Rap circles on the internet—WorldStarHipHop, VladTV, wherever teenagers spend time online—live for the hype cycle, falling mouse over Macbook for a young artist with an eccentric, fully-formed debut. In 2011, 19-year-old Tyler, the Creator's "Yonkers" sent all-male audiences into a riot each time he stepped into town. In 2012, 23-year-old A$AP Rocky spun heads with his amalgam of NYC attitude and Houston's screwed production. In 2013, 20-year-old Chance the Rapper took the ballooned pop of Kanye West's Twisted Fantasy and turned it in on itself, with anxious and excited images of pedestrian life.
Fresh for 2014, it's Yung Lean, the bucket-hatted teenage Swede who's fueled the hype train with a nonsensical and opioid-heavy approach. After gaining favor with the DMT drip on his Unknown Death 2002 mixtape in 2013, the 18-year-old Stockholm rapper released his Suessical debut LP Unknown Memory in September.
Born in 1996, Jonatan Leandoer Håstad's first taste of hip-hop was Get Rich or Die Trying, 50 Cent's multi-platinum '03 debut. The early influences still loom on the Stockholm teen; like 50 Cent, Yung Lean is less concerned with lyricism than executing a hard-hitting flow and aesthetic. Where Curtis Jackson's look was filled with bullet holes and endless crunches, Håstad and his Sad Boys label borrows from anime and Houstonian Styrofoam, N64 and Arizona Iced Tea.
On Unknown Memory, Yung Lean delivers more actual rapping than ever, which might not be a good thing. His earliest tunes, like the absurdist "♦ Ginseng Strip 2002 ♦," left an appealing confusion, like an odd but alluring first date. After getting the full picture on Memory, that early allure reveals itself as just plain crazy.
Yung Lean's good stuff is a logical extension of Lil B's non sequitur rap (not that logic and Lil B have much to do with each other, nor should they). On "♦ Ginseng Strip 2002 ♦," Yung Lean spits out some meaningless and funny lines: "Imma peel banana skids while listenin' to R Kelly's Greatest Hits." It's irreverent, amusing and celebrating the silliness of his style. But on Unknown Memory, Yung Lean drenches his voice in altered pitches, removing the fun without providing anything fresh, leaving only a knockoff of Auto-Tune auteur Future.
There's two main takeaways from Yung Lean's short career. First, it's hard to tell if Yung Lean's music is a fad to be swept away in time, or something more permanent. It's quite possible that we'll look back on the sad rap, Euro-screwed teenager in a few years like we do now to Soulja Boy ringtones. But, if Håstad keeps searching his weirder side, he might find something resonant.
The second takeaway is the excitement of a white teenager from a Nordic country contributing and sparking debate in a dominantly African-American art form. Of course, it's because of the internet. But it's not just the distribution factor of online music that gets rappers like Yung Lean into the conversation—there are plenty of terrible rappers on SoundCloud who know that. The actual aesthetic of internet rap, in all its bizarre glory, has allowed an 18-year-old European to tap into the culture from across the Atlantic.
Yung Lean, $18, 8:30pm Mon, Dec 8, Alamo City Music Hall, 1305 E Houston, scoremoreshows.com
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