Yung Lean was once an internet icon. A 13 year-old boy’s wet dream, a man from a meme world where only Arizona Iced Teas, old video games and Zooey Deschanel existed, he rapped in such a lovably half-assed flow that it felt happy and dopey. He was always someone who, if you liked him, you’d have to cover up with half-ironic statements, like, “oh, yeah, Yung Lean’s a weird dude,” as if he was a guilty pleasure, like loving Alvin and the Chipmunks. But now, it’s normal to listen to Yung Lean. And that’s what’s scary.
His best tracks, like the psychedelic “Yoshi City,” or the bass-heavy “Miami Ultras,” are definitely not pop. But ever since Lean’s U.S. manager Barron Machat died in a Xanax-fueled car crash in 2016, and Lean suffered through several mental breakdowns, it seems like he’s learned to take life more seriously, and his newer music reflects that.
In Stranger, his first post-tragedy album, Lean upended every musical stake he’d previously laid claim to, and which had made him somewhat unique. Lean’s vocals lost his signature “lazy” flair and took a more serious shape, with soulful croons about lost lovers and drugged-out disillusionment. His instrumentation, which always had been Clams Casino-flavored and felt cool yet crude (as if the beats were made in five minutes), suddenly became professionally atmospheric, sounding studio-made and radio-ready.
It felt like Lean lost his edge, but critics ate it up. The same ones who bashed him for cloning internet rap pioneers like Clams Casino, Main Attrakionz and Lil B suddenly praised his powerful, piercing emo anthems, some arguing he was carving out a new lane in music. What’s ironic is that this pivot made his music more derivative, as most of it is interchangeable with other watered-down emo SoundClouders like Lil Peep or nothing,nowhere.
Maybe I’m just frustrated at losing the reserved rights to the knowledge of Lean’s existence, but it does feel like his music has stagnated since aspiring to a commercial slickness. He descends further into pop territory on his newest album, Poison Ivy, and it only half works.
“Always down to make it happen, wrapped in plastic,” Lean raps on “trashy,” and it feels like an apt metaphor for the whole album. The title “Poison Ivy” and the sickly, green cover art couldn’t belie the contents more: the album is cherry-colored, ballads wrapped in pristine plastic and lathered in fruity pheromones.
After a while, it all fades into one mushy reverb sandwich. Executive producer Whitearmor’s sound is unique, but in itself it’s very samey, a mix of chime-like hi-hats and idyllic, futuristic percussion bits. It doesn’t benefit Lean that earlier this year, Whitearmor already executively produced Bladee’s Red Light, making nearly the exact same sort of fruity, bouncy beats for it.
Even though Poison Ivy is only eight tracks deep, it’s hard to differentiate between the blander ones like “silicon wings,” “trashy,” and “sauron.” I’m conflicted because from a certain vantage point, I can appreciate the delicacy of the instrumentals. But as a long-time Lean fan, they seem washed-out, and a serious step back from his past albums like Warlord and Unknown Death 2002 where every track was unique.
There are a few great cuts, though, like the album-standout “french hotel.” The track opens with some ear-catching, fast siren-like synths, and as Lean mumbles, “She’s off the pil-pill, we off the pills,” the beat comes to full fruition in a blaze of hallucinatory craziness. Stranger’s main theme was disillusionment, and the mood persists on this track. Even though Lean claims they’re off the pills, he just as soon observes that “she’s just marvelling, blood coming out her head,” and when his voice glitches in and out as he cries, “I’m off the drink, off the-” it becomes clear that he’s still stuck in the same nightmare, an endless Requiem for a Lean.
My other favorite is the closing track, “bender++girlfriend,” which has an especially magical second half. The beat mellows into sonic footsteps, gentle percussion pitter-patters like we’re walking through a Swedish forest glade. As Lean murmurs, “We cannot fall,” “She fell asleep on my arm,” and Whitearmor’s fairytale world drifts around us, it is borderline therapeutic, a sort of cross between Boards of Canada and meditation music. By the end, Lean’s voice crumbles into the microphone like a sand castle collapsing into the waves. It seems like he’s as tranquil as we are, and like he has finally come to terms with his own pains.
For his first album in a year, Poison Ivy is a little disappointing. But the album’s best tracks are some of Lean’s best work, and tracks like “french hotel” highlight a much-anticipated return to making higher tempo bangers. They were completely absent on Stranger, and now suggest that he hasn’t completely lost his former flair.
While Yung Lean isn't what he used to be, that might not be a bad thing. It might not be a good thing, though, either.
TOP: "french hotel," "ropeman," "bender++girlfriend"
BOTTOM: "silicon wings," "trashy," "sauron"