Dissecting the Weird Raps of Swedish Teen Rapper Yung Lean
Yung Lean's in the middle.
If you've ever wondered about the meaning or history of a specific online trend or concept --Doge, Bitcoin, Slender Man, or that creepy Nicolas Cage face -- a remedy exists at Know Your Meme (www.knowyourmeme.com). The site dedicates thousands of pages to explaining the significance of famous Internet ideas, fads, and people. Four months ago, Know Your Meme user Molly Horan created a comprehensive entry about Yung Lean -- the alias of a bucket-hat-loving, baby-faced 18-year-old Swedish MC named Jonatan Leandoer Håstad. Know Your Meme houses pages on several topical musicians and songs, but if there's ever been an artist whose ascent is worth tracking and analyzing on the self-avowed "Internet meme database," it's Yung Lean.
Pull up any notable Yung Lean YouTube clip released in the first half of 2013 -- we'll run with the video for "Oreomilkshake," from the Lavender EP -- to catch up. Like Lean's other fledgling material, the song is swag-happy hip-hop loaded with seemingly random pop cultural nods used to flesh out boasts that can be brilliant, stupid, nonsensical, or all three at once. (Your mileage may vary on "I'm so real you can call me reality / Even Rihanna couldn't get rid of me" and "Bitch, I am Mini-Me.") "Oreomilkshake" also mentions, among other things, the drink in its name, Charlie Sheen, Mr. T, Rush Hour 3 (on DVD, natch), hamburgers with bacon and guac, Ghostbusters, glory holes, sports bras, Freddy Krueger, and Arizona Iced Tea (the latter being Lean's signature favorite drink).
His flow has the groggy, awkward pace of someone who just received a nasty head wound but is still trying to talk, anyway. In keeping with Yung Lean's general aesthetic, his verses are backed by a lush, dazed cloud rap beat that envelops his voice. The production comes courtesy of Yung Gud, a member of Sad Boys -- Yung Lean's crew who talk about sadness as if being sad is a quality to aspire to.
The "Oreomilkshake" video's gaudy, cut-and-paste visuals, meanwhile, are absurdity of Adult Swim proportions and about as rambly as Lean's wordplay. Guns, goats, dolphins, flowers, hearts, snowflakes, dollar signs, a keyboard's "escape" key, and various video effects -- plus footage of Lean himself -- are inserted, again, randomly. Working in tandem, the audio and imagery are mesmerizing in their weirdness and amateurishness. It's exceptionally difficult to tell whether Yung Lean's making a serious stab at weirdo rap, ironically riffing on hip-hop braggadocio, doing a bit of both, or something completely different. The project is a choose-your-own-adventure waiting for you to parse it.
Whatever the case may be, Yung Lean sure has caught on. After releasing his initial output in early 2013, he's picked up millions of views and listens and established a cult following heavily made up on rap fans and teenagers (sometimes both). Outlets big (the New York Times, Pitchfork, the New Yorker) and small also have covered and evaluated his work. Less than a year after uploading his first YouTube video, Lean toured overseas, resulting in his earliest U.S. dates being sell-out shows in New York City.
Though he likely would decry the idea of being associated with memes, the viral value of sharing Yung Lean's work undoubtedly launched him toward international notoriety. His work's polarizing character is his greatest weapon. "People get really, really angry or really happy when they hear [his music]," Yung Gud told Red Bull Music Academy in June. "That's his main attraction. He's going to make people feel some type of way."
For ideas and people that quickly come to online prominence for their novelty value, the Internet can be an especially fickle, easily bored place. With his bona fide success, Yung Lean stands at an impasse where his moves in the next couple of years will determine his long-term viability -- the difference between being remembered as a craze and someone built to be bigger than the Internet all along.