How To Be A Famous Rapper Without Leaving Your Bedroom — The Story of Yung Lean

Lean In: Yung Lean, Work, and the Will to Follow.
By    October 15, 2014

 Doc Zeus has never been a sad boy, boy. 

Maybe I’m just cynical, but it seems you barely have to leave your bedroom to be a “famous rapper” these days. The combination of inexpensive, computer-based production software (i.e. Pro Tools or Logic) with the democratization of distribution via social media, has lead to an outbreak of rappers whose overnight celebrity spreads with the hostile virality of ebola. Whether you’re a gang-repping, gun-toting teen in the Chicago drill movement like Chief Keef or an art-savant weirdo like the Based God himself, you can go from YouTube sensation to the cover of The Fader in the blink of an internet hype cycle.

Of course, just like U.S. political elections, democracy doesn’t ensure that the most worthy musicians will be the candidates selected by the masses. Consider the utterly baffling rise of Swedish, amateur swag rap troubadour Yung Lean. Over the course of a short year, Lean has gone from YouTube curio to something approaching a genuine international rap phenomenon. Born Jonatan Leandoer Håstad, Yung Lean functions less as a genuine artist and more as a sentient collection of some of modern rap’s most obnoxious tropes. Combine the sad boy atmospherics of Drake & Noah “40” Shebib, the swaggy inanity of your average fashion-obsessed hype beast, pour the purple-hued concoction into the body of an awkward white teenager, and give him the accent of the Swedish Chef. The result is one of the least talented rappers to become a “thing” in known memory.

Yung Lean’s independent debut album, Unknown Memory, is a cloudy mess of poorly-rapped amateurism. It often lacks a halfway basic competency. The production value is poor; the mix is shrill and tinny; it sounds as if it were literally recorded in his teenage bedroom somewhere in a Stockholm suburb. As a rapper, Yung Lean flails to stay on beat. He lurches heavily into auto-tuned vocals that miraculously manage to remain completely off-key with many of song’s melodies. The poor mixing doesn’t help Lean’s dry, monotonous, and heavily accented voice. This is exactly the type of unwanted material you would aggressively unsubscribe to if it happened to affront your Gmail on a random Friday afternoon.

Thematically, Unknown Memory is filtered through the perspective of a teenage art student who thinks being introspective is the same as being profound. Yung Lean is truly, painfully, epically sad and wants you to know this without exploring any of the specifics that would actually make his suffering remotely interesting. The production largely provided by his “Sad Boys” clique (*Dead Ass*) is the type of tone-driven, atmospheric, sub-Clams Casino beats that are totally cliché at this point. Meanwhile, the album suffers from an abundance of sad robot solipsism and unconvincing swag rap that is nearly unbearable in even the most skilled of practitioners. At times, he delivers couplets like, “aristocrat without the progress/roses all on her wedding dress, blood in her mouth, I’m a mess,” with a unfocused confusion that belies a hack who thinks the key to poetry is vague, dark imagery. You can’t help but roll your eyes at his “depression.”

What truly makes this is one of the worst albums you could possibly hear in 2014 (or pretty much any other year) is the rampant, unexplored cultural appropriation. Lean liberally cribs the slang, swagger and even some of the substance from a host of African-American rappers that he couldn’t possibly have interacted with while living on an entirely different continent. Lean raps about “riding in the whip,” “ice”, and “getting money”with the specificity that seems incongruent to anything remotely resembling any reality he’s seen outside of a YouTube video.

On one hand, this reflects the omnipresence of American hip-hop culture across the globe. It makes logical sense that European teenagers would adapt hip-hop slang through American cultural hegemony. To his credit, Lean doesn’t adopt an affected southern accent like Iggy Azalea. However, he seems incapable transcending the appropriation. Everything comes across as either overtly parodic or outright theft of better, more talented artists. At least Iggy moved to the U.S. before she agreed to let T.I. be her ghostwriter.

Despite all of my ill will towards this album, I’m not sure that any of this is actually Yung Lean’s fault. As a real-life human being, Jonatan Håstad barely qualifies as a legal adult. Given his eighteen years of age, you can easily excuse the poor quality as the juvenile creation of a budding student-artist attempting  to expand their sound. Hell, while I think the production is derivative on this album, you can see the faintest glimmers of an young artist that, in an alternate timeline, given proper maturity and seasoning, might grow into someone worth your time.

The problem with the democratization of the rap game is that it gives a mass audience to artists who have no business getting a mass audience at this point in their careers. Some things are better left in your bedroom, where nobody else can hear them.