Approaching Lil Peep On The Other Side Of Tragedy
On the evening of April 9, 2017, I stopped at a brewery on my way to a Radiohead concert. I was alone, so I played the millennial part and burrowed into my Twitter feed to avoid social interaction while having a few beers. That same night, Lil Peep was making his live debut in Chicago, and a couple of music writers whom I follow were tweeting about the show. Alcohol and the lingering sting of Pitchfork deeming Peep “the future of emo” a few months prior got the best of me; I flung a few wholly unprompted retorts at one of those writers. If I’m remembering correctly, those zingers didn’t amount to much more than, “Lil Peep sucks.” I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more of a parody of myself: Music Critic Disses SoundCloud Sensation While Drinking Craft Beer En Route to Radiohead.
After Peep died last November at 21, I deleted those tweets. It wasn’t out of an I was wrong, Lil Peep is Actually Good sentiment. It was more of a Hey, maybe unconstructively criticizing clearly depressed young artists in public forums is Actually Bad thing. Then a funny thing happened. I can’t pinpoint exactly when or why, but within a few months I started to genuinely enjoy Lil Peep’s music.
Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word — my consumption of his projects Crybaby, Hellboy, and Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1 amounted to more of a fixation punctuated by brief-but-unshakable moments of awe — but at least in terms of recognizing Peep’s raw potential, I could tell that I had initially let my preconceptions get the better of me. For every cathartic hook and timelessly overwrought emo lyric in his early material, there were two or three lines or beats I found to be cringeworthy, but he always seemed to be inching closer to working out the kinks. Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, released last Friday as Peep’s first posthumous album, isn’t perfect either, but it does house my favorite Peep song to date, the poetic and poignant “Life Is Beautiful.”
Beyond Lil Peep’s painfully emotive lyrical content and genre blending, the main reason he seemed like an “It” kid to me was his sheer divisiveness among music critics who were older than him. Curious about what’s currently popular in music? Pay attention to what critics who consider themselves experts are angrily tweeting about. Peep’s case is more knotty than that of Twenty One Pilots, Bhad Bhabie, or any face-tatted artist lumped into “SoundCloud rap.” Whereas those mostly inspire external clashes between cut-and-dry supporters and detractors, critiques of Peep often internally struggle about which side they’re on.
Personally, I found it hard to reconcile two sides of Peep that are best illustrated by two of his many tattoos: one reading “Crybaby” and another depicting an Uzi that reads “Fuck the Opps.” This duality manifested itself in his music via samples of some of my favorite moody rock artists (Modest Mouse, Toe, and yes, even Radiohead) and convenient poaching of popular hip-hop slang and tropes. In one memorable example, he slapped a recognizable Trap-A-Holics DJ tag over a flip of the Microphones’ “Headless Horseman.”
Now, I love rap just as much as I love sad flannel music, and I especially love the two rappers Peep most often claimed as influences (Future and iLoveMakonnen), but knowing nothing about his background, I felt my Iggy senses tingling. I couldn’t decide if Peep was an innovator or yet another opportunistic Post Malone using trap signifiers as a springboard to stardom with little respect for the form itself.
Others in my music writer demographic confessed similarly confused outlooks on Peep. “I was repelled, but I was fascinated, too,” wrote Stereogum’s own Tom Breihan. “His music was sometimes so bad that you’d hear it and think more or less, ‘What is this shit?’ Yet a few of his songs are my favorite songs of the past decade,” was part of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s highfalutin post-mortem take for GQ. The Ringer’s Shea Serrano literally used a good cop/bad cop format for his Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1 review. “What makes Lil Peep appealing is also what makes him so hateable,” wrote Vulture’s Sam Hockley-Smith. “Is Lil Peep’s Music Brilliant or Stupid as Shit?”, wondered Drew Millard in the headline of a Noisey thinkpiece. “It’s like/not something I should like/but damn/it scratches an itch,” a friend of mine haltingly wrote on Facebook Messenger during a lengthy late-night discussion about Peep’s death.
Of course, some were resolutely on one side of the fence or the other, too. Many pro-Peep critics addressed his tendency to sow seeds of discontent in the hearts of music writers with aplomb. “Lil Peep is good because he upsets rap fans and rock fans,” tweeted one. “His tendency to incorporate the wide range of his influences into his musical vision reflected his unselfconscious creative process,” wrote another, offering a nuanced justification for Peep’s cross-cultural aesthetics. Jon Caramanica, the New York Times’ pop music critic, rode for Peep from the start.
Decidedly anti-Peep takes were far more dominant in my social media feeds, and most were just as blunt as my stellar opening salvo of Peep criticism. Lindsay Zoladz’s essay about the future of emo, in which she wrote about Peep “infringing upon a hip-hop culture in which he’s neither skilled nor interesting enough to justify his presence” did stick with me, as did Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie’s starkly honest but thoughtful response when I asked him about Peep sampling one of his old Microphones records in our Stereogum interview earlier this year:
I was aware of him when he was alive and knew that he sampled my songs. But when I first saw his videos I was like, “Argh! No! Yuck!” I just really didn’t get it, and I think it’s just because I’m old, honestly. It’s a thing for people who are 20 years younger than me, or younger. It’s one of the first times I felt truly alienated from, you know, kids these days. But I mostly just felt bad. I didn’t want to be associated with it, but also I didn’t want to be a hard ass. I’m mostly fine with anyone using my music for whatever. Everything’s just compost that gets reused.
When he died, I tweeted, “Lil Peep is on my mind” because death was on my mind. More people dying, young people dying, people dying before their time, [Elverum’s wife] Geneviève dying, and people grieving in this sloppy, chaotic, public way, which I was also doing. It just poked at all these issues in a fresh way, surprisingly. I didn’t think about Lil Peep much at all, but when he died there was a video online of his friend videotaping his dead body. It was gross, but at the same time, it was putting actual death into all of our faces once again in this really raw way, and it’s all just so potent.
Elverum’s got a few years on me (I’m 27), but I also felt a rare music moment of generational alienation amid Peep’s rise. I felt like I had seen this unwieldy blend of influences before, and that Peep fans were simply too young to realize that he was just Linkin Park with drug references, or lowbrow King Krule, or whatever other world-weary, pretentious equation I could cheekily concoct. Then his death made me totally reconsider not just his music, but my entire habit of dismissing young artists by virtue of the musical baggage and prejudices I’ve accrued in my years spent getting paid to rate them. I realized how often I was writing off new music before hearing a note of it, or entering first listens with heavy biases, not critiquing so much as sniffing out snarky quips to tweet or meme.
I still firmly believe that music shouldn’t be judged solely on the sounds and words contained within. Context is important, but not all-important. I can’t distance Ye from MAGA, but I like to think that I could still hold Greta Van Fleet accountable for bland songwriting had I never heard a note of Zoso.
What I wasn’t initially hearing in Peep was his borderless talent. Over the course of his short, fairly low-budget career, he showed impressive range. The gorgeous “Gym Class” is cloud rap. “4 Gold Chains” is emo Shabazz Palaces. “Worlds Away” is a bonafide pop song. “Awful Things” is a mascara-stained screamo ballad. But he could’ve done much, much more. He could’ve been the “dangerous” one in a boy band. His slurry sing-rapping would be at home in most modern underground rap cliques. His melodic gifts and penchant for sexy brooding could’ve succeeded in most eras or scenes of emo or pop-punk. Particularly in 2018’s chart landscape of neg-pop, it’s easy to imagine him all over the radio, collaborating with everyone from Halsey to Travis Scott to whatever populist DJ is currently throwing together posse cuts at random.
In his music and social media presence, Peep gave us frequent warnings that he wasn’t long for this world. To some — myself included — these initially seemed like exaggerated posturing, in a way similar to Rick Ross lying about gang ties on “B.M.F.” or 50 Cent lying about smoking weed on “High All the Time.” But viewed after his overdose, Peep’s fixation on his own death is at least partially responsible for my fixation on him. It’s not that I crave some hackneyed notion of authenticity; it’s that I hate myself for not recognizing his bald-faced honesty. Peep and his music have made me fundamentally question myself as a writer, listener, and human being. He captioned one of his last Instagram posts, “WHEN I DIE YOU’LL LOVE ME,” and he was right.