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Yung Lean - Stardust Music Album Reviews

Yung Lean - Stardust Music Album Reviews
The Swedish artist’s new mixtape is the next step in his shedding the mantle of wannabe rapper and fully embracing a more comfortable role as a pop experimentalist.

Since the release of his breakout single “Ginseng Strip 2002” almost a decade ago, Swedish artist Yung Lean has fought to be treated as more than a gimmick. Though the song’s dreamy instrumentals signaled that it wasn’t just comedy rap, Lean was unquestionably imitating his favorite American rappers, dropping profane bars about sex acts and drug trips swaddled in an ironic vaporwave aesthetic. But as much as the record seemed tongue-in-cheek, there was always an obscured sincerity at the core, perhaps exemplified by Lean’s stage moniker: On the one hand, “Yung Lean” is something of a joke about carbon-copy rap names, but it’s also a legitimate play on his government name, Jonathan Leandoer.

Stardust is the next step in Lean’s shedding the mantle of wannabe rapper and fully embracing a more comfortable role as a pop experimentalist. After blowing up stateside, his early work suggested an attempt at a more mainstream rap career. He scored a feature from Travis Scott and a cameo on a Gucci Mane mixtape, but his flow and voice were still developing, and his attempts at straight-up rap felt awkward and out of place. Like many who experience sudden onset virality, he had to learn how to be a musician, working out his creative and personal growing pains in the public eye. Fame in America came with easy access to drugs, and Lean’s early success was marked by a series of tragedies, including the death of his manager, Hippos in Tanks founder Barron Machat. Lean opens up about his time in rehab and inpatient facilities in the documentary Yung Lean: In My Head, and it’s evident that he’s worked to find the clarity and strength now mirrored in his music. On Stardust, he exudes newfound confidence, but he’s also learned to make the flawed vulnerability of his voice work in his favor.

Lean’s voice has often been unfairly described as inaccessible or grating. But the very dissonance of his delivery and persona explains his appeal: the emotionality of the sad boy aesthetic juxtaposed against material flexes, a frequently imperfect voice over ornate and beautiful beats. On the outright ballad “Waterfall,” he stretches into a yearning falsetto, while on “Lips,” his voice withdraws into a more intimate mumble. His direct rapping now has a considerably more developed sense of cadence, like on “Nobody else,” where he flips effortlessly between a vocal-fried sing-song delivery and a more clipped flow. Set against the glistening voices of his Drain Gang associates Bladee and Ecco2k on “SummerTime Blood,” Lean’s tone is rougher and more down to earth, whereas his collaborators tilt toward the angelic. On “Starz2TheRainbow,” featuring Thaiboy Digital, several layers of overdubs circle and collide with one another, transforming Lean into an erratic choir.

Though promoted somewhat modestly as a mixtape, Stardust contains the most high-profile collaborations of Lean’s career. Alongside FKA twigs on album opener “Bliss,” Lean approaches post-punk, channeling New Order with guitar tones and a drum machine. Lean is a hopeless romantic, but twigs gives the song an outright sensuality, making it less a feature and more a duet where the two artists circle each other in a heated frenzy. On “Lips,” Skrillex lays down a smooth instrumental somewhere between UK speed garage and jazzy lounge piano, a leftfield sound for the EDM monolith and Yung Lean alike. The palette Skrillex employs on “SummerTime Blood” recalls “Where Are Ü Now,” but Yung Lean’s voice could not be more different from the spick-and-span choirboy vocals of Justin Bieber. If you took a time machine back to 2013 and told a music writer that the face of brostep and that weird Swedish kid who raps about AriZona Iced Tea would work together, they’d probably laugh you back to the future. In 2022, the union sounds natural.

The appearance of Salem’s Jack Donoghue on “All the things” is less surprising. Witch house influenced and ran parallel with American cloud rap from groups like Raider Klan, TeamSESH, and Green Ova, who laid the groundwork for the sound of Yung Lean’s Sad Boys production collective. A woozy trap ballad that turns into a stomping rave banger midway through, “All the things” retrofits the chorus from “All the Things She Said,” the signature hit from queerbaiting Russian duo t.A.T.u. The infamous trance-pop duo is, in many ways, a symbol of the kind of career Yung Lean could have had: an imported one-hit wonder mainly remembered for their lost-in-translation take on American pop. The t.A.T.u. reference almost knowingly places Lean in a lineage of global pop, but his work stands apart as a genuine melange of international influences that’s found an organic audience across borders rather than a blatantly commercial product.

Every musician is inevitably shaped by their origins, but Lean’s music has never been regionally specific, and he’s always performed in English. Stardust acts as a bridge between two worlds, uniting English-language pop stars with a long tradition of Swedish hip-hop known as “Svensk rap,” which conforms much more squarely to traditional rap beats than Lean does and is generally performed in Swedish. “Paradise Lost” features fellow Swedish singer Ant Wan, whose music reflects his mixed heritage as a Swede of Assyrian descent, blending reggaeton, Afrobeats, drill, and R&B with a bilingual flow. That Lean’s music is distinctly Swedish yet more popular than ever indicates pop’s global turn; Ant Wan’s sound isn’t too far off from a multilingual icon like Bad Bunny.

Though Lean first gained exposure through mimicry, he’s found his own voice, and a clear confidence in it, by abandoning imitation as a form of flattery. Rather than emulating Travis Scott or Drake, he’s found a niche more like that of FKA twigs, a pop provocateur and distinctive visual stylist who glides seamlessly between the mainstream and the esoteric. Memes still contribute to his success, with “Ginseng Strip 2002” recently worming back into the public consciousness as a TikTok phenomenon, but Lean has moved beyond the limits of genre and easy gimmicks. Stardust shows his potential for invention.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Yung Lean - Stardust Music Album Reviews Yung Lean - Stardust Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Wednesday, April 27, 2022 Rating: 5

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