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A poem by Yung Lean

TextAlex Peters

Step into the strange mind of your favourite Sad Boy

the deadliest weapon
Steel thighs under black roots
Eternal night
Became one flesh
Every touch
nitemare on Disney street
Shattered mirrors from the yellow brigade
Everytime we touch
Broken stars” – Yung Lean

Yung Lean, real name Jonatan Leandoer Håstad, emerged into our cultural consciousness five years ago when the video for his song “Ginseng Strip 2002” went viral. Springboarding off of the “Cloud Rap” scene, a genre of spacey and atmospheric hip hop being produced by artists such as Clams Casino, Main Attrakionz, Lil B, and A$AP Rocky, Lean polarised music fans and critics who didn’t know what to make of this white Swedish teenage rapper.

Subverting hip hop traditions, expectations and tropes in both style and content, it felt impossible to know how seriously we were supposed to take Yung Lean’s music. But there was something strangely compelling about those deadpan, teenage ennui vocals over beats that were syrupy and hypnotic, and Lean became an internet sensation. His lyrics and visuals, especially in those early Unknown Death 2002 songs, were a chaotic melange of tropes and references. He embraced internet aesthetics, 90s childhood nostalgia (Pokemon, Mario Kart, Nintendo 64), and anime (all seen in the music video for “Hurt”). Hip-hop materialism and drug culture were taken to an extreme and stripped of all context (“Louis duffel bag filled with heroin / Louis Louis Louis duffel bag filled with heroin”).

Elevating it out of a state of complete vacant randomness, however, were moments that suggested a higher level of awareness. In “Hurt” Lean compares himself to Japanese surrealist writer Haruki Murakami (“Bitch I’m Murakami”) whose work often features a sad boy, or sad man-boy, protagonist, a character Lean and his “Sad Boys” collaborators can relate to. Of course this literary reference is then immediately followed by “shawty sucking on my pastrami, get that salami.”

The absurdism of Lean’s lyrics and videos was matched by his style, to which Lean seemed to apply the same random-generator process he did to everything else. Hip hop and trap style was mixed with skater culture and high-end Japanese brands like Comme des Garcons and Undercover. Uggs, dresses, flame prints, hair dyed blue, or green, or orange. The HYPEBeast bucket hat fashion of “Ginseng Strip 2002” evolved into high-end urban techwear as Lean began wearing ACRONYM and Arc’Teryx.

Then there’s the face-painting. Lean’s Instagram and performances are filled with him wearing experimental, often horror-inspired looks – a demonic slayer, a zombie prisoner. This horror theme extends to his heavily tattooed body – so at odds with Lean’s cherubic, baby-faced features. Alongside his “Sad Boys” chest piece, “Leandoer” across the knuckles, Disney’s Pluto on the side of his neck, and “2001” down his arm, Lean has various other Grim Reaper-like and demonic looking figures dotted around his body, not to mention Freddy Krueger on one arm. Bouncing between the generic and the absurd, Lean’s the ultimate aesthetic icon for our confused and conflicted age.  

Since the inaugural “Ginseng Strip 2002”, Lean has continued to make music. Three albums – Unknown Memory (2014), Warlord (2016) and Stranger (2017) – and various singles and mixtapes both as Yung Lean and under other aliases. Lean’s style, videos, and music has matured from the HYPEBeast viral hits of his early career, moving away from vacant detachment and, finally, sinking into genuine emotion and thoughts. 

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