From the lyrical genius behind the lines, “Got my balls licked / By a Zooey Deschanel look-alike cocaine addict,” comes a new project replete with bars almost as iconic, laid against experimental beats and accompanied by pleasantly surprising collaborators. Yung Lean’s mixtape, “Stardust” was released on April 8, 2022 and includes features from big names such as FKA twigs and Skrillex, as well as members from his beloved collective, Drain Gang. Relative to past works, Lean struggles to grow thematically, but this sameness is partially counterbalanced by bold choices in production. The mixtape comprises mostly repetitive choruses which sometimes work and sometimes do not, and there are points where the ones that don’t are accompanied by mundane beats that do nothing to save them. While these lapses are apparent, they are sandwiched in between high points that blend those classic Lean aesthetics with fresh sounds to make up a mid-length mixtape that expresses the struggles and jubilations of the tortured artist.
In the first song of “Stardust,” Lean blasts off with FKA twigs in “Bliss.” The unexpected pairing between the English art pop singer and the Swedish rapper has proven to unlock a new world of sonic possibilities. With momentum from a low-fi-yet-glamorous music video, their collaboration is currently the most popular track on the project. Twigs’ crystalline vocals in the chorus contrast nicely with Lean’s smoky delivery in the verses, and they even harmonize with their high and low voices at the end. The rapper ignites the genre-blending track with bursts of alliteration and sultry vocals like “bones in and blood” and “when the lights go down,” resulting in an intro that will keep listeners on their toes.
Another standout track is “Starz2theRainbow,” where Lean’s off-key singing adds to the imperfect beauty he is known for. His crooning, fragile notes add to the sense of longing that he is trying to convey, and the heavy drums and shimmery piano loops combine to exemplify the multi-dimensional sound of the cloud rap genre that he is pioneering. The song includes funny sing-along lines like, “Dirty tears and a dirty Fanta, Dirty Diana, we some rockstars still,” but also more serious choices that reflect upon the theme of the overall album, such as the deliberate oscillations between singing, “stars, to the rainbow” and “scars, to the rainbow.” This pairing of luminous optimism and painful melancholia is introduced earlier in the songs “Trip” and “Gold.” While the former is accentuated by a bouncy, video-gamey beat, the latter song has a more low-fi production that accompanies lyrics about substance abuse, alienation and psychosis. “Trip” is catchy, but “Gold” does nothing sonically interesting, so Lean building upon these motifs throughout the project adds to the efficacy of his narrative development.
“All the things” marks a turning point in the mixtape towards a more trance-like sound. The trap snares and layered vocals build towards an effervescent beat drop that showcases Lean’s dark-electro influences. As the song ends, the thundering drums add to a sense of epicness that both compliment and diversify from t.A.T.u.’s “All the Thing She Said,” which seems to have heavily inspired the melodies of the track.
This marks the ascent into the strongest part of the project, the latter half, where Lean’s features cement each song as long-term bangers. There’s Ant Wan’s bilingual, ultra-melodic singing on “Paradise Lost,” Skrillex’s choppy production on “SummerTime Bloo” and glimmery alternating androgenous vocals between Bladee and Ecco2k on the same track. In “Letting it all go,” Lusi and Fredrik Okazaki’s spacey beats provide a nice backdrop to Lean’s verses about acceptance and new romances. His lyrics about this new love are playful throughout, but he also contrasts his depravity with his innocence with lines like “Dirty pills and orchid scents.” And in “Nobody else,” the beats increase in dreaminess with Yung Sherman’s synths where Lean rides the beat perfectly and satisfyingly times his delivery with the drum hits as he raps “I’m not made for being famous” at the end of a verse.
The distraught, contemplative nature of this song flows smoothly into the most dramatic song on the mixtape, “Waterfall.” Here, Lean really shines as he builds a chilling atmosphere of cinematic scale with heavily reverberated vocals where he sings so wistfully, so longingly, that any listener who is not sad already will find a reason to be sad, just to enjoy the track more. Indeed, it’s of an emotional magnitude that he hasn’t returned to since his melancholic classic hit “Agony.” Reminiscing on old times, he sings, “You probably think every song is still about you / ‘Cause everything I do, you turn around so it’s all about you / Been a while since we talked, I wish we were laying on the floor / Fuck you hard on the bathroom floor like we did before” as a strong delay effect on the guitar creates these rippling sounds that make it sound as if you truly are at the edge of a waterfall and everything you loved is flowing away from you.
Throughout the mixtape, Lean is effective at making his listeners feel his emotions. Whether they’re relating to the longing that he feels in “Waterfall” or sharing the hype while rapping along to “Dirty Diana, we some rockstars still,” fans will find this project to be filled with various sentiments to match whatever mood they are in. Yes, some choruses are uninteresting, and some of the beats, such as the repetitive two-step in “Lips” may leave one wanting more. Regardless, Lean continues to do what he excels at: delivering lyrics that blend between random, absurd and heart-wrenching, all with that beautifully imperfect voice of his. His unpolished singing skills actually work to convey a sense of charming humility. And that’s just him alone. When he joins forces with production masters like Skrillex, fine-tuned vocalists like twigs and his classic squad of Swedes, Lean shows that he has no reason to be humble.