Yung Lean Taps into His Inner Dylan on Lo-Fi ‘Nectar’ Project
It'd be hyperbolic to call him a modern-day Bob Dylan but this recent release: a) involves guitars and beat poetry; and b) is the best and most honest thing he’s made.
Press pic provided by PR
Somewhere around 2015 Yung Lean found himself in a mental hospital. He seems fairly reticent to reveal exactly what happened, understandably, but the events leading up to that point are now public, thanks to Miami police records. While in the Florida city recording 2016 album Warlord, according to a Fader cover story, he became heavily addicted to a stew of drugs: Xanax, cocaine, weed. Lean too, like his stage name. It was a troublesome, daily addiction.
Then – obviously, surely, as they always would have – things got weird. He told the Fader in that 2016 interview that he started dressing like a nurse, in hospital scrubs. For some reason he carried a knife. He wrote a book about rats, based on the Chinese zodiac. At one particularly elated yet detached point, he told the journalist that he even started to destroy his condo, smashing shit up and breaking glass. And so – eventually – his pal (and musician) Bladee called 911. Lean was going to hospital. He was barely 20 years old.
It is passé to talk about the internet (wow, isn’t it killing us etc), it is also sickening (go outside!), but in this case it’s important too. Yung Lean arrived years before the current crop of Soundcloud rappers with their candy-coloured hair, and he was similarly divisive. Here was a Swedish rapper, a child in fact, taking in black American culture and rearranging it. Break-out single “Ginseng Strip 2002” was eerie but it was a historical pop moment in its own way too – like hearing Jai Paul, or fka twigs, or Burial for the first time; music that assimilated disparate historical references into something that sounded of the future.
Production-wise, Lean’s team of Yung Sherman and Yung Gud shared similarities with a bunch of other artists that were born out of, and wouldn’t have survived without, the blogging culture of the mid-2000s. Like, for example the whole cloud rap scene – pioneered most famously by Clams Casino (and nailed with his unsurpassed classic of the genre, with Lil B) – that included the earlier, less acidic work of A$AP Rocky (check out “Purple Swag” or even “Peso” tbh). This genre was about woozy, heady, floaty tones – stuff made for popping percs, swigging lean and slooooooooooooowing down.
But unlike some of the above acts, Yung Lean had a particular intrigue about him – as if his true talent, one beyond the 'white teen from Scandinavia, but make it rap' novelty, had yet to surface (which we’ll get to later). Once I asked him what he likes about music and what message he wanted to send: “Fuck a message. I hate it when people try to explain music. The best thing about music is that it’s invisible” – which, excuse me, what? This was in 2014, right as Lean was in his prime. He brought back the bucket hat; he had a crazed and dedicated young fanbase – think Odd Future or Brockhampton but perhaps less diverse. This was his moment; and then… it just wasn’t anymore. Debut album Unknown Memory was panned. Bucket hats became lame. There were better rappers out there – or at least funnier, more eccentric ones, like the upcoming Lil Yachty (born out of a new generation of kooky Soundcloud artists) or Young Thug (born out of Atlanta or whatever that planet is he says he’s from).
But – and in spite of everything, such as the shooting up of his tour bus in Pittsburgh in 2017, or the death of his friend, Barron Machat, who ran Avant Garde label Hippos in Tanks, in 2015, Lean pushed forward. As well as dropping music with his punk band Död Mark, he released two more albums, 2016’s Warlord and 2017’s Stranger. “Red Bottom Sky”, a single from the latter, reintroduced an evolved Yung Lean – still sad but with a polish on the addictive hook led writing that had made him famous in the first place; while penultimate track “Agony” gave an acute, vivid sense of his mental state. In-fact, it’s almost gothic. Singing over low, mellow keys, he says: “Take a pill and go to sleep / I’m chasing witches in the street / I’m the last page in your book / can’t write a song can only do hooks”. Where his previous work may have seemed ironic even if it wasn’t, Stranger’s dark and alienated emotion came across natural and direct. Shit was shitty (even if the production and lyrics were some of his best yet).
In 2018, Yung Lean played a sold-out show at Brixton Academy. I didn’t go, but for the international readers, playing that venue means you’ve made it. Or at least made it to the tier that sits below the arena tier. He was supported by a bunch of people too, including Yves Tumor – one of the most experimental and celebrated artists going, who last year released the fantastically warped album Safe In The Hands Of Love. I heard Lean’s show was great. As though he was breaking through to another side in his career, still one of the leaders in a strand of avant-garde internet music. But then, in January came this: a solo record called Nectar released under the name Jonatan Leandoer127 (his birth name is Jonatan Leandoer Håstad) that sounds like Bob Dylan.
In fact, it sounds like a lot of people. There are shades of Lou Reed, beat poetry, Beck and – on “Wooden Girl” – crushing and sugar-sweet pop. It sounds like an album that could’ve been made in the 60s or even the 90s, if the psychedelic narration in a track like “Off With Their Heads” kept the reference to Orwell but removed the bits about iPhones and social media. In a short piece written on the album by the label, they describe Nectar as Jonatan “wandering the soundscapes of contemporary music's recent past trying to re-build his own fractured memories and cognition, peeling away through diverse layers of emotions and expressions along the way.” And while that reads like record-label speak, there is a truth to that statement. Nectar is an era away from a Yung Lean record, of a completely different world and time and space, which is to say he sounds the most like Jonatan, the real person behind a character who got famous before he even hit his twenties.
One source close to Lean and his crew tell me the record was supposedly recorded and written in one week. Lean would often listen to some chords then either freestyle his lyrics (there is a literal track called “Tangerine Warrior (Freestyle)”) or simply go for it, giving tracks like “Porcelain” their beat style. Listening to them, it can feel as if the side of Dylan that wrote “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” had been removed from the big man’s body and temporarily resided in the place Lean and Danish composer Fredrik Valentin wrote the nine tracks on Nectar.
But this isn’t a Dylan record – far from it. It’s a Jonatan Leandoer Håstad one. It also sounds like something of a recovery album too. Who can say if that’s from drugs, life situations or becoming oneself. What I can say for sure though is I’ve been going to therapy recently and they tell me that ‘recovery’ doesn’t only involve addiction, it also involves recovering from whatever has happened to you in the past few years. That can be a long process; it involves acceptance. When Jonatan sings “I put a curse on myself / I put a spell on my health” on opening track “Razor Love”, you can feel the cold grievance. Thankfully, it’s not all bad. This ability to translate feeling through musical osmosis continues through the record. When he says – albeit with some resigned recognition – that “I’m happy / I’m just happy I’m here” on second track “Moth”, you can feel that too. Same goes for "I chose my line of work so I could pretend" on "Wooden Girl" – perhaps a reference to previous releases.
Because Yung Lean may have been an experiment, it may have been a teenager releasing music that will exist online forever with or without their consent, it may have been real. In either case who knows and to try and explore it is pointless – this music is here, it is invisible, it is never going away. But there is a sense with Nectar that Yung Lean is shedding that previous image, realising his true potential. Imagine seeing whatever Bowie was behind the albums he made at 15. It’d be trite to compare the two. The point, though, is that Jonatan is grown now. I’m excited to see what he does next.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.