When Yung Lean arrived on the internet back in 2013 armed with viral rap bangers like “Ginseng Strip 2002” and “Hurt”, very few imagined that Swedish hip-hop could become a global phenomenon. But in the subsequent six years, the Stockholm artist has established himself as a trailblazer within the warped hip-hop realms of leftfield rap, releasing three studio albums (including his most recent 2017 LP, Stranger, with its near-perfect lead single, “Red Bottom Sky”), three mixtapes and a multitude of sonically diverse side-projects through the Swedish record label, YEAR0001. It’s worth noting: Yung Lean is still just 22 years of age.
While most Western rappers establish their core fanbases in the UK and USA, Yung Lean’s fanbase stretches into both obvious and unusual territories. He has a huge following in Russia, Germany, and Poland, and the running joke is that even the smallest village in provincial Europe will have at least one Yung Lean die hard. On a video shoot in rural Spain, Lean touched down in a tiny regional airport to find one rucksack wearing superfan awaiting his arrival with a notepad and pen in hand. Last November, he put on his own mini-festival in London, titled Wings of Desire, and sold over 5,000 tickets for the event.
His crew, Sad Boys, have now become a staple of 21st-century youth culture. They consist of fellow artists and beatmakers GUD and Yung Sherman – both friends with Yung Lean since high school – and respected artists in their own right. As a trio, they have crafted out the visual and sonic aesthetic that has kept Sad Boys so universally appealing. The atmospheric instrumentals they create are always transformative affairs, the kind of blissed out beats that can induce a hypnagogic hallucination. And over these come Yung Lean’s lyrics; ghostly and hook-laden raps about anything from mental health to Gatorade.
When I ask Lean to describe his music, he says, “Hard to say. Plastic bubble future pop, maybe? There’s no name for it.” It’s a fair statement. Every release brings a new flavour. Earlier this year, he reminded the world of his creative diversity by dropping Nectar, an album from his side project, Jonatan Leandoer127. Spanning across nine compact tracks, the record is a mesmerising collection of lo-fi art rock that captures Lean at his most lyrically poignant, crystallising vivid recollections, dreams and nightmares into flowing poetic verses.
But the charm of Sad Boys is also visual. Since they first exploded onto the internet wearing pristine white bucket hats and luxury sportswear, the Sad Boys crew have used fashion and visual art in ever more inventive ways. Their artwork is always intense and evocative, and their music videos range from sci-fi noir to meme-crazed surrealism – perfect bite-sized slices of cinema for the internet age. Across the messageboard, Reddit, each individual member has a cult following, dissecting their abstract fashion choices as if they were Louis Vuitton models. Since 2017, Sad Boys has also operated their fashion brand Sadboys Gear, creating clothing and accessories that sell out in the blink of an eye.
It’s for all these reasons and more that the Swedish rap crew felt like a perfect collaboration for New Era. Together, Yung Lean, Yung Sherman and Sadboys Gear creative director Bladee worked on creating a custom cap for the brand that brings the Sad Boys aesthetic into a traditional New Era 9Forty style. The resulting cap is a sleek black design with cartoonish silver stitching, a bespoke crew logo and the word “SAD” scribbled and embroidered across the front. Inspired by old NASCAR racing hats and early 2000s fashion brands, they wanted something that had something of a high-end rag doll feel.
With regards to the rest of 2019, we’ve simply been told to expect even more from Sad Boys: more Yung Lean, more Yung Sherman, more GUD, and even more crossover tracks with affiliated crews like Drain Gang. Lean also promises a magazine and some new videos. When I ask if anything he’s encountered in recent months has inspired his process, he nods.
“Life stories,” he says, “I met this taxi driver in Thailand that had an interesting story, there was another taxi driver in Philly who had a whole movie script based on his life that he was telling me about. Other than that: films – the soundtrack for Lilya 4-ever is always inspiring me. Sunsets and cities are inspiring too. I’m a city kid; I like the pulse of big cities.”
WE HAVE NOW SOLD OUT OF THE 9FORTY COLLABORATION WITH YUNG LEAN.