Critics have historically treated Yung Lean and his entourage with skepticism, as if immediately after submitting their concert/album review they’ll pick up a call from MTV’s Pranked. “That Sad Boys show last night was a total set-up, we found those kid stoned in the back alley before the set, and you gave it a 7.5?!”
And so it’s immensely interesting to go back and read what the culture critics said about the young Swedish rapper’s earlier work, like the pretentious-tastemaker kings of Pitchfork likening his 2014 debut album Unknown Memory to the second season of the “Jersey Shore.” (Don’t worry, I’m not here to make the constantly-evoked cry of the controversial micro-genre music fan, “well, the critics just don’t get it.”)
It’s not that critics don’t get it, most of these guys scribbling in hipster mags are the same types you’d find at any given trendy concert; they just get paid to write about it. Vice, for one, actually praised Leandoer quite prophetically in the early 2010s. “He’s not going anywhere.”
While longtime listeners may wish to gloat, the power of our present 2020 hindsight reveals there was good reason to treat the burgeoning underground rap artist with skepticism. The Sad Boys, the Gravity Boys, Drain Gang, Shield Gang — and of course, Yung Lean individually, were actually doing something new.
When critics and fans alike witness the avant-garde in operation, most feel drawn to defending the old norms, rather than outright embracing the new insurrection. Acquiring the bona fides of artistic vanguardism requires suffering through these hostile and backward-thinking attacks.
“Written off as a novelty at first,” begins the profile of the rapper published this month in The Guardian. “The 23-year-old Swedish artist reflects on his new status as a pioneer…”
“Rather than a lost-in-translation curio, [Yung Lean] is now considered a pioneer in emo-rap, the hugely popular strain of hip-hop in which mumbled lyrics about intoxication and alienation meet trap beats, spaced-out instrumentals and melodic hooks,” the article continues.
We’re in 2020 now, Yung Lean’s new album Starz was just released, and the music industry’s press organs finally understand the once boy-faced rapper’s appeal. While it’s certainly true Lean’s eclectic style and originality was part of the reason he was overlooked for so long, I posit an additional reason.
Yung Lean and the Sad Boys phenomenon spread from Sweden, to Canada, to the United States and beyond through entirely novel means. Not simply “the internet,” but the Twitch.tv stream. No one but the most online of the online saw this unfold in real time, and even if they did (like the author), they had no idea how far-reaching the audience of a popular video-game streamer would become.
The current dearth of substantive cataloging on Yung Lean’s rise to fame reveals why critics and the “mainstream” were so slow to catch on to the cloud-rap zeitgeist that recently culminated in Travis Scott performing his distantly-Sad Boys inspired music in a virtual concert through the video-game Fortnite.
To fill readers in, back when he was Travis $cott, the now platinum rapper featured on the Yung Lean song “Ghosttown,” which appeared on the previously mentioned 2014 album that Pitchfork decried for unoriginality and gave a 3.6. Later, the two would collaborate on a sadly unreleased version of “Wasted,” which was slated to appear on Scott’s breakthrough 2015 album Rodeo.
It’s no coincidence that Yung Lean-collaborator Travis Scott is now the (CGI) face of zoomer/young millennial-gamer music tastes, but the story of why and how such psychedelic, “spaced-out” beats and vibes caught on in this population has yet to be told.
The present telling of Sad Boys history that appears in profiles and reviews isn’t inaccurate, and goes something like this:
Lil B invented meme rap in the late 2000s/early 2010s, where your lyrics didn’t really matter, and the lo-fi nature of your beats was a positive. Chicago drill artist Chief Keef subsequently made rapping ridiculous shit about drugs over deep trap-beats popular, while Odd Future simultaneously solidified and codified the cultural identity of the urban/suburban millennial, internet-obsessed, perc-popping, dope-smoking, globalized rap consumer. (For the sake of brevity, I assume, the chopped and screwed scene that came out of Houston and the underground scene that came out of Memphis in the 1990s is rarely mentioned.)
And then Yung Lean came out with “Ginseng Strip.”
From there, we’re to believe Lean just became a human meme, spreading throughout the internet and eliciting polarized love and hate. The New York Times described him around this time as “a pastiche of the first wave of Tumblr-influenced meme-rap.”
Like I said, it’s not wrong; but it’s not the full story, either.
The origin of Yung Lean as a true “meme,” and not simply an artist popular on Tumblr vaporwave pages did not come out of nowhere. He caught on early with a very prolific mind-virus spreading population in 2013/2014: the North American DotA 2 competitive scene. More specifically one player in particular, Artour “Arteezy” Babaev, a teenaged Uzbek immigrant to Canada who loved to play songs such as “Kyoto” on repeat while he streamed.
In a HipHopHeads subreddit interview (again, from six years ago, and before the release of Unknown Memory), Yung Lean actually gives Arteezy a shout-out for spreading his music among the gaming masses:
People in the DOTA2 gaming scene love your shit, they want to know if you’re aware of their fandom? I must say that I love it. Thaiboy goon was gaming the other day and told me that arteezy was playing kyoto for like this whole hour stream. Never been into dota but I really respect it. Its cool as fuck to be down with the gaming community. S/o to arteezy.Posted by u/[deleted]6 years ago
A 2014 JoinDota.com forum post further confirms this, if the words from the mouth of Lean himself aren’t enough:
Yung Lean “memes” origin?
Just feel curious of how this thing started. Ty in advancesigseg 2014-01-080
Arteezys streamVishwanath 2014-01-08
There is a lot of rich history internet oral history related to Babaev, who is now a millionaire from his esport winnings. Arteezy was a prolific “in-house league” player, which refers to private lobbies and ranking ladders set up by the most competitive players in a regional gaming scene.
In North America, the leagues primarily revolved around a set of two dozen hardcore players, who would later form the earliest competitive DotA 2 teams. These players congregated on a vBulletin-style forum called NADotA.com, which was created in 2009 when DotA was still a “custom map” played in Warcraft 3. The original site is sadly dead, but the NADotA shirt became such a staple of North American LAN events that apparently someone is still making money off of it.
DotA, or Defense of the Ancients is a video-game that was never particularly popular in the United States or Canada, and this forced North American players to develop a unique sense of solidarity. As you can see below, the League of Legends – DotA dichotomy follows old Cold War battle-lines, and if data were available, I have no doubt China would be green as well.
Arteezy became an in-house “fiend,” grinding his way up the ladder and earning the respect of top-tier in-house players such as Brandon “Brood_Star” Bui, a notorious NADotA.com forum troll and in-house league master; the rare type of shitposter that could back up his cocky-talk and backseat gaming critique with proven skill and savant-level intelligence.
Brood_Star outlined his “creation” of Arteezy in a six-year-old Reddit post. (His username “WHATSURDICKLIKE” was one he also used on NADotA.com, and is a reference to an Azealia Banks song he liked to spam the lyrics to.)
I created “A-god” commonly known as Arteezy. By simultaneously driving him to rage and praising him like the deity he is I have been training him without him even realizing it 🙂 Achieving results like this http://imgur.com/UHV7igA Arteezy’s mental stamina has been heavily tested and he will have no problem facing the competition in high stress situations as a result of me.
I myself am a washed up player who played with s4 and EE for like a week 🙂 www.joindota.com/en/edb/player/3963-brood_star. Artour’s response of: “thats why ur not competive u stuypid fuck” still gives me nightmares of Imperfect Artour. Artour will complete his transition to Super Perfect Artour when he wins TI or at least gives a attempt at it 🙂WHATSURDICKLIKEHOMIE 8 points · 6 years ago ·
The energy of Brood_Star here is representative of the general energy of the NADotA community as a whole; they were extremely good at the game, but absolutely did not take themselves seriously, to the point where spelling words correctly or using your microphone during a match was seen as try-hard. They were all trolls, and Arteezy was no different.
Leaning into this trollish energy, Arteezy boosted the music of Yung Lean and the Sad Boys every single day to his thousands of viewers. This may seem completely unscandalous nowadays, but the Sad Boys were almost universally detested at the time. Their music had only tens of thousands of views or plays, and most claimed to only like them “ironically” — if at all — but this ironic detachment of Leandoer’s early fans meshed well with the ironicism of NADotA’s forum culture, creating a favorable environment for the proliferation of the Sad Boy aesthetic to a “mass” audience.
Much like Arteezy, Lean didn’t take himself seriously, even if he was seriously good.
When Babaev finally made it big and formed his own team with legendary North American DotA players Clinton “Fear” Loomis and Saahil “Universe” Arora, what name did they choose? S A D B O Y S. The team would go on to win $7,000 against the Russia-based Team Empire in early 2014 before gaining the coveted sponsorship of Evil Geniuses, and subsequently taking first place at The International 2015 for a whopping $6,634,661. (Though by that time, Arteezy had left the squad.)
This is only speculation, but the original S A D B O Y S squad further included Swedish player Ludwig “Zai” Wåhlberg, a rare counter-type European player and NADotA.com poster who preferred scrimming with Americans and Canadians in the North American in-house leagues over practicing with his fellow Europeans: perhaps it was Zai that first exposed Arteezy to Yung Lean?
As Arteezy started gaining respect and recognition as one of the best DotA 2 players not just within North America but internationally, he followed Yung Lean’s own trajectory and is today the third most popular individual DotA 2 streamer in the world, with 582,021 Twitch.tv followers.
What’s notable about his rise to fame is Babaev has always forgone the typical Twitch.tv shilling activities: he ignores subscribers, hardly talks, and basically leaves the chat unmoderated.
Writing in The Meta, an esports magazine, Justin Groot described Arteezy’s stream music as a “farrago of cringy underground headscratchers… part of why he plays these songs is to troll his viewers; what’s less clear is whether he intends to drive them away.”
“It’s possible that the man is fundamentally uncomfortable with fame,” Groot continues. In many ways, you glean from this piece that Babaev has a similar background to Yung Lean: he was just a kid screwing around, and now he’s an internet-famous millionaire. (Lean told The Guardian that the Sad Boys name itself was the product of “joking about.”)
Whatever the case, Yung Lean’s music spoke to a very specific community at a very specific time, and Lean’s early success with a population of ironic gaming trolls was a deceptively major step in going mega-viral. It’s rare for any truly underground and independent artist to “make it,” but Lean’s unique appeal caught on.
And when we look at Yung Lean fans more than a half decade later in 2020, do they cite these NADotA goons as their originators? Several did in the most recent subreddit census, and you can take my word for it as well.
While we’ve focused on one prominent player in particular, we must now take a more macro-view. Arteezy and the S A D B O Y S were undoubtedly early adopters of Lean’s music, but the rapper’s appeal was not solely just to troll.
The music was good, but Yung Lean’s “aesthetic” was his true calling card among gamers. You could write books on vaporwave’s 15 minutes of fame in the early 2010s, and there’s no doubt this moment propelled Lean forward.
But there was a catch: vaporwave highlighted the capitalist aesthetics of the 80s and early 90s, a sort of unlived nostalgia for the Reagan era recreated by young millennials. Lean dared something new: why not be nostalgic for something vaporwave fans actually experienced?
And so he did, creating a look that combined bucket hats with Pokemon cards, Fendi backpacks and Super Smash Bros. The minute I saw the “Hurt” video for the first time and witnessed Lean rapping while holding an N64 controller, I knew there was no going back.
Yung Lean was in the process of defining a generation. People love music that speaks to them personally, and Lean was the first court a new generation of rap consumers who preferred gaming to clubbing, weird CGI graphics to scantily-clad women. Of course, they still smoked weed.
The ubiquity of rap and hip-hop in the 21st century made this alignment inevitable. Eventually, someone was going to realize the nerds and the quiet kids were bumping Gucci Mane like everyone else, and Lean was this man.
As the Consequence of Sound put it in their 2013 review of Yung Lean’s debut mixtape Unknown Death 2002, “the entire tape feels like a #based “’90s Kids Would Love These Things!” Tumblr page that was dipped in codeine Kool Aid… Lean raps about Transformers, sadness, Blade Runner, sadness, Super Smash Bros., and sadness.”
Lil B, Chief Keef, and all those who came before Yung Lean influenced his music, but no one else came close to his cultural aesthetic and style. It’s easy to see how Lean defined the internet-obsessed “Fortnite” generation; he just spoke their language. (However, we should not forget Josip on Deck.)
And we’ve talked about irony, but Lean recognizes his appeal is also in his sincerity. “When you take away all the internet trends, the drugs, it’s just about one thing: is this music genuine, is this real emotion?,” he told The Guardian. When Leandoer is speaking of nostalgia for the 2000s, loneliness, and alienation, he’s being real. He may hide it behind memes and internet babble– but don’t we all?
None of this is to discount the other pathways to Sad Boy-ism: Tumblr, Twitter, vaporwave, フレッドYOLO, Souncloud, a beef with SpaceGhostPurrp, his original Swedish fans, et cetera. The purpose of this piece is to “fill in the gaps,” and present one factor in the long-forgotten internet history of Lean’s rise to fame.
Yung Lean is not the shitposter he once was, and the artist has matured significantly with the recent release of Starz, landing A-list features like Playboi Carti* and Ariel Pink. After a long struggle with drug addiction, it’s Lean’s first album written sober. (*Carti’s verse was removed last second before the final release.)
While his music, style, and drug-use has changed, there is still Yung Lean’s nostalgia for the 2000s and the post-modern adolescence. The video for “Boylife in EU,” a song from Starz, captures this well. Lean and the Sad Boys re-enact the poorly-funded childhood TV shows they grew up with by employing psychedelic, dream-like choreography and costumes.
Trippy tunes like “Acid at 7/11” almost seem to be catered to me specifically, as if Yung Lean took “I’m off acid at 7-Eleven” directly from my brain. But then I remember, Lean is just me, because I’m a 20-something that grew up on GameCube and the dark corners of the World Wide Web as well.
Other standouts include “Hellraiser,” which features an impeccable hook with an odd homage to the Star Wars prequels, “Great car racin’, I feel like Obi-Wan,” and “Dogboy,” which gives off intense Bladee-vibes.
My personal favorite song off his new album is the topically-named “Pikachu,” a chopped-and-screwed inspired banger where Lean presents a manifesto in two bars:
Pledge allegiance to myself, know what to do // Pledge allegiance to what we started, it’s all I do
There’s no going back for Jonatan Leandoer Håstad. He’s Yung Lean now, the Daniel Boone pioneer/folk-hero to a generation of gamers-made-rap-fans. And he’s going to see it through.