From his name alone, Yung Lean sounds like a parody artist — a young, white European kid taking stabs at hip-hop’s varied tropes. Initial impressions aside, Lean is certainly serious about his craft and on his newest album, he gets closer to finding his groove.
Kicking off his rap career with the Sad Boys and his viral hit “Ginseng Strip 2002,” Lean’s music and image screamed Tumblr baby. His debut album Unknown Memory attempted to tackle personal issues with melancholic instrumentals, but Lean’s writing left something to desire. Filled with gloomy and depressive lyrics and lethargic cloud rap beats, his second record was more of the same. Now, with his newest project Stranger, Yung Lean comes into his own with a mature, introspective release.
Amongst colleagues and rap aficionados, Lean is incorrectly known as the European white guy who puts his own spin on hip-hop. Although that may have been partially true in 2013, it certainly isn’t now. Stranger isn’t even a pure hip-hop album — it’s more R&B than anything. The record’s few rap elements are the most boring components, with songs such as “Salute / Pacman” and “Iceman” leaving much to be desired in Lean’s vocals and core messages.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, “Red Bottom Sky” surveys Lean’s outlook on life. His voice sounds tentative, as if he lacks the confidence to reveal his true opinions and emotions, but the abstractions and sensitivity in this song are its most impressive features. Why he avoided this style of music before Stranger is unknown, but this new R&B-esque style of rap allows Lean to express his true opinions rather than whatever his moniker warrants.
The switch back and forth between hip hop and R&B creates a slight gray area for the listener, but once decoded it’s certainly not difficult to listen to. Overall, slight vocal riffs and muddy beats dominate the entirety of Stranger, making it slightly sterile in comparison to trends of modern hip-hop. Nonetheless, Yung Lean fans will likely look back on Stranger as an important moment of transition in Lean’s progression as an artist.
The shining jewel of Stranger is its production. Yung Lean consistently releases fantastically produced albums, and this time is no different with long-time collaborator and fellow Sad Boy Yung Gud, Yung Sherman and Whitearmor. The aforementioned “Iceman” could have easily been a brief instrumental with its graceful interpretation of grime, and other songs add additional hints of pop, hardcore punk and soul to keep the listener interested.
The two most interesting tracks of the record bring up the rear of Stranger. “Agony” is a personal favorite — the melting piano chords complements the simple production of this track perfectly, leaving the song wide-open for Lean to pen his eerie messages about mental health and the healing process. Concluding with the support of a children’s choir, “Agony” hits hard. In contrast, the album’s final song, “Yellowman,” acts as a response to Lean’s message in “Agony” with its snare drum and bass guitar blending in well with the track’s ambiance in an argument for sanity. However, Lean’s lyrics leave much to be desired, and his vocal performance is shaky at times. Together, these two show all of Lean’s potential and shortcomings in just a little over eight minutes.
Anyone looking to get into Yung Lean’s music should give Stranger a shot. It’s certainly above average with engaging and shining moments to prove itself. Longtime Lean fans might feel as if they’re in uncharted territory with this LP, but those that enjoy this new direction will hopefully find the payoff in Lean’s next album.