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Yung LeanPhotography Zak Arogundade

Yung Lean: strange days

On his third studio album Stranger, the Stockholm rapper increasingly blurs the line between Jonatan Leandoer Håstad and Yung Lean

When Jonatan Leandoer Håstad calls me from his apartment in Sweden, he’s recovering from a brief trip to Shanghai. Having spent two days flying there and back to play a show and open a pop-up shop, he wasn’t given a lot of time to fully enjoy it. “I liked China, though,” he says, in between musings about a bizarre, Nutella-tasting pork dish he tried there and one suspiciously insect-like meal. “It was very original. It was very much itself. (They) didn’t really care about anything else.”

It’s a quote that sums up a lot about Leandoer. As Yung Lean, the 21-year-old Stockholm rapper has created a world that is very much his own. His inspired and often surreal take on hip hop connects deeply with his often ultra-dedicated fanbase, although it’s left just as many listeners confounded and struggling to figure him out. When Lean first emerged, he was a 16-year-old internet curiosity who dubbed himself a “sad boy” and proudly rapped about his emotions and his favourite American drinks (namely Arizona Iced Tea and Gatorade); since then his music has become darker, stranger, and more unpredictable. “I guess I’m just proud that I kept on working, not becoming just a viral hit,” he says.

This month, Lean is returning with his third studio album, Stranger – not that he’s been quiet recently. In 2016 he put out no less than four projects: an album and mixtape as Yung Lean, a limited cassette EP as Jonatan Leandoer127, and a digital album with Död Mark. The former is an outlet for ideas that are either too avant-garde or too rough-and-ready for Yung Lean, while the latter is a punk band he formed with Gud, his frequent collaborator and producer. This is all alongside launching his own clothing line, modelling for Calvin Klein, and appearing on Frank Ocean’s remarkable album Blonde.

Stranger is an appropriate title for the album, considering he’s yet again reinventing what we’ve come to know as Yung Lean. Sparse and more melodic than his previous output, the album feels directly affected by his side-projects, and something of a respite from the oppressive sounds of 2016’s Warlord. Recorded in Miami at a time when Lean was over-indulging in drugs and having recently lost his close friend and manager, Barron Machat, that album saw Lean delve far too deep into the darker recesses in his mind. “Stranger is much easier, a neon, light-blue sound,” Lean says. “If Warlord was going through the gates of hell, you would come out the other end into a garden and Stranger is playing with medieval naked people laying in the garden.”

Lean’s early music was a take on then-cutting edge American hip hop spun through a distorted lens thanks to his geographical distance from the US, his surroundings in Sweden, and his upbringing in the internet age. “That’s how it starts,” Lean says. “You look at things and people through a lens, and it comes out completely different.” His sound was shaped by the groundbreaking production of his friends Gud, Yung Sherman, and White Armor, and is still influencing countless kids on Soundcloud today. On Stranger, that sound has developed into something else entirely. The rap clichés that he once twisted have been replaced with lyrics that are more intense and deep-seated, and production that’s more inventive. “I’m still an outsider in the hip hop community,” Lean says. “I don’t even know if I’m making hip hop anymore.”

If Warlord was Lean’s gothic romanticism period, then Stranger is his Italian renaissance. When I spoke to him last year, his answers were contemplative; a year removed, he sounds a lot more relaxed and conversational. “It’s gonna be nice to get it out,” he says of the album. “It feels like it’s about time. It’s good to move on – for me at least.” There’s a lot more laughing, and more enthusiastic discussion about the far more pleasant experience of recording the album. He even brings up a few anecdotes, like the time his father, Kristoffer Leandoer, worked for a magazine, turning down a performance from The Knife during their early days, telling them their music was too dark. “He still regrets that to this day,” Lean laughs.

“I guess I’m just proud that I kept on working, not becoming just a viral hit” – Yung Lean

The darkness hasn’t left him or his music entirely, though. Lean is no longer the Pokémon-obsessed kid we heard on 2013’s “Hurt”. Instead, Stranger draws from supernatural horror novels surreal literature. He found himself attracted to the mystery of Carcosa, a mysterious fictional city that’s turned up across literature for over one hundred years, with album closer “Yellowman” heavily referencing Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 novel The King in Yellow. Lean says his interest Carcosa comes from the same place as his interest in the life of Yukio Mishima, the nationalist Japanese author staged an attempted coup in 1970, taking over a military base before taking his own life via ritualistic suicide. “It’s the same reason (I’m) attracted to black metal, or Edgar Allan Poe,” he adds.

Lean lights up when we discuss literature. When I last spoke to him, he recommended Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; today, he’s talking about South American writing. “These two guys called Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar, they have these really beautiful surrealistic novels – they kinda gave me hope for reading again,” he gushes. “As soon as my brain starts working on reading a book, my dreams get a little more exciting and music comes a little more naturally for me. It also creates new ideas. I was reading Fahrenheit 451 and I fell asleep on the plane while reading it, and then I had this weird dream about this girl changing her face. She said, ‘If I stand up on the plane, they’re going to straighten my hair, and plastic surgery my face. They’re gonna do it, they’re gonna do it.’ She stands up, they run up and do it, and she sits down again. And then I woke up.”

These types of dreams and abstruse ideas crop up across Stranger. “Agony”, a piano-led track with dream-logic lines like “My window smiles with fright,” is a far cry from his debut mixtape Unknown Death, with a Lynchian sense of hidden evil. “When I’m afraid I lose my mind, it’s fine it happens all the time,” he sings, as if at peace with misery. With no features from big name collaborators or even his own close-knit circle of friends, Stranger offers a closer look at Leandoer. “The only feature we have on (Stranger) is an Icelandic children’s choir,” he says in reference to “Agony”, adding: “I’m excited for that. They were great to work with. I very much felt like Damon Albarn.”

“I’m still an outsider in the hip hop community. I don’t even know if I’m making hip hop anymore” – Yung Lean

Much of this sound draws from Lean’s Scandinavian heritage, too. “It’s very Swedish, with the minimal production,” he says. “I guess it kinda makes sense. You can’t really run from your roots. I played the album for my friend, and he was like, ‘Oh, this sounds like The Knife.’” That’s not to mention the influence of his producers. “It felt like me, Gud, Sherman and White Armor were a band,” Lean explains. “The process of it was, like…” He pauses. “I can’t even remember it, ‘cause it was just having fun, basically. We were just creating, kinda like jamming, and then out of nowhere we had 14 songs. Then we went to Iceland, to Björk’s drummer’s studio, to finish the record. And there I finally realised, ‘Oh shit we actually made an album.’”

There’s no such thing as a linear path for Yung Lean. After rapping about “Poppin’ pills like zits” four years ago, he’s now offering a deeper insight into the sadness he once joked about. It’s all there in the album name: “There’s been too many borders,” he says of the title, “and everyone’s become a stranger to each other. You’re a stranger to me, I’m not a stranger to you.” For an album that’s more Jonatan Leandoer Håstad than Yung Lean has ever been, it feels like he’s no longer a stranger to himself either.

YEAR0001 release Stranger on November 10