On “Violence”, the fourth song on Yung Lean’s seventh full-length Starz, the rapper paraphrases a mob boss from The Departed, played by Jack Nicholson: “You’re a product of your environment, my environment’s a product of me.” It’s less of a flex than a statement of fact: Lean is a foundational figure in the pantheon of white, middle-class kids making divisive internet rap. But Jonatan Leandoer Håstad, now rebranded as a vulnerable creative polymath, seeks something deeper than a Yung Lean coronation on his new album: instead of sampling the quote in all its iconic gravitas, Lean mutters his version through a sonic fog, the words ash-choked and made into his own. On Starz, Yung Lean turns inward without losing his rare ear for speaker-shaking rap, and creates some of the most compelling music of his hip-hop career.
Lean debuted in 2013 as the term “white privilege” was entrenched in the mainstream, and his music became a tinderbox for conversation. On viral tracks like “Ginseng Strip 2002,” “Oreomilkshake,” and “Gatorade,” Lean was a hormonal 16-year-old Swedish teenager obsessed with OJ Da Juiceman and cloud rappers like Main Attrakionz; he sounded exactly like he was supposed to. Well, almost: Lean’s youthful features and crisp, alien Scandinavian accent may have lent a clownish quality to bars about drugs, sex, and corner store snacks (Lean insists his music has never been intentionally funny). On the other hand, Lean created drugged-out atmospheres with palpable enthusiasm, and his lo-fi visual aesthetic so close to cringe, it could only ever be cool. Rather than sign his collective Sad Boys to a label, Lean created his own: Sky Team (now YEAR0001). The independent streak was hard to discount, even if the music wasn’t.
On Starz, Yung Lean turns inward without losing his rare ear for speaker-shaking rap, and creates some of the most compelling music of his hip-hop career.
Håstad’s musical trajectory shifted after the 2015 death of Barron Machat, Yung Lean’s U.S. manager and co-founder of the experimental label Hippos In Tanks. On subsequent projects, Håstad for the first time sounded truly invested in creating something worthwhile from the bleakness that infested his life. He started a punk band with longtime producer Gud called Död Mark, channeled his inner Dean Blunt as jonatan leandoer96, and wrote for Frank Ocean. On his rap records, Lean’s flow got tighter — bars are no longer back loaded with syllables — and his singing voice developed into an unexpected source of range. Lean is blackout drunk and endlessly suave on the decadent and tender rap ballads “Red Bottom Sky” and “Hennessy & Sailor Moon,” and delivers deadpan wretchedness on “Agony” from 2017’s ambitious, patchy Stranger.
On Starz, Lean builds on the melodic excellence of those songs and continues wrestling with his demons. As on Stranger, Lean on Starz sounds like an undead creature of the night who spends his time counting his treasure, reading poetry, and searching out rap on YouTube. But a special Lean song has a text or subtext of romance: the album’s sublime title track, which features Ariel Pink, recounts transcendent puppy love over an ice storm of synth pads: “When I met you that summer I thought it would never end / It would never end / You never end.” He stretches the concept to an absurd, wonderful place on “Butterfly Paralyzed,” a gamble on colliding Darude with 808s & Heartbreak that pays off. Some of Lean’s older songs can aspire to a rote rap ruthlessness as every day as a Jason mask; he can achieve it, and serve the song better, when he embraces the ineffable. On lead single “Boylife in EU,” a swooning reimagination of witch house with a strident sincerity, Lean creates the resonant scene of a corrupted haven: “Pretend this dream will never end,” he intones over a funereal synth. “Some things can't be unsaid.”
In older projects, Lean’s flexing sounded a size too small for his Gucci track pants as he delivered lines that sounded like someone’s younger brother who had forced himself into a cypher. That tendency isn’t completely outgrown on Starz. While Lean now longer attacks each syllable of his brags, his quiet confidence isn’t enough for him to deliver more juvenile lines with the effectiveness of rappers he looks up to. “Fendi tee, there’s no remedy / I got a lot of enemies” he raps on “Hellraiser,” sounding more Kidz Bop than Don Corleone. But for every clunker Lean drops, he more than makes up the ground: on “Acid at 7/11,” Lean documents the peak of a drug trip made more sublime by the designer he’s wearing and the hate he successfully deflects. “Yayo,” a song which is essentially a two-minute hook, makes drug-fuelled burnout sound beautiful thanks to Lean’s golden earworm: “Miami yayo-yayo-yayo-yayo-yayo-yah.”
Starz is a worthy addition to the recent boomlet of notable releases from Lean’s associates, albums like Ecco2k’s e, Bladee’s Exeter, and Thaiboy Digital’s Legendary Member. The most valuable connecting thread is not Lean himself but his stable of producers, Gud, Sherman, and whitearmour, who all worked on or impacted these projects (whitearmour produced the entirety of Starz with co-production from Sherman). The two Starz producers have considerably leveled up their talents in recent releases, and on the new project they build on the sizable influence of Clams Casino: tempestuous-yet-delicate rave electronics meet trap drums that can be propulsive or sedentary. For Lean, the sound is a perfect symbiote that can absorb him (“Sunset Sunrise”) or talk with his lyrics (“Dancing In The Dark.”)
The way Starz makes its past influences sound like prologue is reflected on Yung Lean’s own body. He has two tattoos on his neck: a scraggly stick-and-poke rendition of Goofy rests beneath his right ear, while a demon perches on the other side of his throat, its posture suggesting deep thought and dread. The images could be points in a timeline of Lean’s career, from twisted cartoon to tortured auteur, but our experience of time is not linear: On “Pikachu,” Lean twists a simile made famous by one of his biggest influences, Young Thug, comparing jewelry to Pokemon. It’s a homage, but as on the best moments of Starz, Yung Lean finds ways to make the past work for him instead of against. “Yellow black bracelet look like Pikachu” he mumbles in a flow learned from Atlanta; the words may not fully belong to Yung Lean, but they are his own, and there are more reasons to keep listening than ever.