Yung Lean may have battled with psychosis in the past, but he’s probably the least delusional rapper you’ll ever meet. He exists in an industry overpopulated by artists on the come-up, desperate to be noticed and willing to do anything to be within arms reach of their idols. While the ether fight for relevancy, strenuously trying to be the next Yeezy, Eminem or Kendrick, Yung Lean has been pioneering new sounds, peculiar rhymes and embracing sorrow since the beginning. Stranger, his remarkably-formed third LP, proves that immensely.
Real name Jonatan Håstad, Yung Lean first appeared back in 2013, becoming an underground success on account of the acid-tongued, gloriously amateur SoundCloud cut “Ginseng Strip 2002.” Hip-hop enthusiasts didn’t know whether to dismiss this baby-faced rapper as a high school gag, or gawk in amazement at his crude and inventive rhyming ability. Many thought it was a joke at the expense of our generation’s willingness to be drawn in by anything remotely obscure: a 16-year-old Stockholm boy, dancing and donning a bucket hat while rapping about “poppin’ pills like zits” and rhyming “mademoiselle” with “Alfred Nobel”. It was weird – heck, perhaps even Yung Lean knew that – but stoner boys and music bloggers were utterly beguiled by it.
Lean went on to become the poster boy for modern guerrilla hip-hop: releasing two LPs, copious mixtapes, selling out venues internationally and collaborating with Frank Ocean on 2016’s Blonde. He marks his solo return with his most hazy, beautifully-produced and emotionally frank effort to date. Stranger is 14 tracks of sonic and lyrical experimentation, stemming from somewhere deeper than the salacious wordplay that made him famous.
Five years on, Yung Lean’s lyrics still do sound slightly nonsensical – gimmicky, some may say – but the conviction and emotion lies in his deadpan, monotone delivery. Like random lines dreamt up in the middle of the night, tapped into an iPhone note and pieced together, bleary-eyed, in the morning, the songs on Stranger have mounds of atmosphere and make sense thematically, but never follow a through narrative. As a rapper, that’s one of his greatest charms: blatancy and hackneyed ideas aren’t things he reduces himself to – and if he does, it seldom seems serious.
The gentle, cosmic love song “Red Bottom Sky” is a great testimony to that. It sees Lean ponder his love for a girl while in a rut of isolation and sadness. “You say I’m in my mind too much, well, I know that suits you,” he confesses, referring to “voices in [his] head” and comparing his paranoia to a “sledgehammer.”
Despondency is spattered throughout Stranger; inescapable sometimes, most likely thanks to the mindset that Lean made this record in. Recovering from the sudden loss of his manager, America’s father of millennial avant-garde music Barron Machat, Lean has spent two years coming to terms with loss. Once addicted to codeine and Xanax, he’s returned from a stint in the States to his homeland to make his last two records; the sadness, once ironic, suddenly real.
Even when dealing with fickle, tongue-in-cheek rap tunes, the album always carries the lumbering hallmark of Lean’s iconic vocal technique. Often replicated but never matched, his monotone drone makes all of his music wildly unsettling and slightly obscure, so much so that most music critics still find it impossible to see past it. But while many seem ready to dismiss him as a serious artist on account of this, Stranger‘s morose spirit utilizes it so beautifully that it might just convert his most fervent haters.
The record’s cloud rap-inspired production, courtesy of Sad Boy collaborators Yung Gud, Yung Sherman and Whitearmor, is one of its greatest assets. In a similar vein to Arca and Jesse Kanda, there’s a ruminative distance between the reality of what their genre usually sounds like and the work they’ve produced here. Each track sounds simple in terms of its composition, but its scarcity turns it into something much more vast: populated by echoes, pitched vocals and dragged-out sound.
The effervescent “Hunting My Own Skin” merges predictable rap lyricism with a bouncing, child-like production. “I’m just trying to pop all the bottles, fuck the feds,” Lean raps, but his excitement is short-lived. The final third of Stranger is populated with heavy, haunting songs – some confessions, others party tracks, but all stemming from a strange, dark place.
In particular, there’s a twisted sadness to “Agony,” a melancholic piano serenade that’s unlike anything you’ve heard a hip-hop artist deliver this year. “When I’m afraid I lose my mind. It’s fine, it happens all the time,” he wallows, before delivering a surprising, gorgeously written bridge: “Isolation caved in. I adore you, the sound of your skin.” Later, a woman’s voice – perhaps that of the girl he loves – comes in to harmonize.
Rap records are rarely as reflective or honest as this is. For every traditional hip-hop cut (“Salute to the gang / Know where we hang”), there’s a spectral, semi-terrifying ballad about the torn-up contents of Yung Lean’s heart (“Cut off my fingers to touch your smile”); nobody can deny the intent, delivery and production here is always riveting.
Like a line of lavender-laced cocaine, Stranger is a record that sonically paints a picture of the moment dreamy languor, melancholy and euphoria meet. Few rappers can achieve such a tapestry of emotions in one record, but Yung Lean’s willingness to shamelessly wear his heart on his sleeve makes him a rap lyricist for the ages. Whether you “get” his off-kilter style or not, Stranger is a bold, challenging and enchanting piece of work. Leave your preconceptions behind: irrefutably, hip-hop has turned a new leaf, and Yung Lean is the sad boy leading its Gen Z revolution.
Yung Lean’s ‘Stranger’ is out on November 10, pre-order it here.