Jonatan Leandoer Håstad is scarcely old enough at 22 to remember a time when phones weren’t pocket encyclopedias and weapons of mass communication. He probably recalls the eardrum-piercing dial-up connection sound, all spasming beeps and bloops, morse code on cyber angel-dust. He was born into a world where the printing press was still prosperous but he staked a claim when it was being torn asunder by the internet. Speaking with Highsnobiety earlier this year, Håstad, better known as Yung Lean, was asked about his fondness for the game backgammon. “It’s 50% chance, 50% skill, just like life,” he replied.
The Swede, who came to prominence in 2013, has also spoken openly of his serendipitous fall into hip-hop. “If it was the ’70s, I’d be a punk artist,” he once remarked. He’s even ventured as far as saying the music he’s currently making may not be hip-hop anymore. Everything about Lean seems fluid, even his personality. Following his addiction to the codeine-cough-syrup concoction with which he shares his name, along with a number of other substances, he found himself in 2015 “slipping into characters;” dressing as a nurse, for instance, draped in scrubs.
To the dismay of baby boomers and mental health practitioners alike, the internet, via social media, has birthed two distinct personalities: the online persona – sometimes spread out across various platforms – and the everyday human presence. In this chasm, the multiple personality realm, Håstad molded his persona. Despite possessing these apparent dissociative traits, ironically, his music has mostly been one-dimensional.
An unspecific misery can still be an honest misery, but Lean doesn’t foment any angst beyond a few bars on his latest project, Poison Ivy. Whether performative or deeply felt, all of the supposed melancholy that his Sad Boy crew – and all ensuing purveyors of emo-rap –pronounced over 808s and brooding guitars barely scraped at the surface of emotion. In fact, for the most part, it is intrinsically regressive: men posturing at emotional hand-wringing when, realistically, it delves no deeper than a 13-year-old’s Bebo tagline in 2009; songs that are less interrogative than they are mood monetizers, the Tumblrification of puppy love inscriptions written in pen underneath high school desks.
Poison Ivy is another traipse into the world of Yung Lean without actually immersing you there. Stranger, which arrived last year, was unquestionably his most streamlined album yet. Bursting through the opaque sound was a rather lightly-autotuned sing-rap. Songs like “Hunting My Own Skin,” “Red Bottom Sky” and “Agony” – complete with maudlin pop-punk choruses and disquieting sonic experiments – were some of his most fully-realized yet. It was simultaneously his least self-serious album.
Instead of capitalizing on this newfound pop edge, Lean reverts back to a colorless, monotonous drawl. He has in the past tended to sound unapproachably abject, but unlike, say, an Earl Sweatshirt, his state of comatose is not underscored by meaningful self-reflection, vivid imagery, or, at a minimum, pithy one-liners. Poison Ivy sees him double-down on the mixed-identity he has flitted between before: the numbing, imperfect rapper and the mellifluous crooner.
Cuts like “ropeman,” “friday the 13th,” and “sauron” see him flowing as apathetically as ever, stiffly churning out used-and-abused rap clichés faster than a drunk college bro haphazardly rapping the lyrics to a Post Malone song in a karaoke bar. Lines such as “Ice on froze but my head on freeze” do him no favors other than to cosign him to the mile-high stack of rappers whose ice is so frozen they’re freezing. It’s tiring.
The production, overseen in its entirety by Whitearmor, one of the least visible members of the Sad Boy collective, instils in the seven-track project a sense of dread. Dropping just days after Halloween, Poison Ivy’s hellscape is suitably cinematic and funereal. Under the auspices of Whitearmor’s moody guitars, shaky low-end and flourishes of strings and glacial, electro-pop synths, Poison Ivy turns out a decidedly okay project.
It’s the kind of atmospherics you’d expect to float by your ears while walking past a Supreme store; perfect as a late-capitalist backdrop to deciding how Instagramable aggressively branded nunchucks are, but mostly vapid and formless cloud-rap playlist filler, interesting yet faceless. The sounds are as dissociative and slippery as his character: “french hotel” is an unapologetic mesh of synth-pop and alternative R&B; “trashy”’s sun-drenched synths and twee vocal loop are suggestive of Lean’s fellow Swede, Max Martin, the pop maestro, imagining a Clams Casino song out loud; “silicon wings,” meanwhile, sounds like what Pi’erre Bourne might have produced had he worked with Lil Peep. Apart from some keenly tuneful warbling, it’s a step-back towards Warlord and Unknown Memory.
It wasn’t just the mystique of Lean’s collagist raps of American pop culture and mainstream rap materialism that made him pop, it was the plainly intoxicating sound; soporific production that owed its fluffy, chemical sonics to the likes of Raider Klan, Main Attrakionz and Clams Casino. It was faux-cerebral and flagrantly shallow. Yet it was difficult to argue against the cultural pull; here was a kid, fully born and raised on music created over 6,000 kilometers away, trying to emulate his heroes.
As a rapper, Yung Lean is not as compelling as what his cultural capital might imply. The arrival of acts like Gothboiclique and Lil Peep can be traced back to Yung Lean cosmetically, but his supposed influence is probably overstated. Alongside the opinion that he is a sound pioneer (he is not) is the argument that he makes vibes-only mood music. This can be argued as moods are even more subjective than taste, but this is due to the wizardry of his production team. And unlike someone like Playboi Carti with legitimate, undeniable charisma, Lean’s internet-irony shtick is running dry.
“I be draped in Bur—Burberry, late nights like the cemetery / Walkin’ dead, look like Fre—Freddie,” he raps on the album’s opening verse over a crystalline, murky beat, a predictable intersection of pop culture, high fashion and haunting detail. This is probably a lyrical highlight, to be truthful, and it is window-dressing. On varying occasions, Poison Ivy succeeds in capturing the shadowy romance of Gothic literature. Winding and claustrophobic, ‘bender++girlfriend’ unfurls like a nightmare. Lean, over an expansive, textured instrumental, concedes that he has been haunted for all of his life.
Some artists find meaning in the meaningless but rarely does Lean tap into this potential wellspring of emotion. Dazed musings on intimacy in the age of instant messaging, instant validation and ghosting come closest to poignancy here. “We both fucked up, I had to take you back,” he raps to the other half of a failing relationship that is tormenting him, even sleep is beyond reach.
At its best, this is music best suited for that sensory purgatory between wakefulness and sleep, between a high and a natural state of mind, and his vocals, besides the rare occasions that they veer to pop to convey yearning, are beholden to this narrative. This is not strictly a bad thing. It makes Poison Ivy a worthwhile listen. On the contrary, four albums in you shouldn’t be aiming for worthwhile, you should be aiming for vitality. Perhaps Håstad belongs to an alternate reality, though, a misunderstood alchemist with a requited love for all things online. For now, his music under the Yung Lean moniker could benefit from a new approach that seeks to float less and say more.
Yung Lean’s ‘Poison Ivy’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our reviews, head here.
- Words: Colin Gannon