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Yung Lean - Poison Ivy Music Album Reviews

After last year’s more than promising Stranger, it is difficult to regard the Stockholm rapper’s latest mixtape as anything but a step backward.

He is only 22 years old, but Jonatan Aron Leandoer Håstad, a.k.a. Yung Lean, has already traced a lifetime’s narrative arc. The Stockholm-born rapper formed a successful underground hip-hop group while still in high school. At 16, he went viral, with videos for songs like “Ginseng Strip 2002,” he sold out clubs across the United States his first time there, and he was profiled in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Tasting stardom, he became addicted to Xanax, lean, and cocaine, was hospitalized, and then ushered to the Swedish countryside to recover. He released his candid, back-to-basics comeback album last November, at the age of 21. “I’m not a temporary artist,” Lean told Fader in 2016, in a nearly 5000-word profile charting his storied rise and fall. Barely past legal drinking age, it feels like he’s been around forever.

Yung Lean was destined to be ephemeral: a short-lived novelty act from the SoundCloud ether who would vanish back into Scandinavian obscurity when our attention drifted to another fleeting trend. But then, as the rapper endured personal hardship, the landscape of hip-hop changed, and in the years since “Ginseng Strip 2002” exactly the style of narcotic, despondent cloud-rap of which Lean was an early practitioner ascended from niche curiosity to the dominant mode of the rap mainstream. It’s kismet: Yung Lean fits in better with the sound of 2018 than he ever has before. He didn’t just outlast his fate as a passing fad—he watched the fad prevail. For an artist who ought to seem outdated, Poison Ivy could hardly arrive at a more opportune time.

And yet it is difficult to regard Poison Ivy as anything but a step backward. Last year’s Stranger was almost universally agreed to represent a step forward for Lean—its production more coherent, its aesthetic more refined, its content more articulate than what had been demonstrated on his previous albums. The expansive, often impressionistic production of Stranger has been scaled back and stifled, exchanged for some of the least-inspired beats he has rapped over since 2014’s inchoate Unknown Memory.

This is a real disappointment. Stranger afforded glimpses of the artist it seemed Lean could be: a defiantly weird, unfashionably bookish white kid from Sweden interested in gothic horror and the supernatural, capable of conjuring cinematic visions both disturbing and evocative. It’s hard to reconcile that artist with some of the feeble images Lean summons up on Poison Ivy. He stumbles right off the bat, on opening track “happy feet”: “I be draped in Burberry/Late nights like the cemetery,” he lazily starts. “Got magic like I’m Harry/Dark magician, you a fairy.” “Yellowman,” the last track on Stranger, was based on the 19th-century short story collection The King in Yellow. That seems a far cry now from gay jokes and references to Harry Potter. Where’s the imaginative fervor of the artist who as recently as last year claimed an affinity with Yukio Mishima and Edgar Allen Poe?

It isn’t merely that Lean seems less serious—Stranger had its kid-like flourishes and pop cultural references less dignified than classic literature, and his music has always spanned a wide range of brows both high and low. But one of the chief creative breakthroughs of that album was its candid specificity. He allowed himself to get confessional, dealing honestly with his struggles with mental health and the nightmares that evidently plagued him. (“When I’m afraid I lose my mind/It’s fine, it happens all the time,” he admitted on album highlight “Agony”.) He cracked something when he learned to be particular. On Poison Ivy he recedes into the general. “Ridin round town/Blowin dough/Money spender,” he drawls on “bender++girlfriend,” a song on which he compares himself to the “Futurama” character. This follows tracks in which he sees himself variously in Sauron, Darth Maul, and “The Sims.”

At eight tracks and 23 minutes, the Poison Ivy mixtape is something of a stopgap in the mind of Lean. It doesn’t align with the arc he has been tracing since the beginning of his career, following through on the creative potential he’s been developing. The apathetic languor of a song like “ropeman” or the astonishingly limp “trashy” are without the glimmers of inspiration and wit that made his most recent releases promising even when not quite successful. It all feels distinctly like stagnation at precisely the point when he seems ready to move forward.

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