Artists: Yung Lean
Label: World Affairs
Release Date: April 8, 2022
Yung Lean has always been one of the more unique artists in the industry.
As the de facto leader of the “Sad Boys” collective, the Swedish rapper has been at the forefront of melodic hip-hop since dropping his debut mixtape, “Unknown Death 2002,” back in 2013.
But with the latest entry in his discography, “Stardust,” Lean — born Jonothan Leandoer — has fully embraced the alternative genre, which has had a heavy influence on his projects since 2016’s “Frost God.”
Even with this label serving as an alternative mixtape, Lean still maintains a semblance of the hip-hop that once made him a household name. But sadly, like some of his other post-2016 projects, the artist’s music feels like a creative mess desperately trying to find its footing, with a confusing combination of musical ingredients that often result in less than favorable dishes.
The project’s problems start off instantly with the FKA Twigs collaborative track, “Bliss,” and the solo sophomore track, “Trip.” As exciting as the production is and as enigmatically beautiful as Twigs’ voice is, Lean simply can’t match the energy, as he leans into the mumble-rap subgenre to the point of incoherence.
In fact, this seems to be the project’s biggest problem as a whole.
There are too many moments to count when Lean is clearly singing or rapping over a song’s beat, but the less-than-stellar audio engineering/mixing makes his voice practically unintelligible, hindering fans from even enjoying the lyrics.
Ironically enough, the album cover — a pencil drawing of various symbols and objects with Lean as the focus — perfectly encapsulates the mixtape: a confusing collection of music that is as difficult to listen to as it is to understand what exactly Lean wants to accomplish.
“Gold” is easily one of the project’s “diamond in the rough” moments. Harkening more to his hip-hop days, Lean’s voice acts as the centerpiece as he raps over a beat that screams “late night summer drive.” With his awkward yet smooth flow, Lean’s music may change, but his persona will always revolve around the grimly indeterminate future:
“I feel like hurtin’, feel like slaying, I’m a searcher at work / Raindrops in the fog creep like a fox, it’s absurd / I fell for you like a cliff, wishing well, take a seat / Love in my heart, but it's a sad song / Red fog, red fog, three red, dead dogs.”
Songs like “Starz2therainbow” (featuring Thaiboy Digital) and “Summertime Blood” (featuring Bladee and Ecco2k) are some of the LP’s most interesting attempts at stepping outside the box. With assistance from his fellow “Sad Boys” members, Lean and friends produce a disappointing flurry of different styles and voices where songs go from quiet to painful-on-the-ear. These tracks — like the rest of the project — contain many excellent pieces within, but ultimately fail when put together.
But the most head-turning feature is none other than dubstep legend Skrillex. Easily Lean’s most well-known feature since collaborating with a young, pre-antidote Travis Scott back on 2014’s “Ghosttown,” “Lips” represents one of the project’s most surprising moments. The production contains none of the aggressive head-bang inducing bass that made Skrillex famous, but instead, an uncharacteristically quiet beat that effortlessly melds with Lean’s vocals:
“You my butterfly, I’m moving ‘round the room from side to side / I need you, yeah, I need you, yeah, I want you, want you in my life / Whiskey sour one hand, make the ice and go from side to side / Put it on your body, make it melt, and make you go around.”
Even when his lyrics can be understood, there are many moments where Lean’s lines simply feel too soft. His voice does anything but match the production, as his excellent flows are lost in their strangely low volume.
One of the greatest flaws seen on the mixtape is its repetition. If the overall poor quality wasn’t enough, the songs feel way too similar, giving off the vibe that Lean is too comfortable creating projects, taking no time to stretch his creative muscles or even attempt to create something different.
Thankfully, songs like “Letting It All Go” and “Nobody Else” show that the artist’s vision is far from lost; when he puts his mind to it, the rapper can still create some beautifully depressing music.
The mixtape’s worst song is easily its penultimate track, “Waterfall.” With one of the most exhilarating beats on the whole tape, Lean delivers his most indigestible lyrics on the project, showcasing not only his worst track, but his least delivered potential.
Yes, melodic rap is a beautiful genre. But only when it’s done right. Even with some occasionally standout tracks, “Stardust” is Yung Lean’s worst project, and represents a low point in his career.
Alex Falter is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Falter is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.