Straight talk with teenage rap star Yung Lean

Monday 08th, December 2014 / 18:40
By Maya-Roisin Slater
Yung Lean and the Sad Boys have taken the Internet by storm with their undeniably teenage attitudes, emotions and in-your-face production. Photo: Märta Thisner

Yung Lean and the Sad Boys have taken the Internet by storm with their undeniably teenage attitudes, emotions and in-your-face production.
Photo: Märta Thisner

VANCOUVER — On July 18th of this year I stood in a line of Stussy sweaters and Ralph Lauren bucket hats which stretched around the block outside of Chapel Arts waiting to see Swedish rapper Yung Lean perform on his 18th birthday. I had never heard Lean before the show, only whispers that he was a rap god at only 17 years old and represented the Internet-heavy broken-hearted youth nation. As soon as Lean stepped foot on the stage, the packed sea of awkward teenagers erupted into a primal melee of moving bodies emitting true love for the beacon of sad rap who shuffled around onstage. Standing there with my feet trampled by Nike Air Maxes with ethereal space beats bumping through the speakers I turned to one of my friends and asked him, “Do these people know this is bad music?” Four months later I’m in my pyjamas Skyping Lean with a list of pre-written questions and a bit of guilt over my first impression.

“My name is Yung Lean, I’m not a rapper,” he says quickly after I introduce myself. With short straight bangs framing his blue eyes and baby face, Lean is wearing a long-sleeved polo shirt. His appearance doesn’t seem to fit the life he’s living. Conversationally, he’s a well spoken 18-year-old with only a trace of teenage discomfort. I ask him how he started his career as a rapper, “The Internet chose me,” he replies, completely deadpan. After a very long pause he flashes me the smallest hint of a smile and elaborates: “I made a mix tape when I was 10 or 11 just recording on a Singstar mic, then I moved to Stockholm and I was, like, 15 just trying to make music. Yung Sherman and Yung Gud they had a collective and they were like, ‘Yo! Leandoer!’, they actually came up with my name because my last name is Leandoer. Anyway they were like, ‘Yo, Lean, you have to be a part of the collective!’ So we started making music together, at the time I was working at McDonald’s and I was like, ‘Fuck it, I need to make this money so I can buy a microphone.’ Then I bought a microphone and we started recording.” He cites his rap inspirations as 50 Cent, Slick Rick and his grandmother.

At the age of 16 after the video for his song “Ginseng Strip 2002” went viral, Lean became an unexpected rap sensation. North America discovered this nerdy Swedish teenager with an unphasable attitude standing at the Intersection of internet culture and swag rap. Following the fast success of his mixtapes Lavender and Unknown Death 2002 earlier this year, Lean set out on his first big tour where he travelled around North America and Europe. The stories he has from that tour sound pretty surreal, as he realized more and more with each show that there were people in obscure places a million miles away from Sweden that were absolutely devoted to him and the Sad Boys.

“Two moments stick out, one was when we were in Raleigh, North Carolina and 900 people showed up at our show. These two hillbillies, like, without shoes in ripped Yung Lean shirts they had these huge hillbilly cars, everything was filled with dust and they were like, ‘Yo, Yung Lean, we’ve been waiting for you for two hours!’ That was pretty surreal, I don’t know how my music got all the way there but somehow it did. Also, Ariel Pink came to one of our shows in LA and my dad is the biggest Ariel Pink fan so I just sent him a picture of me and Ariel and he was like, ‘Fuck you.’”

As Lean gains more attention and the fan culture around him grows he’s coming to terms with going from being the admirer to the admired. In his song “Monster” he says, “Used to be a hobby now it’s all I think about/ That’s what rap does.” Lean started out as a kid mimicking the artists he listened to, now that he’s found his own identity within the genre he approaches success differently. “There’s a particular age when you can really be a fan. If I’d met 50 Cent right now, it wouldn’t be as crazy as if I’d met him three years ago. I went from really being a fan to having fans and that’s when I stopped thinking about it as much. But that being said, I love my fans because without them I am nothing, I have to say that.” Lean’s new release Unknown Memory marks the transition from viral sensation to musician making waves with an album that’s undeniably original and, as a result, fairly controversial.

“The album was inspired by things like atmospheres, buildings, streets, cars and like material things. The lyrics I just write them on my iPhone like all the time, they could’ve been written anywhere,” Lean says of his new release. The atmospheric beats produced by Lean’s day ones Yung Gud, Yung Sherman, and White Armour – also known as the Sad Boys – sound like they were sampled from a movie about an abandoned futuristic metropolis. The lyrics and music behind them sway back and forth from contemplative and bittersweet to harsh and hypnotic synthesized noise. The first half of the album was recorded in a basement studio near the station with the McDonald’s Lean worked at to save up for recording equipment when he was 15. The album which was produced and performed almost exclusively by 18 year olds has a lot of people talking critically of Lean and his modern approach to rap.

When you’re 18 getting glanced at the wrong way by a pretty girl on the bus can send you into an emotional spiral about your image and purpose on the earth. Now just imagine being in that unsure state and having huge media outlets like Pitchfork tear apart something you spent months working on, it could really shake you up. I ask Lean what it’s like to be young and in the critical eye, “Critical attention, I don’t give a fuck about that. I’m happy that I’m young that’s a gift nature’s given to me.” In his song “Volt” he says, “Thanks to everyone who hates me/ Only makes me fit my role.” Perhaps this is the right approach, as Lean’s staying power is in the conversation about whether this music is future or fallacy. These conversations don’t seem to interest Lean much though. His focus is making songs with his friends – they all contribute and create stuff for each other – and sharing it with the world is just an afterthought.

“It’s weird, you work on something and it’s only you and your friends and family listening to it. It’s really your project, something you can proudly say is just yours, no one else has touched it so it’s kind of pure. I enjoy that state of the album, I don’t enjoy when people have opinions but I guess that’s something I have to live with. I don’t know, releasing an album is much less fun than making an album. I don’t care for releasing it, when you’re done it’s like, ‘Yeah, fuck it, now I have to share this.’”

In the next year Lean hopes to make a short film, another album, collaborate with other artists, get more involved in the theatre and be onstage with Madonna. Right now, Yung Lean and the Sad Boys, along with other Swedish cloud-rap group Gravity Boys, are heading out on another big tour, stopping by Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre on December 19th. It’s bound to be a good show and Lean has even been reading up on Canadian history in preparation. Before the Skype call ends he shares some of his favourite bits about our country, “Canada has amazing music, I listen to a lot of Crystal Castles and Skinny Puppy. I like the French attributes and shit, Toronto’s cool, and Drake.”

He says bye, I say bye, and close my computer. Afterwards in the kitchen making my daily green smoothie I think over the sound of whizzing kale about the significance of Yung Lean. Is he a temporary fixture who just blew up rapping about the right things at the right time? Or does he represent the future of music, where kids can use technology to produce stuff that’s new and scary to many and have it heavily distributed all over the world independently? There’s something about Lean that makes you want to ask the big generational questions, as he is a fresh face in a world full of musicians with calculated personalities and calculated songs. Everything about Lean is weird, unpredictable and, as a result, magnetic. “I’m a weirdo so to the weirdos I give back,” he sing-talks under layers of autotune in his song “Monster,” and after a 30-minute conversation followed by days of obsessive research into how the bizarre phenomenon that is Yung Lean and the Sad Boys came to be I can only say one thing – I don’t give a fuck about who don’t accept Lean.

Yung Lean and the Sad Boys perform at The Vogue Theatre December 19.

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