In 2014, an album called Unknown Death 2002 popped up on the Bandcamp of the streetwear and lifestyle brand MishkaNYC. The artist was someone going by the name Yung Lean; he sounded like the foggy after-effects of the citrus soda / cough syrup cocktail to which he owed his name. He was born in 1996 — he’s 19. His crew is called Sad Boys, a group of boys who are sad. The essence of Yung Lean, which is to say the essence of confused youth superseded by their own internal conflicts, is the essence of America.
A true patriot
On an aesthetic level, Unknown Death 2002 mimics a still-occurring pseudo-nostalgic re-emergence of ‘90s culture. The sounds are hyper-referential to such an extent that they border on cheesy. Autotune runs rampant; so much so that it’s often impossible to decode what Lean is saying, and when the Autotune is gone, his fist-in-mouth rap-mumble is just as difficult to parse.
The first 10 seconds of the album is filled with a low, exhausted moan that fades into a confusing mass of influences, like American hip-hop internet god Lil B, dated pop culture references, glitchy synths, and rhymes too ridiculous to be taken seriously. The lyrical content of Unknown Death 2002 relies heavily on sex, Arizona Iced Tea, Gatorade, and Internet Explorer. It’s difficult to decide if Lean is post-culture, or simply so seeped in American culture he’s created his own, half-price-appetizers version of it.
To more clearly understand how Yung Lean is both an amalgamation and recreation of America, let’s break down the lyrics and video for "Hurt," a sleepy track of codeine-soaked beats in which Lean takes on the role of despondent sadist:
Yung Lean as defensive non-believer of commercial pressures: "Clearly on drugs / that will make you hear clearly wrong / Louder than my yearly bong hit." This seems to be a response to implications that Lean’s druggy flow is hard evidence he’s on actual drugs. By suggesting he smokes weed just once a year, Lean is curating a lesson in separating art from the artist. It’s a classic book-by-the-cover thing, or a representation of finding societal conflict where it doesn’t exist.
Yung Lean as cultural threat: "I’m in Italy, rodeo / Forgive me after my death / Caravaggio" Here, we could say that Lean is speaking as the 16th century Italian painter Amerighi da Caravaggio, who died a year after he killed another man in a street brawl. While many of Lean’s lines seem surreal, Caravaggio was known for his naturalistic style of painting, and went relatively unnoticed in the art world for some time after his death. Lean himself suggests responsibility for his own death throughout the album, but here, he’s not just suicidal, he’s apocalyptic. Caravaggio died an outsider without ever being captured by the mainstream hands of the police, and Yung Lean's fate might be similar.
Yung Lean as tech artifact: The video for "Hurt" opens with what appears to be a negatively lit castle scene from a video game. It then morphs into a parade of naked running animatrons, Pokemon cards, and Web 1.0 typography before Yung Lean enters the picture. He then spends a good 10 seconds just stroking his iPhone without looking up at the camera. The song continues to play, and Lean refuses to be anything other than a passive figure holding a signifier of technological currency. Even while he stands in front of us, Lean has removed himself from the video merely by gripping his device. It’s frustrating, yet weirdly thrilling — mostly because it throws together dawn-of-the-internet visuals with smartphone ennui.
I think Unknown Death 2002 is a good album, but feel incapable of coherently arguing in favor of its artistic value. What it mainly leaves the listener with is a kind of bloated satisfaction. Just like Lean says in "Hurt," in what is maybe the most American line of all: "Luxurious / ate before my dinner."