The young Swedish rapper who made feeling bad fashionable in hip-hop again plays The Republic tonight.

yung lean photo
Yung Lean

Tonight Yung Lean plays The Republic. New contributor Raphael Helfand filed this preview.

Yung Lean is the king of sad rap. That doesn’t mean he’s the first or best rapper to ever rap about being sad.  Even in the ‘90s, when street cred was everything, MCs were often candid about their emotions. Traditionally slick Guru put his pride aside to talk about the pain of getting dumped on “Lovesick” and let Houston O.G. Scarface spill his guts all over their collaboration “Betrayal.” Tupac aired out years of therapy on “Dear Mama,” and Eminem’s early catalog is a lyrically dazzling, extended adult temper tantrum. Even RZA and Ghostface—the hardest of the hard—exposed the secret emotional life of the Shaolin monk on “Tearz.”

Then there are the truly depressing rappers. These are mostly underground guys such as Immortal Technique, whose most popular song is a harrowing seven-minute ballad about a guy who ends up raping his own mom (spoiler alert), or the ever-serious cult favorite Slug (of Atmosphere), who takes on themes like domestic violence, suicide, and animal cruelty, to name a few.

But Jonathan Aron Leandoer Håstad (aka Yung Lean) doesn’t belong to either of these camps. The 19-year-old Stockholm native and founding member of Sad Boys Entertainmente exists only nominally inside the same genre as even the most emotive rappers of the ‘90s, and he’s way too silly (and fashionable) to be lumped in with the emo spitters over at Rhymesayers.  

The sad boy approach to emotion is bizarre. The group—composed of Yung Lean, Yung Sherman, and Yung Gud—treats sadness like a status symbol.  Their references to emotionality are generally just shout-outs, and rarely go any deeper than that.  For instance, they often include the years 2001-2004 in their track titles, because they believe these were “the most emotional years,” with no further explanation.

Håstad grew up on the Internet, worlds away from hip-hop’s epicenter, which is probably why he idolizes web sensations like Lil B, whose stream-of-consciousness style is clearly present in Yung Lean’s music. It’s almost as though he’s taken the Based God’s “positive” brand, introduced it to some more traditional songwriting strategies like rhyme scheme and melody, drenched the vocals in reverb, and remarketed it as “sad.”  The end product is a drugged out, ethereal sound somewhere between Future and Aphex Twin, like a silent disco in a swimming pool full of cough syrup.

Yung Lean is vocal about his moody nature, but his content is as boastful as it is sad. Even when he does flirt with the theme of depression, he free-associates too much to focus on the feeling for too long. On “Miami Ultras,” a track off his newest album Warlord, such sentiments as “I miss some places / I wish we lived on another Earth” are offset by lines like “White diamonds, countin’ guap / I got marble on my watch.”  But the music video (probably directed by Lars von Trier’s hypebeast son) is uniformly bleak, and features Håstad digging a grave in the woods on an overcast day, wearing a sundress. In short, the “sadness” of Yung Lean’s music is all about his sound and his image. His lyrics are almost beside the point.

The sad boy movement has had a major influence stateside, creating a generation of aspiring hip-hop Kurt Cobains, from bizarre fringe rappers like Slug Christ and his Awful Records affiliates to the very mainstream Travis Scott, whose hauntingly beautiful “Drugs You Should Try It” is the most perfect sad boy anthem written to date. Even Future has dabbled in sad rap, baring his syrupy soul on “Codeine Crazy” and “News Or Somthn”.

Håstad began his rap career in a post-Kid Cudi, post-808s & Heartbreak, post-Drake world, where Auto-Tune is ubiquitous and J. Cole can make the Top 100 with a song about losing his virginity. Call him all-style, no substance. Call him a poser. Call him what you will, but is Yung Lean really being more disingenuous than anyone else in the rap game?  Sure, he may brag a lot, but mostly he’s just rapping about what he knows, which happens to be doing drugs and having feelings. Besides, he’s from a place where it’s dark pretty much always, so can you really blame him for being so sad?