IN THE AGE of Internet Rap, commodities seem to be more widespread than they otherwise would be. If you have a niche, there’s a strong chance you will find an audience if you search deep enough. That’s where artists like Yung Lean, emerging out of the meme rap fad, have found a community beyond joke raps between close knit friends. In one of his first videos, “Hurt”, the 16 year old Lean wallowed in ironic sadness, with early aspects of the Vaporwave aesthetic glitching behind animated Pokemon, Nintendo controllers, and Arizona Iced Tea. Absurd and inscrutable, the video, and others like it, helped birth the enigmatic artist. While this trend has yet to reach the mainstream, the results of Lean’s success have. Comedic actors known for their levity and wit have sometimes fought for serious roles in the limelight, with varying effect. With Warlord, Yung Lean and the whole SADBOYS crew attempt a similar path, eschewing their humor for sincerity, resulting in an album that, oddly, and largely, takes the fun out of meme rap. Wanting to be taken seriously while making music constantly curated for the gags, Warlord quickly dissipates into amateur travesty.
Lean’s style owes a lot to the visual. Being in on the joke means you know Lean is a goofy Swedish teen, capable of making clashing video styles. and pushing idiosyncrasies atop one another at ease. It isn’t just the comedy factor, videos for “Kyoto”, “Yoshi City”, and Warlord’s lead single, “Hoover” all feature quality filmmaking. So what happens when one half of the fun is taken out? The biggest offense remains: the music itself. Since his inception, Lean’s rhyming and lyrical skills have been masked behind startling visuals, along with the sometimes outstanding production. With Warlord, that production seems interesting at first but doesn’t have much depth to it. “Hoover” is an absolute banger, the clear standout, the best beat Yung Gud has ever done. The industrial foundation is further boosted by a staunch murkiness, with alarms and sirens wailing under smashing hi-hats. And surprisingly, Lean doesn’t do half a bad job over it, bringing matched urgency. On other success works, like opener “Immortal”, the crew creates a track that encompasses everything the SADBOYS have been about: talk of blunts, chains, cars, and random nonsense fumbling over production meant to evoke flooded caverns with muddled synths and drained drums.
When the production doesn’t hide Lean’s faults, but rather falls in line with them, that’s when Warlord’s true grey colors show. Tracks like “Fire” and “Stay Down” are just as annoying as Lean crying through autotune over them, with the bass over-modulated to the point of obnoxiousness. If it isn’t the low-end, which it almost always is, the trebles startle as well on songs like “Shanty U Know What It Do” and “Highway Patrol”. Maybe it’s one of those things where one’s ears would initially retreat away from the noises, like scratches on a chalkboard, before succumbing to their insistence. But I can’t accept that unless done properly, again in “Hoover”, or even closer “Miami Ultras”, which benefits from Lean’s aggressive resurgence, making the abrasive production alluring and not detracting. As far as overall amalgamation goes, “Hocus Pocus” might have the best combined assets here. “Hoover” is still the standout, almost solely due to the beat, but Lean’s fading sanity over “Hocus Pocus” woozy template works in wonderful, symmetric unison. I suppose it’s when the production doesn’t have an underbelly to explain its harsh sounds that it falters the most. When Lean, through either his lyrics or enunciation, declares his purpose, the picture snaps into place.
It isn’t just select songs that suffer from a lack of purpose, it’s the whole album. There’s nothing to differentiate Warlord from your prototypical mixtape, with the only cohesion coming from the fact that the sound itself is so narrowed down. Bass and jutting synths compose almost every track, with hazy textures filling in the cracks, meaning that while sonically they all mesh, they only do so through a sense of sameness. Ironically enough, Lean’s lack of melody in his singing and flow in his verses actually helps distance the songs from one another, because the content sure as hell doesn’t. On “Eye Contact”, Lean pulls out a strange, forced slang that turns concrete words into jumbled syllables. The production has no choice but to stumble in line, allowing the track itself to separate from the pact. Many songs here accomplish this feat, no matter how minor the result is, but ultimately, any variety in the songs comes from how bad the ingredients are. Allow me to make a culinary analogy: take five pungent edibles and create five stews, using completely random combinations. The results are different, but each still tastes bad, with the shot-in-the-dark chance you’ll hit a goldmine.
That goldmine is “Hoover”, and we heard it last year. There are other tolerable moments here and there, unfortunately strewn about near the beginning and end, causing Warlord to dismantle halfway through before having one last chance to rebuild itself. “Immortal” and “Fantasy” at the helm, “Hocus Pocus” and “Miami Ultras” rounding out the caboose. If it wasn’t for “Hoover” towering in the middle, the entire LP would collapse. It’s not that I hate Lean or what he’s doing, the age of Internet Rap allows for anyone to get a voice in and I respect the tenacity to achieve that. For Warlord, the odds were insurmountably stacked against him from the get-go. The last thing anyone would return to a Lean track for would be Lean himself, and that’s the record’s biggest downfall. The beats outshine him, the music videos outshine him, hell even his own pitiful flows outshines the lyrics, which wreck havoc along every second of Warlord. Take away the lead, maybe turn his vocals into sporadic samples, and cut up the production in unforgiving ways and you have a quality Daniel Lopatin album. As it stands now though, Warlord is further testament that some artists are best left for the gag reel when scouring that weird part of YouTube. C MINUS
Read more of Brian’s writing at his blog, Dozens of Donuts.