In the summer of 1996, Swedish fantasy author Kristoffer Leandoer enlisted the help of an astrologist friend to predict his newborn baby's future. As they lay minor and major arcana on a table, the tarot cards came to an unexpected conclusion: Jonatan Leandoer Håstad would become a singer one day. It was a surprising revelation, considering no one else in the family was musically inclined. Not wanting to jinx the reading, Kristoffer tucked the cards away, deciding that he would tell his son what the stars had said on his 18th birthday.
But Jonatan beat him to it. With his signature monotonous vocals, profoundly emotional beat selection, and self-indulgent lyrics, the rapper went viral in the early 2010s with tracks like "Ginseng Strip 2002" and "Hurt." Having dubbed himself and his crew the Sad Boys, the 3M jacket-sporting, Arizona Iced Tea-glorifying Yung Lean predictably confused music critics and casual rap listeners alike with his auto-tuned non-sequiturs. Some were left bewildered, asking quite explicitly, "Who the fuck is this kid?" Others concluded that this middle class Swedish teenager was the downfall of hip-hop as we knew it. Either way, Yung Lean and the Sad Boys were cultivating a deathly devoted fanbase with their post-Internet raps and mish-mashed a e s t h e t i c s.
"A lot of people were like 'Oh! He's just building this character'," Yung Lean shares, reflecting on the formative years of his career ahead of the album's release in May. "I wish I was that smart," he adds with a laugh. He's the first to admit that his early lo-fi cloud raps were far from a gimmick. Rather, they were a byproduct of growing up on the Internet, where Glo Gang deep cuts and Lou Reed albums were both just a search bar away. Once his myriad of influences were paired with the atmospheric, electronic-meets-trap production of his go-to producers Gud, Yung Sherm, and whitearmor, the young artists were able to carve out their own genre-shrugging niche within rap. "We were just fooling around, putting [our songs] up on YouTube," Lean explains, "And then something clicked, like, Okay we're actually doing some shit, we're onto something."
Lean's teenage success came with its pitfalls. He grappled with substance abuse while recording his second studio album, Warlord, in Miami, becoming increasingly self-destructive and paranoid. After suffering from an overdose and a subsequent drug-induced psychosis, the then 19-year-old was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He soon after returned to Sweden to convalesce with his family.
Back home, Lean's struggles with mental health weren't quite over. Despite getting sober, in 2017 he found himself suffering from psychosis once again — only this time, the resulting hospitalization offered some clarity. A few weeks into his admission, Lean was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. "[I] was like, 'Oh okay, thanks!'" Lean recalls. "I can take medication, I can talk to people. This is not a mystery, it's a disease, and that made me quite relieved." His parents came to visit, reading him a list of famous musicians who were also bipolar, "They were like, 'Jonatan. Nina Simone, Daniel Johnston who you really like, Aretha Franklin.'" Lean laughs. "They were super friendly and trying to help me out about it.
Focused on recovery, Lean's creativity flourished. He began painting; he scored ballets. He modeled for Calvin Klein, debuted his own collaborations with Converse and Eytys, and started his own fashion label, Stockholm Beauty Group. He laid down vocals for Frank Ocean, founded Död Mark (a Swedish punk band with Gud) and channeled some of his most introspective thoughts into his cathartic alternative/indie project, jonatan leandoer96. He released a short film to accompany his metallically melancholic album, 2017's Stranger, following it a year later with an equally brooding EP, Poison Ivy. To top it all off, he was awarded the Bram Stoker Medal of Cultural Achievement by Trinity College Dublin, further legitimizing his status as an influential figure within the modern hip hop canon.
In early 2019 Lean began laying the foundation for his fourth studio album, Starz. "We were thinking that we should really take our time making something that sounds like a Fleetwood Mac album," Lean shares, explaining how he approached the project with executive producer whitearmor and co-producer Yung Sherm, "Kind of like expansive and polished, and really write songs." Their ambitions were not in vain. Lean's distinctive flow on the bass-heavy "My Agenda" is juxtaposed with the playful vulnerability of "Boylife in EU"; the bittersweet dissonance of "Pikachu" peacefully orbits the crescendoing incantations that make up "Put Me in a Spell."
Now 23 and far removed from the divisive beginnings of his career, Lean has ushered in yet another phase of his carefully orchestrated artistry with Starz. It's a personal progression which he addresses with earnest conviction: "If you bloom into a new flower, you have to express that new flower. You can't be that old, bleak flower." As Lean continues to speak of his new record, he gleefully describes Starz as some of his best work to date. "These songs are stars," he says. "They're all up there."
More importantly, they sound like the songs he was born to make.
How do you feel knowing that Starz is finally out?
I'm happy for real. Releasing stuff isn't the most fun because you've already done the work. You're just kind of sitting on your ass waiting to get to the next chapter. But I want to learn how to be in the project for a little longer, and like, stay there. Maybe even celebrate, not just always move on to the next [project]. But this one I'm really happy about. I think it's my best piece of work ever. And the way we've worked on it has been kind of a magical trip as well. It's just a mix of different places and sounds and musicians.
How did the Ariel Pink collaboration on the title track come about?
I think my first show ever in Los Angeles I told someone that I wanted Ariel to come and they reached out and he came and he was a fan. We've been in touch ever since man. We played together in Tel Aviv at this festival. Me, Ariel Pink and like ASAP Ferg up in Israel [Laughs]. We were at the same hotel so we sat there and talked. We kept in touch, then we hung out in Los Angeles. He just showed up at our doorstep in the Valley.
It's such an interesting collaboration, since your fan bases don't exactly intersect.
No, not at all. But I like that, I'd love to see Playboi Carti and Ariel Pink on the same record. I think in my head all of our worlds kind of collide. I'm not too aware of what kind of fan bases exist. I just think about artists who would be good to have on a song together. That's the kind of mix I want to have, you know.
It's very Yung Lean. For me it makes sense. I love when I see these kinds of artists melting together. Behind the scenes everyone kind of looks up to each other. Everyone knows each other, everyone likes each other. I don't think putting everyone in special boxes just so their fans are happy is a good way to do it. I think you should just mix it, you know?
What happened to the Carti verse on "Yayo"?
Yeah, I think someone's going to sue me if I say something about that. Not Carti, but his people sitting in a small small office with billions of dollars. I don't know, I can't get into that. But I love Carti. We're very good friends. He flew me and whitearmor out to Atlanta and we were there with him [for a week]. He's a very special person.
Where else did you have recording sessions for Starz? I heard about Portugal and the haunted ballet school in Sweden.
Yeah, in Falun. We did another round in the summer in this place called Gnesta where Will Ferrell has a house in Sweden. It's like where all the celebrities live [laughs]. Like Sweden's Beverly Hills I guess. There was a studio there, and I think we did "Put Me in a Spell" there and we finished the songs. We had 70 or 80 songs at one moment. We were just cutting them down and killing darlings, just listening to it. Then we recorded in the Valley in Los Angeles. A little bit in Atlanta with Carti.
80 songs? How did you choose what to keep and what to cut?
You split it up. You make names for things. Me and whitearmor we sat down and would say, "This is album worthy, this is mixtape worthy, this is EP worthy, this is 'work on,' this is trash, this is maybe a good idea, this is maybe a bad idea." Then we would sit in the studio for a week or two weeks and you live there you know what to do you know what to work on because we had these lists. [Laughs] I think if you started that organization earlier it would be a lot easier. I kind of figured that out too late.
What's your working relationship like with whitearmor?
I love the guy, that's all I can say. It's like a big brother. He's very driven, very workative. He's a very special energy and special force and somehow these two forces work very well. We might not even talk to each other that much in the studio. But besides that we hang out almost every day and we go and play pool and we always hang out. We have a good force going on, you know? Two good energies combining.
Will he bring you song ideas or do you work on a song together from scratch?
Everything is from scratch, so. [For example] whitearmor and Yung Sherm Portugal, they'd wake me up with a cup of coffee and then they would go downstairs and start playing something on the piano. Then whitearmor might say we should record this or that, then he'd put a synth over it and then I'd start singing. Then I'd start recording a melody on my iPhone. Everything is very intuitive and you get into this workflow. whitearmor starts singing something, I get lyrics out of it. Sherm might sit and drink a beer and come up with some synth notes. It's like everything is allowed. I think we had a lot more rules when we were younger, we wanted songs to be specific and a beat to be made and all these rules of how it should sound. whitearmor, Sherm, and Gud they can play guitar, they can play piano, they can play anything. Right now we're just messing around with it all, you know?
What does it mean for jonatan leandoer96 and Död Mark now that Starz is out?
More of it all. More of everything. We're going to do a new Död Mark album soon, and I'm always working on jonatan leandoer96 songs at home and whatnot. It's nice to take a break from one project and go to another, so we'll see what happens.
Do your projects intersect with one another? Do you ever work on a jonatan leandoer96 song and —
And it turns into a Yung Lean song? Yeah, you know the last song on Starz, "Put Me in a Spell," that kind of sounds like a Chromatics song or something? That easily could be a jonatan leandoer96 song. They do intersect. I think that's what kind of makes it important as well. Like if you put yourself out in a lot of costumes — lets say you would go and dress up and make three different characters, then maybe you would be more honest in that costume than you would be without the costume, you know what I mean? Sometimes while going for a new alias or a new musical genre or just experimenting, you're more honest than you would be if you're just yourself. I think that helps a lot. I'm really glad if I can help [inspire] people to do exactly that with music or art or whatever that you just dress up, make a character, and just start going in. Because you'll find out so much about yourself and what you're interested in and why you're interested in that.
What made you want to explore mediums other than music, like painting and drawing?
It was nice because I realized I can't draw like I make music. If you stop drawing when you're like eight or nine and you start doing other shit and then when you get back to drawing when you're 20-21 you kind of get stuck in this world of painting as when you were a kid. I have a very childish way of painting, which I like. I've never been to art school or an art class. It's like outsider art, I like it, you know? It's fun because it's the only thing I can do without any pressure. Because at the end of the day I'm good at music. I'm the best at what I do, and I believe that. I know I'll never be the best at drawing, and I don't want to be. It's kind of nice to do something that you have no pressure from yourself. So you can just fuck around and just draw whatever.
It seems like creating has really helped you during dark times. How does creating art affect your mental health? Does it help keep you sane?
Yeah it's true. If you watch any boxing film, or you go to a boxing class your teacher is going to say, "We fight here because we learn not to fight." If you've had a troubled life — and I don't think my life has been troubled necessarily, I think I've had a good life. But I have my own demons, and you know that I'm bipolar. So I've had my internal struggles and I think the only way to express how you feel about anything is making art, you know? If you feel like punching someone, you should write a song about it. If you feel like going out there and killing people, you should make like a Quentin Tarantino movie. Everyone's desires come up in their art, and if they come out in their art [instead] it's much better. People can have terrible lives. They could have been killers, but if they make a song, maybe that's like their purest part of their soul. I think everyone is allowed to do that. It can help you and it can help other people. Creating is the only thing that's keeping me sane, to be honest.
What was your reaction to your bipolar diagnosis?
I was still in the psych ward at the time and I didn't know what they meant [at first]. I didn't know how they figured it out because I was completely sober when I started having that psychosis. You start getting very paranoid and you're adding pieces of the puzzle together but the puzzle doesn't exist. Then all of the sudden you're at a fucking psych ward for a month with crazy people. And you realize you're one of them [laughs]. After a while you realize maybe the world out there is the crazy world and maybe we're the sane ones. You start thinking like this. But now I'm kind of side tracking from your question [laughs]. I think I was relieved. I think I was relieved because I was so worried that how can I get a psychosis, how can I go manic without any drugs in my system or alcohol because I had been sober for two years. So I was like, it didn't add up. Then [the doctors] said, "You're bipolar." Everything that had happened in the last six to seven years kind of started making sense. It was the last piece of the Leandoer puzzle.
Do you have a message to someone who might be in a similar situation with their mental health?
Just take it seriously. And drugs [are not] gonna help you. Maybe at one point drugs help, but you can get [that same] experience just while being sober. It's okay to talk to people. It's okay to open up. Especially in this society we're living in now. People are very dramatic when it comes to schizophrenia and bipolarity and these things. People are just scared of these words like mental health. Either they want to talk too much about it if they don't have it, or they really do have it and it's hard for them to talk about it. Just take it seriously and really talk to a professional, because they exist.
Do you have a life philosophy?
There's one quote that's kind of corny but I kind of fuck with it. "I'd rather you hate me for who I am than love me for who I am not." You know what I mean? And Yung Lean believes that the largeness of the spirit should be the only measure of an artist's achievement. That's a good one. Choose that one. Fuck the first one.
Well, I think you've touched upon that before, how you rather have people either love or hate your music, but not be somewhere in between.
I'm still very serious about that. Like if anyone makes anything and their main goal is for everyone to be like, "Hmm yeah, this is nice, this can be in the background!" Then you're not putting anything [of value] in there. You've got to be fearless. You have to provoke something. It doesn't have to be provocative in that sense, but you have to provoke someone's feelings or something, you know. You have to get someone to feel something. And if they feel hate? I'm happy. And if they feel love? I'm happy. They're both very strong emotions. But if they say it's just okay, I can't stand it.
You achieved fame before you even reached adulthood. Looking back at the ups and downs of your career, how do you reflect?
I think I'm just lucky. Me, Bladee and Ecco, we were all hanging out [one day], then we started listening to "X o n u" with Thaiboy, Bladee and me. Then we started listening to all of our old songs. And we were like damn, we're still sitting in this room eight years later and it's the same producers. We were all sitting there, listening to old Gud tracks and old Yung Sherm tracks from 2013. It's the same people, we're in the same room that we were eight years ago and we're still doing it. And that's what matters, you know. Everything else, it doesn't really matter. This is it. And that feeling is golden.
I'm more happy about the fact that we have all done this together and we're still doing it and everyone's still active and better than they've ever been. From Thaiboy's new trance project to Bladee's new album — just everyone. We still hang out almost every day. I think if I would have been famous in any other way — you know you see these kids and they get signed and all of the sudden they're with like twenty people who they don't know. You see all these stories and it's like, I never wanted that. I never wanted fame in that way. I'm glad it happened when I was 16 or 17 rather than later, because I've learned so much about humanity and people.
You've lived beyond your years, so to speak.
Yeah, I'm like that dragon who's like a small dragon but he already has an old sensei mustache because he's had a long fucking life [laughs]. I don't know, I feel like some old magical toad or some shit.
Starz sounds like some of the happiest music you've ever made. Has your outlook on life changed?
I'm in a much happier state, and I have been for a long time I think. I've just been more comfortable with myself. It's like that Neil Young song: time to leave the pain behind and get to the magic potion. I've just had that line in my head for a really long time. I just wanted to make something that, you know. When there's a certain energy in the room and you've had it in your head for a long time, you want to express that. When I was younger, when I was like 17 or 18 — you know you're young, you're in a big city, you're interested in bleak things and life is bleak and shit goes wrong. Now it hasn't been wrong for a while, so I'm trying to put that out there. You can't fake the funk.
There's a beautiful irony in the fact that the Sad Boys are making happy music now.
[Laughs] Yeah. I guess it's like that with all of us in a way, you know? Bladee is definitely the John Lennon who wrote the sad songs — the most sad songs, I think. His lyrics were way more depressive than mine were. He's like Morrissey you know? Then he became the most happy, blissful, kind of cute, trolls-in-the-forest vibe. Same with Ecco2k, he has his own world, and Thaiboy is a dad now. It's crazy. And it's crazy talking to a person like you, you're 21, who I know is a fan and you must've been a fan since you were 14. You've seen this happen, and a lot of people have seen this happen. I remember when we went on our first tour and we were just fuckups in a bus and we'd meet these kids. We're growing up with you. Every song we've dropped since "Grey Goose," we're growing up with all of you. And it's true.
Everyone's growing into themselves.
I'm very happy to see it. Everyone is in a much better place and everyone is very bossed up and we've all had our special journeys. I think it's more than right to go from darkness to light. And just spread that light, because we've been through the shit. We don't have to be in the shit anymore, you know?
Photography by Viktor Naumovski