All photos by Jason Bergman
We live in truly unbelievable times. NASA recently confirmed that we sent a probe into interstellar space. Martha Stewart owns a drone for the purpose of taking aerial photos of her house. Cats and dogs are living together. And most unbelievable of all, the most hotly anticipated rap show in New York last night was from Yung Lean, a white Swedish teenager with a tenuous grasp on the English language and an obsession with Arizona Iced Tea. Noisey threw the show, and I can confirm. People. Were. Freaking. The. Fuck. Out. For further proof, see the GIF below:
When we first wrote about Yung Lean, he was a weird Swedish kid in a bucket hat, parroting random phrases taken from the rap lexicon back to us, dead-eyed yet precocious. Viewers were both amused and transfixed—it was something like a joke, except not at all. Through these truly bizarre and captivating early videos, flashes of genuine charisma shone through. Slowly, it seemed that this odd brilliance became Yung Lean’s default pose, and he transformed: from Charmander to Charizard, from meme to musician. He began putting out legitimately great songs such as “Kyoto” and “Yoshi City,” establishing him as something of an interstellar rap warrior, wearing sadness as if it were a cape of truth and justice. He developed an internet following, which materialized into flesh and bucket hat in his American live debut last night at Webster Hall. His vibe is that of American hip-hop, Google-Translated into Swedish and then back—you understand the individual words he’s saying, but there’s something off, a strangeness about him, as if maybe he doesn’t understand the connotations of his own language. To him, a Louis duffle bag full of heroin is just the same as a cool, refreshing can of Arizona Iced Tea—special and rare, because it is American and he is not.
Onstage last night, the amateurish charm of Lean’s first videos evaporated into a mist of pure professionalism. His stage presence is something that must be witnessed; he moved the way a rapper is supposed to move; he managed to enunciate his words even through the haze of AutoTune his voice is bathed in (without a vocal backing track, something rare in live hip-hop); he commanded the audience to form a circle pit, and they did, with the enthusiasm of the devout, while singing every single word to every single song. To his fans, he is not a meme, he’s just a dope, weird rapper, one whose popularity may very well be approaching a breaking point, or at least one of monetization: his merchandise is being made by the haute streetwear titans VFILES, and Arizona brand reps were at the show, bemusedly handing out iced tea and branded sunglasses to those in attendance, unsure how to exactly take their Yung Lean-indebted brand recognition but grateful nonetheless.
It’s unclear how exactly Yung Lean made this transition. Watching him before the show, he was clearly nervous, as any kid would be before they played inarguably the biggest show of their career. But once he was performing, he was a star in the making, becoming something larger than life. It was as if someone had taken the shy kid flashing goofy rap signifiers in videos like “Ginseng Strip 2002” and “Oreomilkshake” to study in the catacombs of Stockholm, under the tutelage of a wizened rap master, and he had emerged a full-fledged phenomenon. His new songs are confident, more robust. He’s pivoted from making music for himself to making music with the knowledge that he has an audience. Some, such as “Blood Rain,” are straight-up trance, and sound tailor-made for opening your arms and greeting a gentle rain alone in a field. Others wouldn’t sound out of place coming from the likes of SpaceGhostPurrp. But they’re real songs, with real hooks and real verses, and real appeal—each has hundreds of thousands of plays on SoundCloud, and even more over on YouTube.
And who, exactly, is listening to these songs? If last night’s show was any indications, Lean’s audience is largely comprised of the same kids who you might find at shows for Odd Future or Lil B, internet-addled teens well-versed in both hip-hop and meme culture. At this point, Yung Lean is no different from any other rapper they might listen to: quirky, a little too strange for pop’s center but accessible enough to develop both a following and a culture. These are the sort of fans an artist wants, ready to follow you to hell and back (or at least, as was the case with one kid I talked to, willing to drive from Philadelphia to see you perform). There’s no need for someone to explain Yung Lean to them; and it’s clear they innately get him, and he gets them. And last night, in his first ever U.S. concert, he proved that while he might have come from the internet, he’s not going anywhere.
Follow Drew on Twitter - @drewmillard