RAP INSIDE A MEME
The Cult of Yung Lean: ‘I’m Building An Anarchistic Society From the Ground Up’
An 18-year-old Swedish rapper/Internet meme has inspired legions of impressionable teens to get based in bucket hats. Welcome to the confounding world of Yung Lean.
“I’m a lonely cloud,” mumbles sad rap poster boy Yung Lean in his trademark Swenglish. It’s an odd declaration, considering the 18-year-old Swede has inspired Cumberbatchian levels of Tumblr praise and an army of pliant, turnt teens who not only hang on his every word, which usually consists of stoner diversions like video games, getting based, and Arizona Iced Tea, but also emulate his strange sartorial splendor of bucket hats and chains—a living and breathing fashion faux pas that recalls the red Yankees fitted heyday of Fred Durst. Yung Lean’s ketamine-infused rap persona has led critics to brand him a silly, vacuous caricature; the cultural nadir of image-based rap bled dry of any and all poetic license. But you can’t really deny his reach.
It’s 3 p.m. on a chilly December day outside Webster Hall, a mid-sized, 1,500-capacity venue in Lower Manhattan. The doors for Yung Lean’s sold-out show—his second ever gig in New York City—don’t even open for another 5 hours, but a line of about 50 acolytes lies in wait, most dressed like their matinee idol in warm-ups and bucket hats.
Inside, Yung Lean and his crew of 9 Swedes, including collaborators Yung Sherman and Yung Gud, are doing their soundcheck. I’m seated in the dressing room area on the second floor of the venue when in walks Yung Lean, dressed in a flamboyant ensemble that includes brown Ugg boots, a Minotaur chain necklace, and an oversized t-shirt—goodies he purchased in Brooklyn this very day. He describes his style as “bohemian gentleman.” The pale, baby-faced, red-cheeked rapper is furiously puffing away at a hastily-made blunt crammed with low-grade weed.
“I’m building an anarchistic society from the ground up,” he says of his devoted following outside and online. “But fuck my image. At the end of the day, they’re dressing like me. It’s not like they’re out there sniffing glue.” He pauses. “Well, they could be out there sniffing glue.”
Yung Lean was born Jonatan Leandoer Håstad in Belarus, before moving to Sweden at the age of 3. His first language was Russian, then he learned Swedish, but chooses to perform in monosyllabic broken English. His catchy name, which has led to followers adopting the alias of “Yung _____,” was given to him by his partner-in-rhyme Yung Sherman, who first referred to him as Lil Leandoer. “He just changed it up from ‘Lil’ to ‘Yung.’ Simple shit, man,” says Lean.
The mini-tastemaker has, he says, been hustling since a very young age, holding a variety of odd jobs that included cleaning toilets at a swim club in the South of Sweden and selling beer at concerts.
“I worked flipping cheeseburgers and Big Mac’s at McDonald’s, purchased a microphone, and cleared all the stuff out of my basement and started making music,” he says. “I’ve always wanted money, and to have a little extra.”
He refuses to talk about his home life in Stockholm and parents (“Yung Lean doesn’t have parents,” he says), and made his first rough mixtape at 11, in Swedish. “ I was rapping about basic shit like killing babies, since we were influenced by Eminem,” says Lean.
Then, in 2011, he took a liking to his rap idol, Gucci Mane, and Waka Flocka Flame, and began rapping in English, mimicking Gucci’s deliberate delivery and absurdist rap stylings—albeit from the lens of a white teenager. Around that time, at age 15, he hooked up with Yung Sherman and Yung Gud, and they formed a Facebook group of about 10 people that called themselves The Cocktail Gang.
“We broke off shortly after because we were more ambitious,” says Lean. “All my friends have given up on success and don’t want to be anything anymore. They realize life is shit. But I’ve always wanted to be successful. Even when I was a kid, I thought of myself as a celebrity.”
The trio formed the Sad Boys collective, with Sherm and Gud on production and Lean manning the mic. They’d send Lean beats every day and he’d rap over them in his room with his McDonald’s-funded microphone, and in their spare time, would all cut together DIY short films and soundtracks. In 2012, as a 10th grader, Lean says he recorded his first legitimate song, “Hurt.”
“There was a recording studio in my school and I knew this kid who had a key, so I’d write lyrics in school while I was in class, and then in a 10-minute break, I recorded the song ‘Hurt’ in one go at the school studio.”
Sad Boys then hooked up with White Armor, a producer, and released a music video for the track “Ginseng Strip 2002” in March 2013, which soon went viral garnering millions of YouTube views. The video boasted Lean sporting what would become his trademark white bucket hat, as well as his meandering, free-association raps (reminiscent of a catatonic Lil B or Clams Casino) name-dropping American brands like Arizona Iced Tea and The Smurfs. It was the first track of his eventual mixtape, Unknown Death 2002, which was recorded in White Armor’s apartment and released in early 2013.
Following the release of his bizarre collection of music videos, a mélange of grimy beats, 16-bit animation, and the bucket-hatted teen rapping over the various stimuli in his slow drone, Yung Lean emerged as perhaps the very first rapper/Internet meme hybrid. Later songs on his debut LP Unknown Memory, released in late 2014, would gleefully name check everything from video games to Harry Potter in songs about sadness, loneliness, and isolation—like an emo-boy version of Lana Del Rey, stripped of all her glamour and musicianship. His monotonous music is, really, like the audio soundtrack to a k-hole.
“If you’re sitting at home as a kid in Sweden, you watch MTV and American movies,” he says of his numerous references. “And you have really honest thoughts when you’re fucked up. If you write them down and record them, it’s accessible. A lot of fans just want to create their own world in their head.”
A lot of music critics have taken shots at Yung Lean. Pitchfork called him a “a rap-obsessed misfit from a summer camp who freestyles poorly” who is “ridiculous without knowing it.” When asked about whether he’s in on the joke, Lean gets a bit heated—well, as heated as you can get while sitting in Uggs puffing a blunt.
“Satire and irony? That’s weak, man,” he says. “That’s not being able to be honest. People say, ‘Oh, Yung Lean is funny, he’s ironic, right?’ It’s easier for people to understand me by their standards if I’m ‘ironic,’ because they’re used to more serious rappers. Irony is not being able to understand the truth, and I’m just being me 100 percent. This is how I look, and what I want to express. The humor is just my humor. It could be seen as satire because of how I look, but that’s retarded, man.”
When asked to describe his flow, a zigzagging monotone drawl, he takes a big puff from his blunt and pauses for a bit, before exhaling this:
“You hear a melody in your head—wah-wah-wah—and then you’ll be hearing the beat in your head while you’re walking around on the street or in the subway—wah-wah, wah-wah-wah wah—and then I go home and put lyrics to it: ‘Bitch, suck my dick, bitch…’”
He adds, “My lyrics used to be a lot more complex—more words, punchlines, and metaphors—and then, once you’re recording music, you realize that you like the flow more and not necessarily the words. It’s about the vibe.”
Lean name-drops Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson and Harmony Korine—absurdist directors who, like him, use free-association in their works. Korine even cast Lean’s rap idol, Gucci Mane, in a small role in his recent flick Spring Breakers.
“Gucci is low-key the smartest person,” Lean says. “It’s like when people react to me and say, ‘What the fuck is this? This is so ignorant.’ I want it to be like that. It appears ignorant.”
It’s past 10 p.m. at Webster Hall and the sold-out crowd, most of whom look about 17 max, is buzzing. When Lean takes the stage, the whole place erupts—a scourging sea of bucket hats and white tracksuits jumping along to his every Yoshi and iced tea reference, which are then projected behind him a la his wacky music videos, and blanketed by a cloud of marijuana smoke.
I approach a young girl sporting a white bucket hat, gold grill, and drinking out of a paper bag, who is particularly losing her marbles over Lean’s onstage antics, and ask what her deal is. She goes by the alias “Yung Em,” and says she’s 17 and traveled all the way here from rural New Jersey. “He is a God,” she shrieks.