The latest rap urchin born of niche YouTube hype is Yung Lean, an 18-year-old Swedish (read: hyper white) boy whose iconic accessory is a 20 oz. can of AriZona Iced Tea. His crew is the Sad Boys. As a rapper, Yung Lean sounds like chloroform feels.
He’s a perplexing phenom. His appeal is arguably ironic; though Lean isn't as cheeky or sublime as RiFF RAFF, another white Millennial idol who raps like a dysfunctional meme generator set to Faded. A divisive steez, to be sure.
It’s not just cult rap and “ironic” hip-hop that’s irritating fans who idealize "the real" above all, abhorring "the fake shit." Since 2009, retired correctional officer Rick Ross has suffered the brunt of such skepticism in its most self-serious form: denying an artist's talent because we reject his credentials as a trafficker. Note that Ross’ rivals and Ross himself perpetuated the obsession with his no-longer-supposed Black Mafia ties, each side tripling down on this notion that William Leonard Roberts and Ricky Rozay are compatibly, interchangably real.
The mainstream profitability of a few white rappers has further complicated matters as of late. Macklemore is earnest to the point of self-parody; and anyway he's corny. Iggy Azalea, by way of Australia, is an intercontinental appropriation of Atlanta’s black women. RiFF RAFF and Yung Lean, they're the ones who may or may not be fucking with you. And no fan wants to be an artist's fool.
Beyond fandom, music criticism is contractually obligated to overthink. So the prevailing curiosity about Yung Lean, of course, is whether he's foreign adopter of trippy Americana, or is he a parody? Emilie Friedlander interviewed the rapper and his BFF producer, Yung Gud, for the Fader a week before the Sad Boys first two performances in the U.S., at Webster Hall in Manhattan and Palisades in Brooklyn:
FADER: From an American perspective, you can’t tell if you love a lot of things from here or are making fun of them.
YUNG LEAN: It’s definitely not making fun of it. The products that we rap about—that’s stuff that we like.
YUNG GUD: I feel like something that is kind of us is taking a specific product and taking it out of its context—like taking Arizona Ice Tea and making it cry. Taking brands and specific parts of maybe American culture and just ripping it apart.
YUNG LEAN: It’s not like our songs go, “Walk up in the store, buy an Arizona…”
In a genre where it is, in fact, common for stars to instruct us to walk up in whichever store and buy whichever brand, I’d argue that it’s encouraging to hear rappers prodding us in weirder, less aggressively commercial ways. Yung Lean, at the ripe age of 18, seems to understand at least this much, that music is entertainment and so he’s an entertainer foremost: “America is so much more ‘show business,’" Lean says. "For instance, you have Barack Obama. We have Fredrik Reinfeldt. Everyone in the world knows Barack Obama! In the U.S., everything is big. It’s like looking through a magnifying glass.”
I, too, recently realized as much up close. At the promo concert for his latest album, Mastermind, Rick Ross took the stage with surprise cameos from The LOX, French Montana, and Busta Rhymes. I was just a couple of bodies removed from the front stage, among a shoulder-tight crowd, as the boys jolted between stage left and right. Sweating, shouting, beating their chests: performing. There was a moment during that show when the sight of Ross blinking sweat and palming his brow blended with my recollection of George Clinton, backed by Collins and the All-Stars, lurching, swinging, shouting, performing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Black men with big guts who just fucking love music; and they're so fortunate to jam for a living.
Live shows are reminders that, authenticity aside, rappers and singers are “acts,” insomuch as they are stage performers. They are savvy and produced and manufactured to whatever extent. Yet the connection between artist and fanbase is real, however inarticulate or apparently naive. At an in-store concert earlier this month in SoHo, one Yung Lean fan insisted to the New Yorker, "Even if you don’t understand what he’s saying, it’s about a feeling—a really heavy feeling."
Justin Charity is a staff writer at Complex. He tweets @BrotherNumpsa.