Yung Lean Almost Ditched Rap for a Career in Kindergarten

When drafting questions for an interview, it's easy — tempting, even — to fall back on the well-worn clichés that have defined your subject's public persona. If, for example, one were to find oneself interviewing Kel Mitchell, it is all but inevitable that orange soda would wriggle its way into the conversation. Similarly, when interviewing Jonatan Leandoer Håstad, better known to internet denizens and youthful hip-hop fans as Yung Lean, it's hard to refrain from asking about his emotional state. This is a 19-year-old rapper who once boasted he commanded an "empire of emotions," ostensibly referring to both his own internal struggles and Sad Boys, the Swedish hip-hop crew for which he is the public face. Next week, Lean and his Sad Boys will perform at the Hangar, which is not only the latest stop on their extensive 2016 world tour but also the most recent in a long series of Miami visits.

"I want a snake, a live snake. I don't know. Some dancers. Some crazy shit."

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Talking to Lean in advance of the show, I'm proud to say I was able to refrain from asking a single question involving the words "sad" or "emotional," and the only question in the "How do you feel about x?" format concerned Gucci Mane's early release from prison. (It made him "happy," by the way.)

Speaking by FaceTime from the same Stockholm apartment balcony that can be glimpsed on his widely followed Instagram account, Lean exudes an air of calm detachment. Given the year he's had thus far, it's not difficult to imagine why.

On top of the nearly relentless touring in support of his new record, February's dour Warlord, 2016 has presented a number of public challenges for Lean. Immediately after his Pittsburgh performance in March, an assailant opened fire on Lean's tour bus. While a SWAT team would eventually arrive to calm the situation, no suspects were ever found. Within the month, a bomb threat led to the cancellation of a subsequent show in Minneapolis. Speaking about these incidents, Lean describes them as "some GTA shit."

"Yeah, it's scary," he confesses. "I don't know — it's fucked up... the world is fucked up, but I knew that already. I didn't think it would reach us, but it did."

Even without the stressors of being a touring artist, it would appear that life in Stockholm has been similarly chaotic. In a trio of now-deleted tweets posted days after this interview, Lean complained of waking up in a jail cell, presumably having been arrested the night before, though his camp would neither confirm nor deny it.

At this point, Lean is well acquainted with the trials and tribulations that accompany the process of becoming a well-known artist. Despite the sometimes understated and often bizarre braggadocio that permeates his lyrics (see "Ginseng Strip 2002": "Get my dick stuck inside a lamp shell/Get it out with sperm cells and hair gel/Swim in Mexico, mademoiselle"), Lean will be the first to admit he did not begin his career with the certainty that it would have longevity.

"No, I didn't know what was going to happen at 16," Lean says. "I thought I was maybe going to do some shows, put out some more music videos, finish school, and get a real job... But I'm happy it turned out this way."

In the three years since the release of his debut mixtape, Unknown Death 2002, it has become apparent that being Yung Lean is a full-time responsibility. And even though it's an occupation that has produced a devoted international fan base, a discernible cultural impact, and critical acclaim, there have been times when Lean has entertained finding a "real" job. "I've had points where I've been like, 'Fuck this. I want to get a normal job.' Last summer, I was applying for kindergarten jobs."

When pressed, Lean confides that the previous summer was plagued with problems that have unfortunately become intertwined with success in the music industry. "You know, my friend died... depression, drugs, all of that."

That friend, Barron Machat, had been integral to the increasing popularity of Lean and Sad Boys, having managed them prior to his passing in a car crash in Miami last April. A year onward, Lean has remained defiant in the face of his difficulties. "I snapped out of it," he says.

It's this same defiance that characterizes much of Warlord. The album, which was recorded in Miami, dispenses with the lush sounds of Lean's earlier releases in favor of something much more frightening, dialing up the abrasive, trap-flavored production while toning down the geeky, internet-centric cultural references. For better or worse, you'll find no shout-outs to Internet Explorer here.

If any of this sounds familiar on paper, that's no mistake: The world occupied by Lean and Sad Boys has long intermingled with the grittier flavor of South Florida natives such as Robb Bank$ and Denzel Curry. For those who have been paying attention, it's almost surprising that the sonic shift did not occur sooner, as Lean's fascination with Miami has been present since day one of his career. "I don't really think about Miami as a hip-hop mecca; I just kind of like it because it's like Paradise Lost," Lean says, invoking Milton's biblical epic. "It's hot, and you can have anything — you just have to be careful because you can get too much of it."

Having already released three records and weathered a crisis of artistic conviction, Lean views his relative youth and lust for life as a positive portent of things to come. "It's good because nothing can constrain on what you're really like," he says. "You can just take your time because you already have so much work out. I'm 19 and I have three albums, plenty of music videos, and I've done five or six tours. I can really take my time. I don't have anything to prove anymore."

Even though Lean has handled sudden stardom and status more deftly than many who are twice his age, that doesn't mean his propensity for the juvenile has diminished in any way.

"I want a snake," Lean says regarding the forthcoming show, "a live snake. I don't know. Some dancers. Some crazy shit. It's all about the budget... We'll see what happens."

Yung Lean. 7 p.m. Monday, June 13, at the Hangar, 60 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-702-3257; Tickets cost $20 plus fees via

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Zach Schlein is the former arts and music editor for Miami New Times. Originally from Montville, New Jersey, he holds a BA in political science from the University of Florida and writes primarily about music, culture, and clubbing, with a healthy dose of politics whenever possible. He has been published in The Hill, Mixmag, Time Out Miami, and City Gazettes.
Contact: Zach Schlein