Several of 2017’s hip-hop chart breakthroughs have one thing in common: they’re sad, despairing and desolate. Take Post Malone’s ‘Rockstar’, Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘XO Tour Llif3’ or Future’s ‘Mask Off’. All three coat big hooks in tales of bleak, nihilistic excess. This isn’t a new trend by any stretch. In fact, Yung Lean was already mastering the same subjects aged 16.
In 2012, the Swedish rapper – real name Jonatan Leandoer Håstad – made apathy and despondency his winning formula. Breakthrough viral track ‘Ginseng Strip 2002’ is a nostalgia-laced tale of STIs and opiates that kickstarted Lean’s Sad Boy movement (the name given to his Stockholm crew and bucket hat-wearing fans). Since then, Håstad has steered his codeine-soaked songs in the direction of pop. Referring to himself in the third person, he told NME in 2016, “Lean could be on some Sid Vicious punk s**t one day, and then on some heartbroken Justin Timberlake / Nelly Furtado s**t.”
‘Stranger’ doesn’t go full Timberlake, but he’s getting there. ‘Red Bottom Sky’ is a sparse tale of tragedy, while the pent-up and riled beat for ‘Skimask’ could easily be mistaken for a Weeknd hit.
But Yung Lean still lacks quality control. The middle bulk of ‘Stranger’ can feel like being suspended in ice, experiencing a never-ending comedown. All loose keys and vague, drug-fuelled boasts, he rarely finds a hook to match the likes of ‘Rockstar’ or ‘Mask Off’. There’s one big exception: ‘Agony’ is a gorgeously honest song, starved of the default sheen that lets down a lot of ‘Stranger’. Over a meditative piano loop, Håstad sings, “When I’m afraid I lose my mind / It’s fine, it happens all the time”.
‘Agony’ highlights the difference between Yung Lean and his more chart-glued contemporaries. While their songs are catch-all anthems of overindulgence, his stories feel real and personal. In 2016, his former manager died in a car crash, and he checked into a mental hospital. Tragedy surrounds Yung Lean’s work, and ‘Stranger’’s best moments find him channelling turmoil into something cathartic.