Splitting opinions like a tube of Kalles Kaviar, Yung Lean is either the future of hip-hop or a Thug Life meme made flesh. Possibly both. Whichever side you take, there’s no denying the fact that in just three short years the Stockholm trap rapper has become an outsider teen icon.
Initially riding to prominence atop the Tumblr-wave, Lean and his Sad Boys crew took Future and Gucci Mane’s blueprint and doubled down on the feels. Seen by many as the millennial equivalent to Emo and Goth, his three albums of “cloud rap” fuse amphetamine-fuelled gangsta posturing with cathartic calls for help. Propelled along by DIY videos and the bassy, anxiety-inducing productions of Yung Shermun, Yung Gud and White Armor, their musical formula is intoxicating as it is bewildering. Lean’s global appeal is now so vast that he’s guesting on Gucci Mane mixtapes and getting ‘grammed with Justin Bieber, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Sheen.
For a guy who grew up idolizing 50 Cent in the frozen Scandinavian tundra, Jonatan Leandoer Håstad’s transition from fanboy to OG is miraculous. But, as with any rapid rise, his success has also been mired with jealousy, controversy and tragedy. In the first two weeks of Lean’s recent North American tour, trolls migrated from URL to IRL and repeatedly shot at his bus in Pittsburgh. A few days later, a Minneapolis show was cancelled due to an anonymous bomb threat. Heartbreakingly, a year ago his mentor and manager Barron Machat was killed in a Miami car crash after completing the recording sessions for Warlord, Lean’s superb new album.
Not even 20-years-old yet, Yung Lean has lived harder and faster than most people do in a lifetime. And he’s only just getting started.
Tim Noakes: Cold melancholia lies at the root of all your music. How did your environment contribute to your lyrical outlook?
Growing up and walking to school with snow on the floor gives you a different perspective, a darker side. You get deep into your imagination because it’s not sunny outside and you can’t run about and play. So you read books and watch films. I chose to make red wine in my basement and sell it to my school friends. I worked at McDonalds too. I’d earn money and spend it on clothes and drugs.
Do you think Swedish kids hit it harder than other teenagers?
Maybe not with drugs, but on alcohol they go so much harder. So many people are alcoholics. Teachers are usually alcoholics. You see people in bars not laughing and having a beer, but binge drinking. It’s illegal to drink until you’re 20, so if you’re 15 and want to get to get drunk with your friends, you have to buy it from cars that come in from Poland. They smuggle in cheap vodka and sell it for nothing. It’s fun.
How important are drugs to your musical process?
Way too big I think. I’ve come to realise it’s better to make music sober. I’ve seen a lot of people recording when they are fucked up and they don’t make songs. They are like, “baaaa baaaa baaaa” in the booth. They don’t write lyrics. I used to get so fucked up when I wrote songs, but now I try to get a little bit more sober when I create.
Did you make Warlord sober?
No, I was totally fucked up. Xanax, weed, everything. There’s a lot of kids that say they started smoking weed because of me. I’m a bad influence.
Does that weigh heavily on your shoulders?
Yeah. Don’t take drugs, kids. Make music.
What is the worst drug experience you’ve ever had?
These two gangsters booked us to play a show in Miami. I didn’t know who they were, but they showed us the boot of their car and it was filled with Gucci bags of money. They were like, “What drugs do you want?” I was like fuck it, let’s get MDMA, let’s get coke. So we did some blow before the show. I was fine, but Yung Gud was so high he ran up to the mic and started rapping – he’s a DJ, not a rapper. After the show we went out to the parking lot and start dabbing. We don’t dab in Sweden. I started coughing so much I had to sit in the back of the car.
The what happened?
After that we went to the hotel – which was crazy beautiful – and started taking molly. But we didn’t know how much to take because in Sweden you can take like, one and a half pills, and after a while the effects are crazy. So we’re in the pool with two topless ladies, going crazy, celebrating the end of the tour. This girl then takes me to her house and there’s loads of stuffed animals and outfits of animals hanging in the house. Voodoo shit. Her friends wanted to watch us fuck. I was like, ‘What is this? This isn’t cool’. Then she started filming us and wearing the animal stuff. I was so high on molly I had to run away. Those gangsters had given us the strongest MDMA in Miami. I was 16.
You’re synonymous with digital culture. Do you hate being switched on all the time?
I have a phone that is just buttons. I use that for calling and texting. I’m pretty much turned off. But when I’m on the road I have an iPhone to upload photos and stuff. A lot of people have a lot of internet friends and an internet personality. I don’t have that. For me it’s just work. At some point people are going to need physical things, because when you die you don’t want to just leave behind an iTunes library.
What would you leave behind
A pinball machine and five go-karts.
What book have you been reading on the Warlord tour?
Junkie. I just bought it. William Burroughs influenced me a lot. It sounds cheesy but I love Naked Lunch. I love And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, the one he did with Jack Kerouac. I also love Howl by Allen Ginsberg. The Beat Generation were kind of like Sad Boys. A bunch of people doing the same thing and inspiring each other.
A lot of people think it’s easy. They think they can say stupid stuff on a trap beat and make a video with 3D shit in the background. But you can’t steal ideas. You have to be original. People are stupid; they don’t deserve my time. I didn’t want to be famous.
Warlord is more aggressive to what you’ve done before. Are you more of an angry man than a sad boy these days?
Not really. Most of the songs are from the heart. If my voice sounds aggressive then it’s just from that time and space.
When you released “Ginseng Strip 2002”, there were a lot of people saying you were having a laugh. How does it feel to prove the critics wrong?
People can’t understand what they are scared of. It’s always been like that. I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. A lot of people think it’s easy. They think they can say stupid stuff on a trap beat and make a video with 3D shit in the background. But you can’t steal ideas. You have to be original. People are stupid, they don’t deserve my time. I didn’t want to be famous.
When you’re in the studio with Yung Sherman and Yung Gud, what is it about their music that ignites your imagination?
It’s like an unstoppable force. Sherman and Gud both have ADHD, so I have to be the calm one. Then when we make music I become the crazy one in the booth, jumping around. It’s like theatre – we trade positions. They’re my friends, they’re my family, they’re all I have.
Sad Boys are moving into fashion. When you started your clothing line a lot of people were just expecting a range of bucket hats.
Never. That is too easy – don’t do the easy stuff, make it hard for yourself.
You should design a line of floral dresses like the one you wear in the “Miami Ultras” video.
That would be cool. I’d fuck with that. When I used to take ecstasy I used to wear dresses.
Who rocked dresses the best, Kurt Cobain or Young Thug?
Kurt did it way earlier, but Young Thug wore better dresses.
Maybe you should wear one to your 20th birthday. How will you celebrate that milestone?
I’ll hang out with my Grandma, Bladee (rapper) and the crew. I want to see White Armor having a dance with my Grandma.
Can you trust him with Grandma?
I can’t trust him with any girl. Not even my Grandma. I’m kidding. The question is, can I trust my Grandma with him?
You recently tweeted that “It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”. Why does that John Milton quote resonate with you?
It’s beautiful. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer gets kicked out of heaven. I feel that it reflects on my own life as well. Read that quote and think about Yung Lean.
If hell froze over, what would you do with all the ice?
Build an igloo and hotbox it.