Yung Lean – ‘Starz’ review: influential sad-rap pioneer continues to intoxicate despite bad habits

The Swedish rapper's new record features just enough dazzling moments to justify his cult status, even if it lacks some of his trademark wit

Last November the cult Swedish rapper Yung Lean sat down in a grand ceremonial chair at Dublin’s Trinity College to be presented with the Bram Stoker Medal of Cultural Achievement. Here was Lean – an artist who shot to meme stardom in a bucket hat over half a decade back, with nobody 100% sure whether to treat him as sincere or satire – following in the footsteps of famous alumni Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, plus other notable recent guests including Angela Merkel, Helen Mirren and The Pixies.

Perhaps the person sending out the invitations was a big stan of Sadboy crew, the group Lean formed with fellow Swedes Yung Sherman and Yung Gud. Maybe JPEGMAFIA was already booked elsewhere. Either way, it was a surreal situation, one that Lean himself made light of: “It’s an honour to be here at Hogwarts.”

It might have felt like validation for both the rapper and his die-hard fans. For some, the Stockholm native – real name Jonatan Leandoer Håstad – will forever be a living meme, a dated Tumblr in-joke personified. But his horde of internet fanatics will point to the fact that he’s an artist whose influence far outweighs his stardom. Having released his debut mixtape ‘Unknown Death 2002’ in 2013, he’s long been a DIY outsider oddball with greater creative vision than his awkward technique suggests, and whose bloated back-catalogue features hidden gems well worth digging around for.

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Lean may have collaborated with Travis Scott, Frank Ocean and Gucci Mane, but – as a baby-faced OG of drugged-out, nihilistic sad-rap that’s now everywhere, himself indebted to the zany effortlessness of Lil B and comatose hooks of Chief Keef – he’s never quite reached the heights of the artists that he, somewhat indirectly, played a part in paving the way for: Post Malone, Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Peep. 

READ MORE: Yung Lean Interview: an audience with the original ‘Sad Boy’

Lean’s latest album, ‘Starz’, his fourth full-length and follow-up to 2017’s ‘Stranger’, aims to change all that. It was recorded between Portugal and a studio on top of an abandoned (and purportedly haunted) ballet school back in Sweden, and Lean has called the album his “best work yet”, telling Italian magazine Kaleidoscope: “It’s like The Smiths, like Gorillaz. It is big, and it is beautiful.”

It’s actually nothing like those two acts, but Lean remains as intoxicating and is frequently dazzling. The production, too, feels more imposing than before (perhaps owing to Lean’s work with Jack Donoghue of American witch house trio SALEM), from the barbed, unwieldy breakdown of opener ‘My Agenda’ and irresistible earworm ‘Yayo’ to the hazy and hypnotic ‘Acid at 7/11’. The cascading blast of ‘Butterfly Paralyzed’ evokes pure late-night euphoria.

Elsewhere ‘Hellraiser’ showcases the effectiveness of Lean’s quietly alluring songwriting, while ‘Boylife In EU’, a nod to the Cody ChesnuTT song ‘Boylife in America’, shifts between delicate poignancy and deafening, distorted bass, hammering home its emotional intensity.

As ever with Yung Lean, though, there are caveats. There’s the filler that’s dogged almost every one of his releases: the Ariel Pink-featuring title-track never quite takes off and ‘Iceheart’ sounds too much like the landfill SoundCloud rap that Lean helped inspire, while ‘Outta My Head’ is a thread-bare idea of a song that should have remained on the cutting room floor.

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Lyrically too, some of his usual charm is missing. There’s an absence of the playful quirks and one-liners that Lean that made so popular in the first place, and you find yourself wanting a smidge more of the artist who, on 2013’s ‘Emails’, shouted out cocaine, Gucci and Pokémon while flexing about having 600 unread messages.

Yung Lean’s music has always been more interesting than it is good. ‘Starz’ features just enough captivating moments to prevent him – now an unexpected seven years into his career – from feeling played-out.

Details

Release date: May 15

Record label: Year0001

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