“Yung Lean Doer is the Weirdest 16-Year-Old White Swedish Rapper You’ll Hear This Week,” Noisey proclaimed back in 2013. With an internet-friendly aesthetic and a sound borrowed from American rappers, Yung Lean approached the hip-hop scene as a foreigner in more ways than one.
At first glance, he was a white kid from Stockholm slur-rapping his way atop off-kilter, bizarre production. Early reactions ranged from enthralled and intrigued, to cynical and confused. With his “Ginseng Strip” video, he created a moment—wearing a bucket hat and proudly calling himself a Sad Boy, Yung Lean quickly became one of the most divisive artists on the internet. While it was captivating in all its own alien qualities, what came later ended up being far more interesting.
In the few short years since releasing his debut mixtape, Unknown Death 2002, Yung Lean has grown from his initial meme status and become an evolved songwriter on his third studio album, Stranger. Doing what so few have since managed after beginning a career with sudden viral success, Yung Lean has persisted and thrived.
Genuinely innovative at the time—even if the lyrics were filled with rap clichés—Yung Lean’s first two projects confused plenty of listeners. His debut mixtape offered glimpses of promise behind the amateur Main Attrakionz and Lil B veneer, eventually evolving into something entirely his own by the time Unknown Memory arrived. What he gave us was a preview of the future of rap in many ways, and he moved on from this by the time so many others were just about catching up to him. Years later, more artists sound like the Sad Boys than ever before.
Lean’s music in 2013 was playful and often dismissed as a novelty. Instead of going all-in on bucket hats and non-sequiturs, however, he doubled down on finding his own style and started sounding less like those he initially imitated.There was always something unique hanging in the background of his music, and with Warlord and Stranger, he’s figured out how to bring it to the surface.
Now, he’s releasing innovative, artful music that embraces his scandinavian roots and his inner goth—making for far more memorable music. “It’s very Swedish, with the minimal production,” he told me in an interview for Dazed. “I guess it kinda makes sense. You can’t really run from your roots. I played the album for my friend, and he was like, ‘Oh, this sounds like The Knife.’”
Yung Lean has played the long game with his approach, taking time to develop himself as an artist. Rather than jumping at the chance to snatch a record deal, he waited and worked on Unknown Memory for over a year, following his debut mixtape. He avoided stagnation by rejecting the gimmicky elements of his persona—not an easy task considering how memed his sadness and love of Arizona iced tea were at the time. He chose to double down and work with close friends Gud, Yung Sherman, and Whitearmor on the production side of things, passing up on the opportunity to work with big name producers like so many other rappers in his shoes would jump at the chance for. Yung Lean’s music thrived as a result, exploring territories we’ve never heard before..
"I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I really wanted to make albums that had a different aesthetic every album and a different sound. I think I’m just putting my pin down in the ground as an artist.” - Yung Lean, 2017
“I think I was kinda scared at one point that it was just gonna be a couple million views and some viral hit, and there wasn’t going to be anything else,” he recently told Zane Lowe in an interview on Beats 1 Radio. “I was just trying to figure out my place and everything. I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I really wanted to make albums that had a different aesthetic every album and a different sound. I think I’m just putting my pin down in the ground as an artist.”
With Warlord, Yung Lean pushed far beyond the viral hits of “Kyoto” and “Ginseng Strip.” The album’s lead single, “Hoover,” made it immediately clear there was a lot more going on than he initially let on. Brooding, with punk-inflected production, it’s miles ahead from the sometimes awkward-sounding style of his early material. Lean is honing his talents.
Year after year, more rappers strike it big through a similar internet success story to that of Jonatan Leandoer Håstad. Now, labels have become privy to the technique, however, often backing artists long before making any deals public. There are dedicated teams working to create the next big music meme, because nothing pushes a single to the top of the charts quite as suddenly as a meme does. When Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” soundtracked the mannequin challenge last year, Interscope employed the trend to push the single to the number one spot in place of traditional marketing.
While this approach to non-traditional methods can do wonders for already established artists, it’s harder for rising artists to follow up their initial wave of internet virality. Artists who have seen sudden spikes in attention to begin their careers, like OG Maco and Rob Stone, have witnessed this first-hand. Talented in their own right, they attracted a massive initial wave of online attention only to have a tough time hitting another high, attention-wise.
The music on Stranger might not ever go viral the same way “Ginseng Strip” did, but by providing more depth, Lean has extended his longevity.
Ultimately, the internet’s attention span is fleeting. Artists, specifically when it comes to rap, often get tossed aside months after their popularity starts to wane. In order for continued success, artists usually need to offer a constant stream of quality material (like Future), or a continued effort to push forward musically. More power to those with a work ethic that rigorous, but some work a lot better when they’re more strict when it comes to quality control—an aspect that Lean has continually improved upon.
Building his fan base, Yung Lean kept challenging his listeners—connecting with them by making Yung Lean a more personal, honest project. These fans have been incredibly loyal and passionate throughout his career, and now that people have stopped trying to figure him out, it’s granted him the opportunity to branch out even further. The music on Stranger might not ever go viral the same way “Ginseng Strip” did, but by providing more depth, Lean has extended his longevity.
We are starting to see some younger rappers learning how to grow from early viral success in the same vein as Yung Lean. Indonesian teenage rapper Rich Chigga seems to be expediting what Lean has done throughout the last few years. Quickly improving his production skills and making his own beats, Rich Chigga has already bagged himself a 21 Savage and Ghostface Killah feature within a year of sporting a bumbag in his viral “Dat Stick” video.
Distancing himself from the goofy, jokey nature considerably quicker than Lean, it seems at least one teenage success is learning how far sincerity and progression can get you following onset virality. Rich Chigga is setting himself up for a bright future.
It’s tempting to chase viral moments with how things move in 2017, and it makes sense to a point. But it might not be a sustainable model to follow. Memes just don’t have staying power, especially as everything moves faster and faster online. Even the best meme formats either disappear quickly or morph into something completely different.
Yung Lean outlived virality by refusing to be complacent in simply winning over the internet's interest.
Artists today are often put in the position of having to make a career out of a moment—and while that’s difficult—it’s something that has been accomplished. It’s been almost four years since Yung Lean released “Kyoto,” and now he’s making grandiose and ornately crafted tracks that prove how gifted of a songwriter he really is. You wouldn’t have gotten “Agony” from him during the Unknown Death 2002 days.
First, he captured our attention. Then, through his desire to expand and present something more honest to him himself, he’s managed to sustain it. Embracing what sets you apart is always a good idea, and Stranger is a good example of this. Yung Lean outlived virality by refusing to be complacent in simply winning over the internet's interest.