It’s just past 4 p.m. in Sweden, and Yung Lean is sitting in his sparsely decorated bedroom, getting a tattoo while listening to Future and Nirvana. I’m over 1200 miles away in Southampton, England, talking to the 19-year-old Swedish artist via Google Hangouts.
In exactly one week from now, Yung Lean will set out on a world tour to support his new album Warlord. It’s a big step for the artist, his darkest and most aggressive project to date.
This is a stark contrast to the Yung Lean we were first met in the warped music video for the song “Ginseng Strip 2002.” Sporting a cream bucket hat and matching parka, the no-budget video was filmed around various locations in Stockholm and presented in a decidedly humble 4:3. That was back in 2013, when Yung Lean was just 16 years old. His lo-fi charm and internet-friendly aesthetics won him a cult following, and soon swarms of kids in bucket hats were bringing Arizona Iced Tea cans to Lean concerts, rapping back his lyrics word for word.
With classic rap videos for reference, Lean brought his unique perspective to life in vivid fashion. By the time he released his debut mixtape, Unknown Death 2002, the internet was eating out of his hand. Lean was reinterpreting hip-hop for the internet age.
Ignoring everything that people had come to expect from hip-hop, whether it be from the fringes or the mainstream, Yung Lean perplexed people as much as he delighted. His rapping was slapdash, the lyrics were bizarre and full of non-sequiturs, and the production was kaleidoscopic. Even though many were convinced that the music was mostly ironic, it was undeniably unique, and provided a fascinating look at how the genre was evolving through the prism of the world wide web.
The aesthetic has changed, but Lean is still doing things on his own terms. To announce Warlord, he appeared wearing a flowered dress and an embroidered shawl, with green hair and black fingernail polish. Lean has shifted away from the memes that defined his existence early on, and he is determined to make it clear that his art has never been a joke.
The Lean who appears on my computer screen today is more confident, more serious than the one who emerged on YouTube in 2013. He looks content, stopping me before we get into the interview so he can grab his coffee. When I ask him how he takes his, Lean enthusiastically responds by looking into the camera: “Fuck milk,” we say in succession.
Were you aware of culture outside of your own country from a young age?
Yeah, I grew up in Minsk, in Belarus. My mother speaks Russian, so she wanted me to grow up speaking Russian as well. So I lived with my parents in Belarus, and I went to Russian Kindergarten, which is where I learned Russian. Belarus had just become an independent country, there was no food in the supermarkets, so it looked very post-war, very Soviet. A few years after that, we moved back to Stockholm.
Have you been listening to English music since you were younger?
I was brought up on Black Sabbath, David Bowie, 50 Cent, and Guru. And it all comes out in my own music somewhere.
Who was the first rapper you ever listened to?
I think 50 Cent was the first American rapper I ever listened to, but I got two CDs for my eleventh or tenth birthday, and one of them was The Latin Kings. They’re a Swedish rap trio. The other was 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying. After that, my dad bought me Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1. I was really into rap when I was younger.
When did you decide you wanted to make music?
I made my first mixtape when I was 11. It was made during the summer, in the south of Sweden. Me and my friend would just start making beats and we had Singstar microphones, so we plugged them into the computer and recorded ten or twelve songs. Most of the songs sounded like we were trying to be Eminem.
What did your parents think about your music at first, and how did they react to your fame?
I kept it secret. I didn’t show my parents my music for a while, but when I got my first show I told my mom. She has a very Russian spirit in her, so she’s always been a proud mom, but she didn’t believe that I had a show so I had to show her the email. My dad thought it was crazy that I kept it away from him, because I was recording my music in the basement and he didn’t know.
Did the attention motivate you to make more music?
Not really, the motivation was more that we were having a good time. A lot of the motivation to keep making music came from Yung Sherman making so many beats, and just liking the songs we made together. I was 16 and I didn’t like school, so that was a lot of it, too.
Did you have a particularly bad time at school?
I just didn’t like it. I don’t like being told what to do. I went to a really pretentious school, everyone there didn’t like or care about my music until it was hot. When my videos only had 500 views, they just thought my music was stupid. I did have good friends, though. School was fun when I was a kid, but when you get to a certain age you’ll start to be inspired to do something else. But you know, growing up as a kid I had lots of fun running around the school, just being a rascal.
A lot of Swedes would go to that school, a lot of famous Swedish people like Tomas Tranströmer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, so it’s always been quite pretentious. Everyone wanted to act a certain way, but they only did it because it was a trend. But I did have three really good friends.
By 2014, your music had made enough of an impact that you were leaving for your first proper tour. What was that like?
It was nice being away from Stockholm. I just thought it was fun to make clothes for the tour, and I liked being with my friends on a tour bus and taking drugs and just having a good time.
What would you say you’ve learned the most from traveling the world with your friends?
Keep it very hippy. You have to be nice to each other, because it’s very easy to… You know, friends are important, and when you’re on tour you have to take care of each other. We all learn from touring. As long as you don’t fight and take care of each other, it’ll be good. A lot of people are so intimidated by other people’s success that they just want to exploit you for what you do or try to ruin your career, but you just gotta keep the snakes away.
After the success of your early material, there was some copying, but no one could really replicate your sound. Are you proud of the fact that you did something so unique?
Yeah! But, like, you can copy clothes and you can copy music styles, but you can’t copy someone’s love to create. I can do a video and you can try to do a Yung Lean-like video, but it’ll never be as good as the real thing.
It’s like fake designer.
Yeah, nobody wants fake designer.
Your manager Emilio [Fagone] has been with you since the very beginning. How did you guys meet and how does your working relationship operate?
He used to work at a shop next to my school, and I would go to that shop a lot to check out the clothes. After I uploaded “Greygoose” and “Ginseng Strip” to Youtube he just contacted me when they both had like 600 or so views, and he was like, “Yo do you need a manager?” I didn’t know what a manager was, so I was like, “What’s that?” And he just started laughing. He’s the boss.
Yung Lean stops the interview to show me his newly completed tattoo. It’s a spider, and Lean looks very pleased with the result. What looks like a black widow now crawls up his elbow towards his hand.
Drawing more heavily from outside the world of hip-hop, Warlord sounds closer to a Skinny Puppy record than the colorful post-808s & Heartbreak aesthetic of his early output. His commitment to this evolution comes across in his demeanor, too. He answers questions far more seriously that he has in the past, perhaps because interviewers didn’t know what to make of Lean when he first emerged.
Lean had both the advantage and misfortune of maturing in front of hundreds of thousands. Few artists have managed to reinvent themselves while maintaining a loyal fan base, but Lean hasn’t let the reactions to his material, positive or negative, influence his direction.
Would you consider the music you’re making hip-hop?
I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I just work with my gut feeling. I like keeping themes for songs and try not to get sidetracked by my influences. If I listen to too much Future or 21 Savage, I can hear them in my head when I’m rapping, so I try to get them away and I just find my own voice. I dunno, I guess my approach is Daniel Johnston mixed with a Lil Wayne.
From the outside it would seem you’ve made a concise effort to move away from the internet-based surrealism of your older work. Was there anything that sparked this shift?
When I was sixteen I was hanging out a lot on the internet, and I guess I’m very sensitive to my surroundings. I was at home a lot, so I was just watching movies and taking drugs, so that was just what was in my head. The more I became my own person, the closer I got to my feelings, the more personal my music became.”
It sounds like you’ve taken a step to make Warlord a lot more personal.
Yeah, and that’s not really a conscious step, it’s just the way it happened. I don’t want to rap, I have to. It’s not like, ‘Ok, now I’m going to sit down and write a song,’ I just write a song without really thinking about it.
Have you been experimenting with some different approaches rather than just rapping?
I wanted to make some Crystal Castles-like songs. It’s never really a conscious choice. It’s not like, ‘This song’s gonna be like this, here’s my reference point.’ When you make a song you hear how it’s going to sound in your head and you just want to portray it as accurately as possible. I think music should just stay in your head, and everyone should just try to create it in real life. When technology moves so far and you can just attach speakers to your head, I think everyone’s going to make music.
How do you feel about possibly alienating some of your fans with your shift in direction over the past year or so?
I don’t want to sound rude or anything, but I think the second you start making music for your fans, that’s the second you become bored. There’s always going to be fans that support me, and new fans are going to come, old fans are going to leave. Some people like me for this, some people like me for that, you know.
There’s still a lot of chemistry between you and the production of Gud and Sherman. Did you and the rest of your team decide to approach Warlord from a different angle than, Unknown Memory or Unknown Death?
No, we didn’t even talk about it. So the thing was, we decided to sit down and plan the album but then that meeting never really happened. We just went to Miami and started making the album. We were all on the same page without even having to say, ‘Oh the album should sound like this.’
Did you know from the start that “Hoover” was going to be the lead single?
Nah, I had no idea. At first I thought it sounded too much like Korn.
Have you ever considered rapping in Swedish, or is Yung Lean strictly an English language project for you?
I sing sometimes in Swedish, but rapping in Swedish doesn’t really translate well. I feel like I can better express myself with Yung Lean lyrics in English. But if I were to rap in Swedish, I’d try to make it a whole project.
You were on a Gucci Mane track last year, and you’ve worked with Mike Dean for Warlord. Those must have been special moments?
That was beautiful, yeah. Being on a Gucci Mane track one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Mike Dean and Yung Sherman go really well together. We were always joking about Mike being Sherman’s dad, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been to Sweden, you know, I’ve definitely had sex with some Swedish girls.’
Is there anyone else you’d go out of your way to collaborate with in the future, rapper or otherwise?
I want to work with Dean Blunt, Migos, Alicia Keys, and Young Thug.
Who is an artist who you especially clicked with?
Me and Travis Scott worked well together. I just went to his house in L.A. and we recorded “Ghosttown.” Hopefully we’ll get to work with each other again.
What music are you listening to these days?
I listen to everything really. Right now I’ve been listening to Croatian Amor, Misfits, 21 Savage, Soulja Boy, Cocteau Twins, and Slowdive. We listened to those last two a lot while making the album.
I remember seeing one of your early videos getting posted on Facebook by an artist I followed, and thinking how amazing it was when I went back a few months later and it had over a million views.
My heart is still in the 2000 views, that’s where I’m at.
I’ve noticed from a few posts online and some of your art that you’ve developed a fondness for gothic romanticism, like the work of Gustave Doré. Has art from that era of expressionism influenced your creative process?
Yeah, Gustave Doré is my favorite artist. I’m heavily into dreams, and I try to write down my dreams a lot of the time. Doré would always draw what he was dreaming about when he woke up. I like a lot of catholic religious art, Russian criminal tattoos, and Doré. Haruki Murakami is good, too, but his work is getting a bit boring now.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re a big fan of Yukio Mishima, and there’s a mish-mash of modern and classic aesthetics that bypass cultural boundaries in his work—do you see any parallels yourself?
Yukio Mishima is my favorite author. There’s this one part in the book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion where someone steps on a pregnant prostitute, it’s super dark. He’s inspired by both rural Japan and pop-culture, and I think that mix of traditional and new-age is relevant. It makes sense, and it’s how you become a better artist.
Do you feel as if you’re still a bit misunderstood?
People always try to make sense of things, so they always try to reference art to something else they already know. When I first came out as an artist, people said, ‘Oh this is like an art project, he’s making fun of rappers,’ or, ‘Oh he’s like Lil B.’ That’s the only way people think about artists, they always have to compare them to someone else.
That’s what I don’t like about hip-hop, it’s always such a competition for so many people, and I hate competition. You don’t win at music. I don’t think there should even be any award ceremonies. You try to express what’s inside, and you can’t measure that in money or in love. People just need to start seeing that humans are unique. People are different, there doesn’t always need to be comparisons.
Do you have a final destination in mind with your music?
I have a dream to own a house in Mexico, that’s my final destination. But, for Yung Lean there’s no final destination.
What’s the difference between yourself and the character you portray onstage and on record?
I think Yung Lean is a little more outrageous. When I created Yung Lean, he was everything that Jonatan wasn’t. Lean is a little more perverted, straight-to-the-point, a little more cocky.
You’ve got a huge following, but it seems like you avoid the spotlight for the most part. Do you prefer to keep a distance?
I always keep a distance. I’m not a star. I would like to become rich because then I can buy stuff, but I don’t wanna be a star. I’d like to sell out, but on my own terms. I don’t know, I’m not cut out to be a star, but I’m gonna be a star anyway.