Swedish Rapper Yung Lean’s Journey to the Center of the Internet

July 12, 2013 | Brandon Soderberg

This week, a Swedish 16 year-old named Yung Lean, previously known by blog scourers for March’s half-viral video “Ginseng Strip 2002” – in which the bucket-hat-sporting white boy delivered rambling staccato half-raps about listening to R. Kelly and receiving oral sex from a Zooey Deschanel lookalike, over a gorgeous, sobbing beat – released the free download album Unknown Death 2002 for clothing line and low-key, bleeding edge music label, MISHKA.

 Yung Lean exists in a world of rapid-fire references to pop culture junk like Digimon, Space Jam, and Nintendo64. Occasionally, he interrupts his ’90s baby party to toss out some Livejournal-esque asides about depression (Lean’s crew are called the Sad Boys), and it’s all caught up in a sci-fi conceit that’s mostly nerd-in-his-room escapism, though it also has something to do with the African-American tradition of wanting to transcend this cruel world and find peace in outer space, which any alienated 16 year old sensitive to hip-hop might think they understand. Nevertheless, it is naïve, hilarious, and strangely affecting.

About half of Unknown Death 2002′s production here comes from Sad Boys crew producers Young Gud and Young Sherman, and the other half from the guys those guys are trying to sound like: American fog-hop producers Friendzone, suicideyear, and White Armor. Lean is working with the sonic architects behind the music of his druggy Internet rap heroes, and at least, matching their knowing weirdness. The hook to “Lightsaber/Saviour” goes, “Optimus Prime, do it from behind/ Police knocking on my door, I’ve done my time/ Wake me up at seven just to fuck with my grind,” which is ridiculous word-associative fun that renders rap cliches meaningless, and illustrates that Lean really does know his way around airy beats. It sounds a hell of a lot like it samples Baltimore synth-punks Future Islands’ “The Great Fire,” and I wouldn’t put it past his producers.

How did we get to the point where a Scandinavian rapping like he’s stuck in a YouTube rabbit hole releases a wildly entertaining album? Really, it starts with Lil Wayne, who used hip-hop free culture (the quasi-legal mixtape and bootleg circuit) and later on, the Internet’s wild west attitude to send out an endless amounts of music, bypassing mainstream label expectations and feeding his fans directly. That model was then reduced to absurdity by Lil B and his first-thought-best-thought “based freestyles” which number in the hundreds, and maybe even thousands.  You know that inspirational phrase, “Dance like nobody’s watching?” Well, Lil B ushered in a similarly inspirational “Rap like nobody’s listening” approach. The point was an eccentricity that couldn’t be contained, let alone monetized by the industry.

From there, you get the drifting raps of Main Attrakionz, the yammering stoner mumbles of Issue (son of rap legend E-40, and head of Teaholics Records, who have signed Lean), the screwed-up clique absurdism of Riff Raff, and the faux-naif tough-minded sing-song feminism of Kitty Pryde, just to name a few. These are Yung Lean’s influences: internet-fueled oddballs who don’t think rapping has to rhyme or even make too much sense. Where simply doing it is the means and the end. Rap with no editors or vetting. This is different than plain old freestyling which is rigorous and rooted in form. Here are thoughts shooting from one’s head without preamble. Hip-hop’s post-post lyrical phase, perhaps.

Plenty of curmudgeonly gatekeepers view this as a problem or the nadir of “lyricism.” But it is worth noting that it is hard to imagine Meek Mill’s non-stop salvo of words “Dreams & Nightmares” making it onto the radio, repetitive rappers Migos getting a Drake shout-out, or Jay-Z doing rap game Marina Abramovic staring (or Tilda Swinton sleeping) if it weren’t for this #norules style of hip-hop. Not to mention, available software and easy web access democratized rap in an unprecedented way and it cannot be stopped. Why fight it?

All that freedom and easy access has actually started to limit creativity and violates hip-hop’s work-with-what-you-have pragmatic values. Now, rap music is very easy to do “right” (Andrew Noz’s Pitchfork column, “Super Ugly” explains this quite well). Consider the story of 16 year old Jay-Z “Crown” producer, Wondagurl, who learned her craft from YouTube how-to videos and screwing around on free or pirated software. Not to take away from her inspiring narrative, but she’s an A-student finally afforded the resources to place her where she should be but would have never been in a less web-savvy hip-hop world. Ambitious, savvy, and calculating, she is the anti-Yung Lean.

Yung Lean is part of rap’s long tradition of doing it all wrong. Hip-hop history charts a map of misreading and misinterpretation. It has, since its inception been fueled by the tension between extreme limitations and wide-eyed expressive creativity. Poor people of color in the Bronx lacking instruments and turning a record player and cheapo vinyl into a new instrument and creating rap music. As rap spread across the country, the story is a series of dudes in different regions attempting to do the rap they loved and doing it “wrong” to interesting ends by pairing it with local sounds, or because they don’t know how their favorite producer got that one drum machine sound but dammit, the results they got sound pretty cool anyways. Wondagurl cracked the rap code. Lean is releasing every failed attempt at cracking the code.

Your head might spin parsing Yung Lean’s origins, but that’s a good thing: Here is a teenager from Stockholm, spitting in English (with a Swedish accent), occasionally adopting a copy-of-a-copy dirty south drawl, performing a funhouse mirror version of the alternative to the alternative oddball rap that owns the far corners of Tumblr, right now. All the druggy yet lovey-dovey, hippie-dippie vibes of so-called “cloud rap,” with a healthy dose of ’90s regional rap nostalgia (downloaded off torrents and streamed from YouTube, no doubt) that shouts out syrup sipping and exudes a dead-eyed “fuck the world” attitude. It’s ridiculous and touching, usually at the same time.

If “Internet rap” has come to define a whole sect of fascinating new rap music, well then Yung Lean, a product of Internet rap, seems to be as much “Internet” as he is “rap.” He makes hip-hop music derived entirely from the online experience.

Brandon Soderberg is a rap blogger and cultural critic whose words often appear in SPIN. Follow him on Twitter.