Review Summary: We don't know what he's sad about, but sadboy Yung Lean is on the rise
Swedish teen rapper (as well as self-identified “sadboy”) Yung Lean’s debut album is puzzling to say the least, and it’s honestly hard to tell if it’s good or if it’s really, really bad. You would be contemplating this as well if your first exposure to the kid was the mind-bogglingly bizarre music video for the song “Hurt” which features a barrage of imagery that’s heavy on the Pokémon, Nintendo, and Arizona iced tea, of all things. He’s an enigmatic and polarizing figure in today’s hip-hop scene who will certainly attract haters like crazy, and it’s difficult to determine if he is a joke (which would be wonderful) or if he’s 100% serious (which would be even more wonderful), but for the sake of this review we will take Yung Lean and his music as seriously as possible. Welcome to Unknown Death.
The biggest hurdle that anyone needs to get over to possibly enjoy Yung Lean is his nearly comatose vocal delivery. His marble-mouthed mumbling is what has caused many critics to write this poor kid off, but it’s all part of his (dare I say) “charm”, and you’re either tolerant of it or you’re against it. As far as his lyrical abilities go, absolutely nothing even remotely interesting is brought to the table, just like his rapping style. Lean’s lyrics are almost exclusively concerned with bitches being on his dick/ballsack and endorsing every type of drug just short of the ones only Marilyn Manson has ever heard of (“Louis duffel bags filled with heroin”). It’s absolutely redundant, and it’s difficult to discern what this “sadboy” is actually sad about, but compared to the fantastic instrumentals he’s rapping over, his lyrics just feel like more of an afterthought then they already do.
Yes, the instrumentals are indeed very satisfying, surprisingly enough. The production on this album is what saves it from being thrown into the waste bin of 2013 album releases that will be forgotten forever. However, if trap-flavored beats aren’t your cup of tea then there’s no guarantee that this album will be the one that converts you. Stuttering hi-hats are in abundance, and swirly, futuristic synth tones are sprinkled on just about everything. These beats are courtesy of Yung Lean’s cronies Yung Gud and Yung Sherman who handle the majority of the album’s production duties. Yung Sherman specializes in a more spacious, atmospheric, and ethereal sound that utilizes a good deal of reverb like on the opener “Welcome 2 Unknown Death” and the uplifting, horn-tinged “Lightsaber-Savior”. Yung Gud’s beats hit harder and are catchier, offering a more instant gratification. The tasty synth tones he uses on the tracks “Nitevision” and “Gatorade” are model examples of his work, and he even tries his hand at boom-bap on “Princess Daisy” to much success. The guest appearances keep Yung Lean in similar sonic territory, but manage to add their own flavor. Suicideyear delivers an excellent, somewhat spooky beat on “Hurt” that ranks as one of the album’s best, and White Armor lends his skills to a trio of tracks in the latter half of the album. While not standout beats in comparison to Gud and Suicideyear’s work, White Armor’s does a passable job putting together adequate trap beats, as with the amusingly named Friendzone who speeds things up on the closing track “Solarflare.” These producers did an absolutely heroic job taking what could have been one of the worst hip-hop albums in recent memory and turning it into an enjoyable affair.
Overall, Yung Lean is a rapper with not much of a reserve of skill at his disposal, either that or he isn’t displaying it for whatever reason. His cadence and lyrical ability are lacking to say the very least, but he is another example of a rapper who can hide behind great production work to sound decent. So decent, in fact, you might find yourself listening to this album multiple times just to enjoy the instrumentals over and over again. Unknown Death 2002 is a weird experience in that sense; good and bad are in equal presence but the good trumps the bad in the end. It’s like a sugar and chocolate encrusted cow chip, one that you might scrape off the ground, save in your fridge, and take a bite out of now and again.