The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Sad boys, fleece jackets and Tumblr: A commentary on Yung Lean


The narrative of an artist becoming successful after being discovered on the Internet is no new phenomenon. Practically anyone can be the next “it” person, thanks to our ever-growing digital culture and the following of this not-so-secret formula: Record a few crappy songs on your laptop, upload them to the internet, and wake up the next morning to an inbox full of eager record labels looking to cash in on your raw talent. Swedish rapper Yung Lean is just another example of how this formula can launch just a few bored teenagers making music in their spare time into IRL rap stars selling out shows around the globe.

I first encountered Yung Lean when an artist I follow on Twitter tweeted a link to one of his videos late last year, essentially praising him for making the best underground rap song ever. After clicking the link, I could not take watching it for more than 15 seconds. The fact that the video had amassed millions of views puzzled me: Why had so many people endured a four-minute video featuring a Swedish kid waving his hands around while rapping about Mario Kart and blowing bubbles in front of expensive cars? Feeling disturbed, I quickly closed the tab and went on with my life.

Now it’s August 2014, six months from my initial distaste for Yung Lean, and I cannot seem to get myself to stop listening to his music. There is only so much resistance one can do, especially given that his songs were constantly being tweeted, reblogged, or suggested on my news feeds.  I do not consider this a guilty pleasure, because I have wholeheartedly endorsed Yung Lean to a few friends of mine, but I do find it odd how I went from intensely disliking him to creating an entire Spotify playlist dedicated to him. Following him on just about every social media platform, I was even bummed when I discovered his Chicago tour date was sold out. In fact, I’m listening to him right now as I write this article. But just what is it about Yung Lean that has me so captivated? I still do not have a definitive answer, but looking further into his background had a lot to do with my enthusiasm.

Originally from Stockholm, 18-year-old Yung Lean has managed to release several mixtapes and singles via YouTube videos that have garnered millions of hits. Each of his releases thus far has been made with a DIY-style of production, with Yung Lean only receiving assistance from his friends (Sad Boys; Yung Sherman and Yung Gud) when writing lyrics and making beats. In 2013, he released two mixtapes titled “sadboys2001” and “Unknown Death”, each increasing Yung Lean’s rise to Internet popularity, especially on Tumblr.  His single “Kyoto” has garnered him the most attention thus far, with the music video just shy of 3 million views and the SoundCloud upload nearing the 2 million play mark.

Similar to the rest of Yung Lean’s music, “Kyoto” is a glitchy track complete with heavy trap-sounding bass, high-pitched haunting synths, and Yung Lean’s own auto-tune soaked voice rhyming about Coca Cola and feeling dissatisfied with life. The visual for the song matches perfectly, as Yung Lean and Sad Boys are shown covered in all black attire posted up on ATVs, boats, and luxury cars. Throughout the entire four minutes of the video, Yung Lean and his crew never flash a smile, a seriousness that adds to their “sad” aesthetic.

Frequent themes that appear in Yung Lean’s work include Gatorade, North Face jackets, and Arizona Iced Tea. As stated in several of his interviews, Yung Lean draws inspiration for his songs and visuals through learning about American culture from browsing the internet. He also stated that he taught himself to rap just by listening to American rappers like 50 Cent and Gang Starr. Though he loves Sweden, Yung Lean admits his home country was not as accepting as the United States.

“We were like really hated there in the beginning”, Yung Lean said in an interview with The Message Magazine. “Our biggest fanbase is actually in America, they understand our music. Sweden was the last to catch on.”

American fans are indeed die-hard for Yung Lean, as they typically arrive to his shows decked out in signature Yung Lean attire like bucket hats and monochrome outfits. Even on the Internet, a quick glance at the #yunglean hashtag on Instagram will show over 20,000 photos of his admirers sporting similar gear.

Not all Americans were as easy to endorse Yung Lean however, as he is often grouped with Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea, and Avril Lavigne as being guilty of cultural appropriation. What makes Yung Lean an interesting target is the fact that he is from Sweden, which suggests he’s actually appropriating American rap culture through his visuals.

Speculation about what cultures can and cannot appropriated aside, what can at least be appreciated about him are his efforts to take something unfamiliar that he admires and turn it into art. The argument of cultural appropriation against Yung Lean is rendered ineffective when discussing his work anyway, as he often gives credits to the rappers and cultures that inspire him.

The cross-cultural connection between Yung Lean and his perspective of American rap culture is refreshing. Despite all the Lil B comparisons, he is able to uniquely channel the signifiers of American rap culture through his songs and visuals, creating a sort of reflection of our own culture through the eyes of a Swedish teen who spends a lot of time on the internet. Yung Lean also shows no signs of cheering up for anyone, as his debut album “Without Memory” is scheduled to be released later this year. While it may seem strange for Americans to listen to someone seriously rap about video games, fleece jackets, and Oreo milkshakes, Yung Lean is actually just merely expressing his admiration for all things American.

More to Discover