White man here reporting for duty. I’m going to defend another white man.
Psych. This isn't really that. This isn't necessarily a defense of Yung Lean himself because trying to legitimize an artist’s importance is fruitless. This is more of an exploration of the critiques lobbed against him, a highlight of what so many miss when discussing the Swedish phenomenon. I’ve loved Yung Lean since I first heard “Ginseng Strip 2002.” He is one of my favorite rappers, and it isn't because I fucking love memes (because I do, the danker the better). It isn't because irony. It isn’t because I’m a troll. There are gold nuggets of earnest emotion hidden underneath the roaring river of Sad Boys tears. It's buried among the lush instrumental sediment and the Auto-Tuned gravel, but it's there. It takes a little mining, a little panning, a little patience, but once you find them, boy golly gee, is it rewarding.
The simple sincerity Lean embodies is also why I love Lil B. It’s why I love Chief Keef. One lyric like “I’m gone like my father,” (from Lil B’s “Wonton Soup”) carries more weight than an entire Pusha T album. It's true, but I recognize it's not a popular opinion, especially when it comes to critics who are never able to get past the surface. For example, A Wondering Sound review of Unknown Memory says the following:
"At any rate, there’s something both remarkable and off-putting about a white kid from Sweden trying to rap like Gucci Mane and calling himself Yung Lean."
Yung Lean calling himself “Yung Lean” is off-putting, but his name is Leandoer. Yes, that is right. Leandoer (and his original rap name) is a part of his legal, Swedish government name. As rappers are known to do, they’ll take their names or nicknames and add a modifier: Young, Lil, Big, etc. If your last name was Leandoer, and you aren’t a rapper, then you obviously failed at recognizing your true path in life. Why would you not name yourself Yung Lean? Yes, giving himself a meme name might be problematic if he was tongue-in-cheek mocking rap/rappers, but he isn’t.
Wandering Sound goes on to say, “His newfound introspective platitudes feel emptier and no more personal than his old, jokey non-sequiturs about video games and Pokemon.” These introspective platitudes are not newfound. They have been present since the very beginning. You either weren’t paying attention, or were too busy trying to figure out what Pokemon Lotion is. Off the top of my head I can think of the following. From “Die With Me”:
"Make your presence felt, what they know about me? / See me in the streets, there’s a show around me / Keep my boys around me, keep the blow behind me / Wanna make everyone happy / Ain’t no sad about me."
People know Yung Lean, but what do they know about him? Wanting to be successful and making your friends successful by extension is the Swedish American Dream.
"I don’t give a fuck about nothing / When I look in the mirror all I see is nothing / I wouldn’t even be pissed if she left me."
Yung Lean is admitting he is a piece of shit, but has a girl who sticks with him, and sees things in him that he doesn’t. He can’t even believe he’s worthy to be with her. From “Lemonade”:
"Y’all think I’m so weird, I ain’t really human I’m revered / Couldn’t give less fucks about my career / Posted in a spaceship showing no fear / No one heard about Lean a month ago, ago I was in my bedroom making music, yo / I make no sense, I make nonsense Should’ve played it in their face from the window of my Benz."
Perhaps the largest singular chunk of self-awareness and realness from Lean. Lean was having fun with music. It’s not his fault The Internet found him and broadcast him to the world. He was just making music in his bedroom, what people might think of his “expertly crafted and curated” image hadn't even crossed his mind. Whether or not he's admitting he makes no sense/nonsense, or is mimicking what critics say about him, is hard to interpret. But that last line is such a wondrous rap stunt. “Oh, I’m a joke? Is this $100K vehicle a joke?”.
"Shawty ain’t gonna slide through? / How the fuck I’m gonna die for her?"
Without a doubt, my favorite single lyric. It’s simple and beautiful. He adores a girl he has yet to meet — so much so that he is already willing to die for her. However, if she won’t even give him the time of day, how will he ever be able to devote himself to her? Tragic. I’m crying Arizona tears right now.
Or take "Kyoto":
Freddie Gibbs, Saweetie & Earl Sweatshirt: Best of the Week
Freddie Gibbs, Saweetie, and Earl Sweatshirt, among others, had the best new songs on Audiomack this week.
"Too weird for them other fuck boys."
Lean is aware that he is, in fact, an outsider, a weirdo. He understands that most people aren’t going to like him because they don’t understand him. I don’t see how you can listen to “Yoshi City” and find these “platitudes” empty.
"I’m nervous that she’s so upset / She don’t want me, bitch I’m flustered I’m an aristocrat without the progress / Roses all on her wedding dress, blood from my mouth, I’m a mess / Got my heart next to my phone / Do or die? / I’m stupid high / Lonely nights, finna sacrifice / Fuck your life, I need mine."
Lean's recounting the sacrifice he’s made, and the pain that came with it, to not lead a normal life. Does he text her? Can he live without her? Will it all be worth it? “Got my heart next to my phone. Do or die? I’m stupid high,” is such a gorgeous lyric, a modern “To be or not to be” for the YouTube generation.
Other reviewers harp on Lean’s meme status. Does Yung Lean being a “meme” negate his art? No. Whatever mystique, whatever image, whatever aesthetic Lean created as an extension of his rapping is art. The songs are art. Everything is art. Why does art have to contribute to, or push forward, the genre in groundbreaking new ways? Can art not simply exist in the continuum? Of course, it can! That’s why we will forever have “Tipsy” by J-Kwon.
Lean isn’t trying to turn rap music on its head; he’s simply making art with a Swedish accent. As far as pushing “the genre” forward, is deemphasizing lyrics by mixing them so they fall into the crevices of downtrodden bliss soundscapes, and emphasizing mood with melodies and garbled Auto-Tuned, not something new or different? As far as “barely structured songs,” why does a rap song have to have an intro/16/chorus/16/break/chorus/16/outro? Why can’t a rap song just have a chorus, an 8-bar verse and then repeat the chorus four times? Music is nothing but made-up sounds. If anything, fluidly-structured songs could be pushing the genre forward. Fuck norms.
That's not enough for Pitchfork though, who points out his failing “blatant” imitations:
"His new album, Unknown Memory, is reminiscent of the second season of “Jersey Shore”, where it slowly became clear that the cast was in on the joke."
I don’t believe Lean sets out with a “On this song we are going to copy this thing” mindset though. You gravitate to what you like, and you try to make what you like. What’s crucial to remember when viewing Lean is that he was a teen emulating what he loved (we all did it) and was having fun. Then when he was met with unexpected stardom, he realized he could perhaps make this a serious career.
“I had to start over to begin." - “Sunrise Angel”
Unknown Memory is him attempting to be legitimate. It’s obviously more mature and polished, but he has a long way to go. We learned about Lean in April of 2013. He’s had 17 months of a career. It’s not that he’s in on the “joke,” because unlike Krispy Kreme, I don’t think this was ever a joke. Instead, like any artist, he’s realizing what people want from him and battling what he’s capable of giving them.
“Used to be a hobby, now it’s all I think about. That’s what rap does.” - “Monster”
Is Unknown Memory good? Sort of. I’m not blinded by its failings. I walked away liking it but feeling somewhat disappointed. I really don’t care if it gets a 3.6 or a 4 (I think those are fair, if not slightly harsh, assessments) or an 8 or a 10. Ratings are subjective, and they don’t impact anything, much like this essay. After all this, really, I've wasted all of our time here. Yes, we should evaluate Lean’s whiteness in the hip-hop pantheon, and examine how that has given him premature media attention. Yes, we should ask ourselves to what extent this is appropriation. Yes, we should question everything ever. But, what’s being forgotten is that he’s a teen making rap music. He’s attempting to not only figure out his place, but his path. Right now, he’s on a surprise roller coaster. He’s not planning on what pose to make for the camera during the final drop. He’s just enjoying the ride. Maybe you should too.
“Bumping RZA, eating pizza. Man, I’m living my dreams.” - “Kyoto”
[BauceSauce is just trying to have fun on the Internet. His Twitter.com account is @BauceSauce.]