Social Anxiety: Yung Lean, the Sad Boys and the Evolution of the Outsider Stance

Like Odd Future before them, Swedish rap crew Sad Boys have built a cult fan base. But what they’re selling is bafflingly familiar.

July 03, 2014

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

Recently, I stumbled upon a piece about Odd Future that I wrote back in grad school, probably around the spring of 2011. The article was mostly an attempt to wrap my mind around the violent and misogynistic content in the then-rising Los Angeles rap collective’s lyrics—a pretty popular essay topic that year—but it also tried to explain why they seemed to be amassing such a passionate, cult-like following. One passage in particular makes me smile when I re-read it, partly because it just really brings me back, and partly because it’s funny to see a younger version of myself taking an inventory of the things that made a group like Odd Future seem really cool and different and radical at the time. I’ll copy it here:

Keeping up with the gang’s unending stream of media feels like falling into a mythic micro-universe, with its own recurring images and themes. Odd Future like skateboards, blunts, Supreme, group camaraderie, and the word “swag” (which means, roughly, “cool”), but they despise “jerkin’” (the latest hip-hop dance to come out of LA), middle America, religion, and the rap blogs Nah Right and 2dopeboyz. We can count on Tyler to be wearing his signature hat, shorts, Vans, and white knee socks whenever he enters a room where camera people will be lurking. His natural feel for iconography extends from the bright, almost Bustor Keaton-like floodlights of his eyes (widened at select moments, for effect) to his habit of capitalizing the first letter of every word he posts to his Twitter.

Looking back, I am struck by what masterful self-promoters Odd Future were, especially at a time when independent artists were just starting to figure out how to drum up grassroots support using Twitter, YouTube and Facebook (Instagram didn’t exist yet). But another thing I find prescient about Odd Future was their knack for generating publicity for themselves simply by letting the world know the things they did and did not like. It was an early incarnation of the ubiquitous Tumblr-era mentality whereby we define ourselves via the cultural commodities we publicly name-check, and part of what made Odd Future so cool was how obsessed they were with things you wouldn’t expect most aspiring young rappers—or American teenagers, period—to care about. Their love for skating and streetwear and indie music made liking them feel like joining a club for people who felt like outsiders in high school; now though, thanks to the community-building powers of the internet, they were being celebrated as the kids who had the most discriminating taste all along.

Fast forward a couple of years, and it feels like pretty much every young person with a pulse and an internet connection has discriminating taste—to the point that some of them have swung around in the opposite direction, and started appropriating aspects of mainstream style to distinguish themselves from their peers (see: normcore). As I explored in my column on the shuttering of Kim’s Video, the “hipster” phenomenon that dominated counter-culture discourse in the last decade may no longer really apply in these completely internet-saturated times—partly because everybody has access to everything now, and partly because no matter how rarefied your taste in style and music may be, corporations are happy to use that information to market products to you. The music internet continues to be full of overnight success stories like Odd Future’s, no doubt fueled by the industry’s adoption of the very same grassroots publicity tactics that artists from that era pioneered. But while that group (along with folks like Lil B, of course) laid a blueprint for elevating one’s social media presence to just another facet of one's wider art project, navigating our current information economy seems a lot less straightforward than it was around the time Tyler and his homies entered the game. Being different from everybody else, from a branding perspective at least, would no longer seem to be a surefire way of standing out.

To that effect, Sad Boys, the similarly cult-ish, home-grown hip-hop crew led by 17-year-old Swedish rapper Yung Lean, have definitely filling my late-night YouTube binges with a lot of food for thought lately. In contrast to the violent lyrics and skate-rat aesthetics that made Odd Future seem so fresh and different when they were first coming up, everything about the Sad Boys, at first glance, seems aggressively, almost farcically generic. Take the video for Yung Lean’s recent single, “Motorola,” for example. Like your typical Yung Lean missive, it’s just a hand-held, very home-made-looking clip of the cherubic-looking artist standing around somewhere in his native Stockholm, doing a kind of half-assed cooking dance and sing-rapping over a trap beat in a dull, Auto-Tuned drawl. The standing around part maybe isn’t all that far off from your typical rap video, but there’s something very one-note about the whole thing; his voice, quite literally, hits the same two or three notes on the scale each time, and it also repeats the same rhythm over and over again, along with the same, strange, factual statement of a hook—Gold on my wrist, Phone in pocket—like its taking an inventory of the things every self-respecting “rapper” should have.

Or maybe not just every rapper, but everybody. Yung Lean and his crew aren’t exactly devoid of particularities—they are, after all, Swedish, still young enough to be in high school and strangely obsessed with images of a futuristic East-Asia—but their lyrics read like some kind of Google translate-generated amalgam of every pop culture-related meme that has ever flickered past your peripheral vision on Tweetdeck. Look them up on Rap Genius, you’ll get a semi-coherent amalgam of American hip-hop slang and whatever mass market items, legal or illegal, that Yung Lean and his Sad Boys happen to be wearing or eating or sipping at the moment. Among the commodities Yung Lean boasts about consuming on “Kyoto,” his most famous and melodious single, there’s Mario Kart, cocaine, Cristal, weed, pizza and lean. Other recurring Yung Lean motifs are Arizona Iced Tea, Northface Jackets, Gatorade, pills, phones, morphine, Bacardi and money, typically threaded through impressionistic, semi-linear narratives about Yung Lean's existential apathy and loneliness: Lean steady depressed bruh emotional boys in the VIP section/ 1 million plants in my room my walls are melting/ Reach out a hand with no gravity because no one is helping. It’s that self-definition through name-checking thing again, only the things that Yung Lean chooses to align himself are so played-out, expected and cliché that he seems to encompass both everybody and nobody at once—not the sum of his own idiosyncrasies, but of the generalities of a homogenizing, international pop culture.

Truth be told, it isn’t exactly something I would normally think of as “good music.” The trap-inspired productions by Yung Gud and Bladee can be pretty monolithic and awe-inspiring at times, but there’s a sluggish, almost energy-less quality to Yung Lean’s rapping, like he’s trying to create passably radio-ready hip-hop by exerting as little effort as possible (not even necessarily in that charmingly raw Chief Keef way, though). Given the similarly cast-off quality of the majority of his music videos thus far, it won't come as a surprise that Yung Lean and his cohorts are already causing some critics to wonder whether the whole Sad Boys thing is just a big elaborate joke. Catching them at a gig in London this year, Pigeons and Planes’ Joe Price noted that it was pretty much impossible to tell, even if the young fans who rolled up carrying cans of import Arizona Iced Tea and wearing the clan’s signature gold chains and bucket hats seemed to be taking the whole thing deadly seriously. I haven’t seen the Sad Boys play live yet (they’re coming to New York this month), though my hunch is that there’s definitely a lot more going on than a post-ironic rap music parody. You can hear it in the constant references to sadness and incompleteness, in the viscous, seductive drugginess of the music. If you look closely, you can see it in some of the finer details of their online presentation, like the wording on the button on their website that links to their store: “Just touching money has been proven to reduce physical and emotional pain.”

There’s a sense of humor to it, sure, but as Steph Kretowicz noted in her essay on Sophie and the PC Music dudes last week, it’s the sense of underlying emptiness that stays with you the longest. As with the most powerful, concept-based musical statements, you can’t ever really tell exactly where Yung Lean and the Sad Boys stand, or even where they position themselves in relation to the cultural reference points they mine. When you live where I live in Brooklyn, New York, you can walk over to your corner bodega and pick up a tall can of Arizona Iced Tea for a dollar; in Sweden, it’s something much harder to find, maybe even the kind of the thing that you seek out and covet and savor as a means of setting yourself apart from the other kids in class. Do the Sad Boys make the music that they make because they feel like they can’t escape American popular culture, or because they feel like they’re outside of it, pointing across the Atlantic to the things about this country that they’re crushing on from afar? Surely, it’s ambiguities such as these that make the Sad Boys so magnetic, although I can’t say I was surprised the other day, when Yung Lean name-checked Daniel Johnston on his Twitter. Like Odd Future before them, I think they’re aware of their outsider positioning, and that it’s the outsiders who end up changing the discourse. What really makes Sad Boys seem like they’re turning over a new page though—at least from this side of the pond, and in keeping with the evolving politics of taste—is that they’re trying to be outsiders on the inside.

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety: Yung Lean, the Sad Boys and the Evolution of the Outsider Stance