With the album Stranger, Yung Lean escapes his viral past

By NIKITA SHTARKMAN | November 16, 2017


COURTESY OF DREW YORK/ CC BY 2.0 Yung Lean’s new album, Stranger, shows surprising depth and lyricism.

Yung Lean is one of hip-hop’s most unique characters. Try to think of a more unlikely success story: A teenage kid from Stockholm and his ragtag group of friends play around making spacey, atmospheric music. It goes viral almost instantly, and, within a few years, they’re touring globally.

Yung Lean isn’t a rapper who should have blown up. He’s an awkward European kid who wears a heavy winter coat and holds two Arizona Iced Teas akimbo while mumbling about having sexual relations with a Zooey Deschanel look-alike.

Like many other rappers who rapidly gain exposure after a viral outburst, Lean started to lose his shine fairly quickly after his first few releases.

While a small set of die-hard fans continued to support him, he quickly lost the public’s attention. Since his last, fairly mediocre project, 2016’s Warlord, I hadn’t thought about or listened to any Yung Lean.

Then, on Nov. 10, Lean dropped his third project, Stranger. What got me interested in this latest album was the short film of the same name that Lean released beforehand.

In it we see a new Lean: a frank and earnest artist. Intrigued, I checked out the album and found that this is by far Lean’s best work.

This album solidifies his transition from a meme to an actual artist that is producing worthwhile music.

Lean’s rapping has improved. On his older work, Lean’s auto-tuned babbling was little more than a joke. The only thing he contributed was an atonal sound to fill out the soundscape.

His voice only served to further the aesthetic. On this project, Lean’s voice, while still relatively far back in the mix, is given far more space.

His writing is also now significantly more focused and comprehensible. His trademark humor is still there, “Bitches ‘round the yard they follow me like Pacman” is the hook to “Salute/Pacman,” one of the more braggadocio, fun tracks on the album.

However, along with all the joke-y rap, Lean mixes in lyrics that further the cold, lonely and sad atmosphere that the album ventures to create.

Many people can’t listen to Yung Lean at all, which I understand; he is a grating artist. There are times when I can barely stand his music. Still, even if you think you can’t make it through a single Lean track, give “Agony,” Stranger’s second to last track, a chance.

“Agony” might be Yung Lean’s greatest accomplishment. Here, he is at his most vulnerable — there is no massive, overwhelming beat behind him, just a quiet rhythmic piano. Lean’s voice is hushed, but he sounds confident. His delivery is honest and confessional.

On “Agony,” Lean picks his words carefully, creating something much more poetic than some of his other raps. The way he plays with language is actually super interesting, “Isolation caved in/I adore you, the sound of your skin” serves as a weirdly beautiful and touching chorus.

Lean uses abstract and somewhat strange similes to describe the simplest things. “I’m dancing with a candlestick tonight,” another of the song’s lyrics, is a phenomenal way to talk about being alone. It toys with both the idea of a dancing flame and negates the joyous connotation of the word “dancing.”

This the kind of song that a rapper like XXXTentacion would dream of making; it sounds like depression, sadness and isolation.

While “Agony” is a serious standout, this album also has Yung Lean’s second-best song to date: “Red Bottom Sky.” The beat is bouncy, with rumbling sub-bass and a very sparse drum rhythm. Lean exchanges his rap voice for a sing-song, auto-tuned delivery.

The interplay between the melodies is catchy and the lyrics are fun to listen to. The hook on this song could easily be found on a Rihanna or PartyNextDoor album.

Another stand-out is “Hunting My Own Skin,” which also has a melodic hook followed by some quick, fun verses. Its beat is goofy and off-kilter, but Lean picks a quick-fire Drake-like flow that fits over it perfectly.

As with every Yung Lean project, you have to credit his incredible producers; the beats on this project are ridiculous. They are somehow simple, atmospheric, lush, atonal and melodic all at once.

The Sadboys’ exceptionally talented producing squad — made up of Yung Gud and Yung Sherman — create this dynamic, vivid and cold soundscape for Lean. The album sounds like a futuristic and brutal Stockholm.

There are some obvious missteps. “Metallic Intuition” is a track that seems to be getting a lot of praise, but in my opinion, it is actually executed poorly. Lean’s rapping doesn’t line up with the beat, making the track sound amateurish. While the beat helps build up tension with short quick melodies, the song never reaches the climax it promises.

There are many other tracks like “Metallic Intuition,” where the slow, dawdling beat and Lean’s atonal delivery combine to create something boring at best and unlistenable at worst. These are the points where this album falls short of greatness, and they’re usually found on the longer tracks.

For this reason, I hope that Lean keeps building on this new melodic direction. His singing, while completely atonal, works for some reason. If he sits down with his producers and creates an album in the vein of Future’s HNDRXX — leaving his rapper persona aside and focusing on singing — I could see him developing a more polished, more novel sound.

This sounds completely insane to say, and if you told me in 2015 that I would be writing these words, I wouldn’t believe you, but I am excited to see where Yung Lean goes next. I think that this project could really be a stepping stone to even bigger and better things.

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