Hip hop culture in Sweden is about as bleak as its winters. Despite the lack of a club circuit or a network of rap promoters, though, 19-year-old Stockholm native Jonatan Håstad has built an Internet empire on sizzurp motifs, Japanese text, vaporwave visuals and overwhelming sadness.
Better known as Yung Lean — with an album called Warlord on its way later this month — Håstad is Internet music at its most Internet. Having grown up alongside computers, his slack rap seems inspired exclusively by online culture, drawing more from 4chan than from attending live shows. Propelled by a dearth of Swedish hip hop history, Yung Lean went straight to the Internet for source material as much as distribution. This lack of context lead Lean to his own youth — the blips and bloops of early Nintendo, for example — paired with abstractions on select elements of American hip hop culture, especially Houston’s affinity for cough syrup in styrofoam cups.
Although he leverages today’s platforms to spread his music (SoundCloud, etc.), the Internet of Yung Lean’s muse is that of 2001-2003, which he calls the “most emotional” years. Håstad hearkens back to the time when it was still called the World Wide Web and dial-up modems dominated — and he was an elementary schooler.
If there’s anything that dominates Yung Lean’s aesthetic more than the early Internet, however, it’s sadness. His collective, called Sad Boys, glorifies the emotion to the point where dwelling in despair isn’t just seen as an inevitability of life — it’s a lifestyle.
The pinnacle of rabid Sad Boys fandom — a dedicated subculture built on a single emotion (or an appropriation thereof) — is a closed Facebook group called SADBOYS 2001. With a description that reads, “i t s / o k a y / t o / c r y,” the community rallies around the inherent sadness that its predominantly white, cis, heterosexual male members apparently feel their lives hold.
Like any online cloud rap community (cf. Lil B’s Bitch Mob), it’s impossible to tell where the majority of SADBOYS 2001’s members lie on the spectrum of sincerity to irony to post-irony. Regardless of their actual stance, they perpetuate the assumption that sadness is the only genuine emotional response, and that life (or at least their lives) is full of it. This is the antithesis to the otherwise similar cis-hetero-male community that backs Lil B, where militant positivity is the theme.
At least according to Sad Boys fans, central to the experience of sadness is drug use. Xanax and marijuana have a strong presence in SADBOYS 2001, but no drug is more pervasive than lean. Again, it’s impossible to tell how many members have actually ever used prescription-strength cough syrup recreationally, but it’s central to the community’s aesthetic (or, as they would put it in the vaporwave tradition, “a e s t h e t i c”). Although he uses an abundance of sizzurp imagery himself, Yung Lean says he isn’t a drug user. He adopted it simply because of its American rap connotations and its similarity to his exceedingly misleading middle name, Leandoer.
Beyond lean, though, what do Sad Boys consider sad? It mostly comes down to a “know it when I see it” judgment. The safe parameters of sad imagery include the early Internet, Pokémon, Fiji water, Arizona iced green tea, Roman statues, bucket hats and Japanese text. As important as those images are, particularly when made into Microsoft Paint-style collages called “edits,” the Sad Boys aesthetic wouldn’t exist without the squat. Normally included in posts captioned “r8 my squat fam,” community members photograph themselves squatting as if they were clad in Adidas tracksuits on a Russian dating website. Replies to these posts range from, “not enough sadness/10” and “cut jeans like wrists/10” to “So much emotion! I rate 1995/2001.” And God forbid you don’t plant your heels on the ground, because you’ll be met with “0/10 get those fucking heels planted in those god damn slippers” or “Actually trash, and I’m not just trying to be a dick.”
Oh, and if you’re female, you’ll have comments like this to look forward to: “cuts in jeans -> stupid fuck whore.” Girls, held up to a higher squat/sadness standard than your average (male) Sad Boy, are objectified in the community. Rather than their bodies being the focal point, though, they’re termed “emotional shawties,” the troubled, contemplative girls these hetero Sad Boys claim to dream about. Unless, of course, they’re hiding behind the Internet wall that allows misogyny to flourish.
While misogyny is occasionally challenged, mods allow it to continue. This isn’t for lack of group maintenance, though; members are frequently thrown out if it seems like they’re trying to appropriate the community’s culture of sadness. A friend of mine fell victim to a ban early in his SADBOYS 2001 membership, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this column gets me banned too. Despite how arbitrary the group’s abstraction of Yung Lean’s aesthetic is, punishment is swift for those who break its even more arbitrary rules. While not at all protective of the wellbeing of its members, mods are fiercely protective of the community’s sanctity.
At times it seems like the group is so sad it comes out the other end: by confronting their unhappiness head on, members can make progress toward combatting it. It’s certainly no support group, though. This theory of catharsis disintegrates when you consider the rampant drug glorification, unrestrained misogyny and downright cruelty directed at some members who don’t “get it.”
Trying to characterize SADBOYS 2001 by one element — be it sadness, white male privilege or even dedicated Yung Lean fandom — proves futile. Rather, SADBOYS 2001 is simply the Internet in a petri dish. Drawing almost exclusively from existing Internet culture, the group devolves into ridiculous memes, hyper-dedicated fans, simultaneous inclusivity and exclusivity, cyber bullying and bigotry, all spanning international borders. For all its impersonality, the Internet — and thus SADBOYS 2001 — is a spectacular microscope for human nature in all its creative, destructive glory.
Mike Sosnick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.