By Phil Brown, Contributor
Few rappers in the game right now embody Swedish cloud rap/trap like Yung Lean. Okay, maybe Yung Lean is the only Swedish teenager mashing over-the-top Southern trap banger production and lyrical braggadocio, with internet-fueled, “based” production, at least the only one with a certifiable work ethic, and a posse of talented beatmakers.
Yung Lean has attracted equally extreme derision from established music critics, and adoration from meme-obsessed youngsters, both wholly unmerited reactions. Until recently, Yung Lean’s tracks have been intriguing, but mainly interesting because of their limitations.
Let’s face it, Lean’s flow on singles like “Ginseng Strip 2002” leave very much to be desired, and the lyrics are generally nonsensical. There’s certainly a lot of creativity on display in his early work, but it’s pretty amateurish.
Until recently, the only appeal to Lean was the humorous contrasts to be found, he was a self-aware teenager spouting sloppy, bizarre lines in a slightly mangled accent over surprisingly competent beats, and using every trap music trope in the game. An entertaining mix, to be sure.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I listened to Lean’s first “album” (really just a compilation of previously released work) “Unknown Death 2002,” several times over. The lyrics and Lean’s flow do get a bit old, but the production, courtesy of his friends Yung Sherman and Yung Gud, is perfectly on point.
Nailing some halfway point between the abstract, floating sounds of Clams Casino’s cloud rap, and the trap influences Lean and Co. are so obsessed with, the beats on Yung Lean’s work are genuinely entertaining.
Now, Yung Lean releases his first proper album: “Unknown Memory.” We got a taste of what was to come when he released the single “Yoshi City” a few months ago. While some of Yung Lean’s painful shortcomings were evident when it came to purely rapping, a particularly beautiful instrumental courtesy of Yung Gud, and vastly improved (and properly mastered) verses from Lean, showcased an improving artist, someone becoming more comfortable in his genre of choice.
Lean’s hook and laid-back flow mesh well with Gud’s beat, it’s a catchy, entertaining song, making me excited for an album full of similar tracks. Instead, “Yoshi City” now seems like a transition from one stage of Yung Lean The Act to another.
“Unknown Memory” is a lot different than Lean’s previous releases. It’s much smoother, much less amateurish. It doesn’t place the contrasts of persona, subject matter and quality in the forefront as the other mixtapes and singles did.
For some, that was the only interesting thing about Yung Lean, the almost intentionally bad rapping and corny over-the-top bizarro lyrics over decent, professional-sounding beats: that was the appeal, the punch-line. I see the album differently.
To me, the voice, amateur flow and all, of Yung Lean has always been that of a character, like an instrument in a band. It was only a part of what made his music compelling.
In “Unknown Memory”, Lean has simply become better at playing that instrument. He’s assimilated himself further into the music itself, rather than standing out so awkwardly.
The production of the songs are really good, the sing-song flow of Lean would definitely fall flat with anything else. But his lyrics and flow also add something unique to Yung Gud and Yung Sherman’s instrumentals: there’s no other rapper like him. He’s definitely influenced by artists, he seems to really be invoking Future in this album.
But idiosyncrasies and all, Yung Lean’s is a unique voice in hip-hop. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The act Yung Lean seems much more like a band to me now than a solo act, a band with three members, Yung Gud, Yung Sherman and Yung Lean.
Yung Gud exerts a lot of influence on the album; he’s responsible for the production on 8 out of the 14 total tracks, and mixed the entire album himself.
I consider Gud’s work to be some of my favorite modern hip-hop instrumentation. Even back on tracks like “Gatorade,” Gud demonstrated an ability to deconstruct the tropes of trap, and modern hip-hop trends in general, and put them back together with a twist.
His beats hit all the right buttons: the repetitive rhythms, the triple-time hi-hats, and the simple synth harmonies seem lifted out of a Trap Music Textbook, or a DJ Mustard hit song. But he implements these elements with a more relaxed tempo, creative sample choices, and layers of atmosphere and texture usually found in more abstract work.
Coupled with Yung Lean’s vocals, the result is a compelling mixture of influences, and in Unknown Memory, that mixture is sounding more and more like a complete package.
Gud’s triumph on Unknown Memory is probably “Ghosttown,” a vaguely eerie and deceptively minimal soundscape punctuated by a simple beat that, while initially eschewing the trap furnishings, gradually gets more involved leading to the album’s only feature in Travi$ Scott, who finishes off the track with a welcome change of pace.
It’s a mouthwatering taste of what Yung Gud might accomplish by branching out a bit.
Yung Sherman only produces three tracks on the album, but all of them are memorable. Sherman relies more heavily on layered loops, slowly building up from a soft, sweet base and adding a basic beat on top of it.
He seems to channel more of a Clams Casino vibe than Gud. His production on earlier Yung Lean efforts has always seemed to clash more than usual with the titular rapper’s flow, but in his Unknown Memory tracks, they play much nicer together. “Don’t Go” may be my favorite track on the album.
It’s anchored by a poignant vocal sample and some heavenly synth harmony that simmers for over a minute before a Yung Lean verse that’s much more disciplined and rhythmic than, say, his verse on Sherman’s “Lightsaber,” and more direct and tuneful than the mumbling “Greygoose” disaster.
Lean’s lyrics remain inscrutable, but the bizarre mental images he conjures are still as entertaining as ever. Unknown Memory is an album that is easy to to be entertained by. The beats are fresh and catchy.
The rapping is enjoyable, if hard to take seriously. But this isn’t an album that you have to, or even should, take too seriously anyway. If you like hip-hop at all, you’ll probably find something to latch on to in this album, because it’s an album made by people who liked hip-hop so much they took all their favorite things about hip-hop and made them into one thing.