Yung Lean has come a long way from his meme rap roots. In that past, I enjoyed Lean’s melodramatic, adolescent emo-drudgery on an almost ironic level, gawking as he stumbled over spacey trap beats. This time around, I find myself impressed by how much he’s grown as an artist, while still maintaining his unique appeal. Much of his signature style remains intact on his newest record Starz, yet he’s never sounded so polished and purposeful before, utilizing techniques and themes in ways previously unaccomplished.
Lean makes a remarkable display of vocal variety on this record, something I didn’t expect from an artist known for his cracked, off-kilter delivery. On “Violence” and “Pikachu” he shows dogged bravado. On other cuts, his voice drops to a whispered lilt, like on “Outta My Head” and “Sunset Sunrise”. There’s moments when his voice even wavers with impressive emotion, leaving me sincerely affected when he trembles during the last syllable of “decompose” on “Boylife in EU”. Moments when I catch his voice swerve from the rhythm becomes a display of sincerity–a moment in which his ski mask slips. Lean appears conscious of the impact inflection plays in music–the role it plays in manipulating the audience’s emotions and its ability to accentuate themes he wishes to discuss on his record.
Lean ruminates on topics like addiction, notably his desire to escape himself through masks and drugs. At times it feels like these messages are obvious. It’s not difficult to parse cliché material like “Running from myself / So I run into the night.” In general, Lean’s writing often still feels immature. The litany of references he makes to lowbrow media particularly relevant to nostalgic Millennial/Gen Z adolescents, exemplifies a mindset stuck in his youth. The characters he name-drops–from Sub-Zero to Darth Vader–don't feel especially pertinent, leading me to question their inclusion. Other times, he’ll lean into imagery that appears too edgy (e.g. “liquid knives to the sky”) without any wink to acknowledge the eye-rolling induced by these words.
Nevertheless, Lean’s vocal performance and production allows me to brush off these perceived flaws. His use of VHS static, which engulfs much of the album as either stabbing needles or soft blankets, becomes an example of how Lean can wield nostalgia to his purposes outside of writing. His instrumentals are as enjoyable as always, a consistent strength of his. Reverb effected, slowed down synths squeal, crackle, and bend in the background, while in the foreground, drums snap and thump, creating an enthralling dichotomy when called for. Instruments are pushed and pulled for emphasis, becoming sparse during the start of lyrically dense verses, before exploding like the howl of a canine, almost washing out Lean’s own bark on “My Agenda”.
Lean’s surprisingly broad vocal range and wonderfully atmospheric production, refined to degrees I previously considered impossible for this artist, made Starz an engaging listen. If you weren’t a Sad Boys/Drain Gang acolyte before, this record just might make you into a believer.