Rap Blog: Yung Lean bars up on “Shadowboxing”

Rap Blog is a weekly showcase of a standout rap song.

Yung Lean is grown now. It’s been a decade since “Ginseng Strip 2002,” and he’s no longer a 15-year-old kid in an oversized bucket hat shyly rapping about Arizona Iced Tea. With almost every release, Lean’s voice is sharper, clearer, and more confident: not just literally, but figuratively, as a young man looking for something to say has finally found the message he’s a vessel for. On Sugar World, his 2023 album under his experimental alias jonatan leandoer96, he channeled his inner Jarvis Cocker with a surprisingly lush and maximalist indie-pop symphony; the new Psykos project with longtime collaborator Bladee is pure post-punk, as the comrades unpack their mental anguish over woozy guitars.

But maybe my favorite recent Lean release is “Shadowboxing,” a loosie currently only available on YouTube that features some of Lean’s most straight-up bars in a minute. An unexpected bagpipe sample sets a somber mood, as the harsh dissonance of the instrument’s reedy tones leaves you with a feeling of discomforting limbo, unsure if you’re waking or dying. When Lean begins to flow, his bars are at first a scattered stream of consciousness, embodying the anxious sweats and anguished night terrors he speaks of. But when the beat hits, he snaps to attention, waging war with himself: “It’s me against me.” Even amidst his most vulnerable confessions of mental illness and emotional pain, Lean’s accented phrasing can often be disarmingly charming; there’s something sweetly innocent about the way he says “I gotta slow it down, like the turtle beats the hare.”