This is my fifth attempt at putting together an article about Yung Lean and so far each effort has succumbed to the same pitfalls. I kept trying to write something that was borderline intellectual about Sad Boys and this brand of hip hop, but what I learnt very quickly was that it’s far too easy to sound pretentious when you’re writing about shit like this. So here is my attempt at discussing why I think Sad Boys are interesting as an internet phenomenon and why sadness shouldn’t be compressed into a meme.
So, after seeing Yung Lean pop up on my screen far too many times, I actually bothered to give his music a solid listen. I’d heard Yoshi City and Kyoto before then but not taken much notice. There are a number of things that appeal to me about the sound of Sad Boys, and being someone who likes a variety of ambient bassy noise when I listen to music I admittedly enjoyed listening to Lean’s tracks, especially those from his post twenty fourteen offerings. Still, I knew there was far more to Sad Boys than just the music, I mean, tons of bedroom producers have been putting out similar stuff for a long time and got nowhere. I decided to conduct more research.
One of the first articles I stumbled upon was from Emilie Friedlander over at The Fader. Emilie wrote about the similarities between Odd Future and Sad Boys, predominantly their position as outsiders. This wasn’t the first time I had heard about the similarity having watched a video about how to be a Sad Boy which said Tyler, The Creator had invented emotional rap. The video was a succinct and useful guide toward my unrealised dream of becoming a Sad Boy, but in all seriousness, like all good satire, the video was pretty accurate. Odd Future had set up a legacy that Sad Boys had been able to capitalise on, deliberately or not.
The outsider position that was latched onto by the cult of Odd Future fans grew into being an exclusive club with its own dialogue and terminology. Of course, when Earl went missing (he was in Samoa after all that, who woulda thunk it) Odd Future became even more intriguing for the fans, myself included, because who doesn’t love a mystery, I mean, if people didn’t love mystery then ITV3 wouldn’t even exist. Anyway, the internet enabled OFWGKTA to have a minor religion grow around it, and there was a huge amount of hype that refused to subside. For most of us who were into it we felt like we were listening to the second coming of punk. These were kids like us who felt pissed off and were saying it, and if you were willing to overlook the homophobia, misogyny, and gratuitous use of that word white people aren’t meant to say, then suddenly you had a soundtrack to your anger.
So what has happened since then? Well most of us realised, just like the members of Odd Future, that the voice of anger wasn’t really the most predominant force in that music, and actually the subtext of depression and crises of identity was far more prevalent (that, and smoking weed, if you also listened to Domo Genesis). To be honest though, I think we all knew what it was really about deep down anyway, which was exactly why we identified with it. Following OF reaching the big time Tyler received a ban from entering the UK. When that happened something was made very clear in a statement released by his manager Chris Clancy. Simply put, all the bad stuff Tyler had said in his music was coming from an alter-ego voice, and the alter-ego was meant to be able to express serious emotional issues in a less passive aggressive way. Now that’s cleared up it suddenly becomes very clear why the world’s current most popular internet rap group are called Sad Boys. To put it bluntly; less anger, more sadness.
Emilie Friedlander is completely correct about the position of Sad Boys. They are outsiders, and they do fit the mould of internet hip hop with a cult-following very nicely. However, her final point, that I found most interesting, is that Yung Lean and his band of less-than-merry-men are trying to be outsiders on the inside. Emilie isn’t wrong, but this really got me thinking. Is sadness something we want glorified in the mainstream media? Don’t get me wrong, having gone through some major existential crises in my short time alive and experienced prolonged periods tolerating an uncomfortable blend of anxiety and depression I am more than willing to acknowledge we need a dialogue, but are Sad Boys the way to do it? That’s when I found an article by Jon Moy titled ‘Sad Boys IRL: Depression Is Not A Meme’. Suddenly I wasn’t feeling quite so cynical.
Jon’s article is a tour de force. It may just be because I could completely identify with what he was saying, but seriously, it’s a brave piece. I highly recommend that you go and read it for yourself, even if it just makes you aware of how some people spend their day to day life. And while I might sing the praises of this bit of content by someone who I think sounds far more cool than me, he makes some damn good points. We have turned depression into a meme. We have taken anxiety and nihilism, wrapped it up with a bit of ‘aesthetic’, glossed it with casual self medication, and swallowed it all down with a bit of Sprite and some Jolly Ranchers as if that is totally ok. It’s not ok, it’s ridiculously bad that it’s being glamorised like this.
In his article Jon tells a story about breaking down emotionally in the car with his girlfriend, and while I’ll let you read the story for yourself, the most brutally honest statement he makes is about what it actually takes to be a real sad boy. Jon says ‘you ain’t about that life unless you actually cry in front of your girlfriend while a Drake song plays in the background and have to explain to her that sometimes it feels like when you say goodbye to people it’s the last time you might see them’. That’s what it’s really like, maybe not in that precise form, but sadness is always tough, and it weighs heavier on some people than others.
I don’t think Sad Boys are really to blame for the fact that they have channelled the issues of modern life, they are speaking in a way that people obviously identify with. To be honest, I think Yung Lean probably has a lot of shit he is dealing with himself. Equally, this isn’t really anything new in a funny way. Music has embraced sadness since its inception. Half the bands I listen to are either complaining or unhappy on every track they release. The problem now is that, as Emilie Friedlander said, outsiders are on the inside, and that means the swathes of people who want to be Sad Boys but have nothing to be sad about have turned sadness into a meme. There’s not much more to say really, draw your own conclusions. I’m just very uncomfortable with the idea of sadness being the latest trend.