerable here, and it pays off. He’s always been a Sad Boy, but ‘Agony’ will make you a Sad Boy too.