By Joe Price
Yung Lean is a name you’ve probably heard about in passing, possibly as a joke. You might have chosen to simply ignore. It’s easy to brush off his surreal lyricism, lazy flow, and broken English as a celebration of Lil B’s utterly bizarre “based world” and not much else. But Lean’s appeal is deeper than that. Last week I had the chance to catch Yung Lean performing one of his first UK shows at Birthdays in London, and it was perhaps one the strangest live experiences of my life.
The show was sold out, and if you’ve been keeping up with his YouTube views and Twitter followers (which include Diplo and Ellie Goulding), this isn’t a surprise. I arrived at the venue two hours before the show started, so I managed to see everyone arrive, one by one. Within minutes of setting foot inside Birthdays, I noticed a t-shirt with Japanese text on it. It was Yung Lean casually walking around the venue. As more and more fans came in, I noticed a trend. The number of people in the room wearing bucket hats was steadily increasing, and it was somewhat alarming. After a brief episode of bucket hat-induced panic, I made my way outside to queue for the actual gig.
In the line for the rap game Michael Cera, I earwigged a few conversations whilst I analyzed my increasingly weird surroundings, and what I heard was equally as strange. A few guys walked past, clearly idolizing Yung Lean with their appearance, talking about how emotional seeing him live is going to make them. These bucket hat-donning Tumblr kids were infatuated with both his image and his sound. The youth’s attachment to yet another trend isn’t anything new, but Yung Lean’s fanbase reaches a new level of post-irony.
It raises the question: how many people were actually there because they genuinely enjoy Yung Lean’s music? It’s hard to tell, as the lines between genuine enjoyment and frivolous appreciation continue to blur.
It raises the question: how many people were actually there because they genuinely enjoy Yung Lean’s music? It’s hard to tell, as the lines between genuine enjoyment and frivolous appreciation continue to blur. Lean and his music are stuck dead in the center of this, with it becoming increasingly hard to distinguish whether people are sticking with him due to finding comedic value in it, like some internet inside joke that only the in-the-know cool kids can fully “get,” or because they simply adore his gloriously eccentric slur-rap.
I find myself in the latter camp, and I was very seriously looking forward to seeing him live. I didn’t really know what to expect, since I know he’s not “technically” a good rapper. Everyone else lining up outside the venue appeared to be equally as anxious, except for the surprisingly deadpan Sadboy followers sporting gold chains. I heard one guy behind me say, “I get the feeling he might be a little bit shit live,” while another said, “I reckon there’s going to be moshing.” There was a clear mix of attitudes toward his music, with some only going because they thought it’d be funny, and others going so they could post Sadboy selfies alongside copious floral patterns on Tumblr.
If these people were still treating it as a joke, then why are they going through the effort to buy the ridiculous hats and import Arizona ice tea? It’s transcended meme and become a subculture, even if that subculture seems empty or shallow. It goes against everything that’s traditionally acceptable in hip-hop, but it also parodies it to the extreme. It’s all connected through a bunch of contradictions that only serve to heighten the appeal. Yung Lean doesn’t take it seriously, but at the same time he’s absolutely committed to it.
I’m also guilty of jumping on board with the humor myself. I’ll admit: I attempted to bring a can of green tea to the gig to have Yung Lean sign it, but it was confiscated by security before I was allowed in. That was probably the saddest thing that happened at Birthdays, because outside of that, the night possessed an insanely positive, and dare I say it, “based” atmosphere.
As we were let into the venue, we were treated to a DJ set that consisted mostly of trap bangers. As Tory Lanez was stressing about how he needs a new kitchen, it dawned on me: Yung Lean is living out his own rap fantasy. He’s only 17 years old and he’s already touring the world with his friends, to numerous sold-out crowds. It’s not on the same level as Lorde, but it’s equally as impressive when you consider how niche his outsider hip-hop is.
With a short DJ set by the Sadboys preceding his onstage appearance, the sense of irony in the room started to dim. The set was a phenomenal showcase of their signature production style, and eventually the crowd was worked up into a chant of “S-A-D-B-O-Y-S.” It was surreal to see this kind of Tumblr-ism come to life, and the peculiar atmosphere was further fueled by Yung Lean’s eventual appearance. Arriving in a full-body poncho of some kind, it was obvious he was going to put on one hell of a show. But would it be a hell of a show because he’s an odd, funny spectacle, or because he could actually perform?
It wasn’t long until there was crowd-surfing to songs about iced tea, and moshing to lines as obtuse as, ‘Eat her out wipe my face with a serviette.’
To the surprise of many, he delivered. He wasn’t hitting every line perfectly, but his excitement was positively infectious, and the whole crowd felt it. It wasn’t long until there was crowd-surfing to songs about iced tea, and moshing to lines as obtuse as, “Eat her out wipe my face with a serviette.” It was just like any other hip-hop show, but it was prefaced with a half tongue-in-cheek vibe that added a fun element without dominating the event.
Surrounded by bucket hats obscuring my vision, I was amazed at how hyped up the crowd was. In between songs I began picking up on the peculiarities of the people around me. A few kids besides me kept referring to Lean as “the black A$AP Rocky,” a small group of white girls were casually dropping the N-word. Some of these molly-ridden Tumblr fiends seemed harmless and amusing enough, but others were twisting the fantasy into something ignorant.
Stuck between those who believe they’re too cool to even move and those who simply can’t stop, I attempted to move closer to the stage during “Gatorade.” Unfortunately for me, I forgot I was wearing my glasses. They started to slide off my face, but through evasive maneuvers they ended up in my hands and not the floor. It was a close call. I almost forgot where I was for a moment. Then the build-up of “Kyoto” began.
The whole room was chanting along to the entire song, leaving behind their “sad and sassy” e-personas. Stopping for a brief moment, even Yung Lean himself realized the absurdity of it all: “You could be anywhere in the world, but you’re right here.” Serious or a joke, he’s awfully endearing from either angle. But after around 50 minutes of performing, he was gone as quickly as he arrived. The bucket hats slowly dissipated, and I made my way out of the venue.
If you’re having an internal conflict as to whether to like him or not, then his music probably isn’t for you.
In a deadpan devotion to his craft, there’s something clever about the young Swede’s music. It possesses an oddly charming quality to it that’s hard to describe without being in on the humorous side of it, but it’s not the type of music for those looking for an explanation. If you’re having an internal conflict as to whether to like him or not, then his music probably isn’t for you.
Seeing him live just confirmed what I already knew: he’s anything but a good rapper, but’s he’s still a damn fine entertainer.