Since the release of his breakout single “Ginseng Strip 2002” almost a decade ago, Swedish artist Yung Lean has fought to be treated as more than a gimmick. Though the song’s dreamy instrumentals signaled that it wasn’t just comedy rap, Lean was unquestionably imitating his favorite American rappers, dropping profane bars about sex acts and drug trips swaddled in an ironic vaporwave aesthetic. But as much as the record seemed tongue-in-cheek, there was always an obscured sincerity at the core, perhaps exemplified by Lean’s stage moniker: On the one hand, “Yung Lean” is something of a joke about carbon-copy rap names, but it’s also a legitimate play on his government name, Jonathan Leandoer.
Stardust is the next step in Lean’s shedding the mantle of wannabe rapper and fully embracing a more comfortable role as a pop experimentalist. After blowing up stateside, his early work suggested an attempt at a more mainstream rap career. He scored a feature from Travis Scott and a cameo on a Gucci Mane mixtape, but his flow and voice were still developing, and his attempts at straight-up rap felt awkward and out of place. Like many who experience sudden onset virality, he had to learn how to be a musician, working out his creative and personal growing pains in the public eye. Fame in America came with easy access to drugs, and Lean’s early success was marked by a series of tragedies, including the death of his manager, Hippos in Tanks founder Barron Machat. Lean opens up about his time in rehab and inpatient facilities in the documentary Yung Lean: In My Head, and it’s evident that he’s worked to find the clarity and strength now mirrored in his music. On Stardust, he exudes newfound confidence, but he’s also learned to make the flawed vulnerability of his voice work in his favor.
Lean’s voice has often been unfairly described as inaccessible or grating. But the very dissonance of his delivery and persona explains his appeal: the emotionality of the sad boy aesthetic juxtaposed against material flexes, a frequently imperfect voice over ornate and beautiful beats. On the outright ballad “Waterfall,” he stretches into a yearning falsetto, while on “Lips,” his voice withdraws into a more intimate mumble. His direct rapping now has a considerably more developed sense of cadence, like on “Nobody else,” where he flips effortlessly between a vocal-fried sing-song delivery and a more clipped flow. Set against the glistening voices of his Drain Gang associates Bladee and Ecco2k on “SummerTime Blood,” Lean’s tone is rougher and more down to earth, whereas his collaborators tilt toward the angelic. On “Starz2TheRainbow,” featuring Thaiboy Digital, several layers of overdubs circle and collide with one another, transforming Lean into an erratic choir.