Culture

Lil Peep: 1996 - 2017

Before 21-year-old Gustav “Lil Peep” Åhr died last week of a suspected drug overdose, he was a burgeoning cult figure with a promising future. With his tragic passing, what was prelude becomes legend.

Culture

Why he mattered

Culture

Lil Peep: 1996 - 2017

Before 21-year-old Gustav “Lil Peep” Åhr died last week of a suspected drug overdose, he was a burgeoning cult figure with a promising future. With his tragic passing, what was prelude becomes legend.

It was dismissively easy to recognize Lil Peep mainly as a capital-S Star in waiting. The lanky bottle blonde, who recently dated the buzzy actress Bella Thorne, was hitting runways in Europe, and implied in interviews he intended to be an actor. Gaunt and blanketed in tattoos, he had a flashy fashion sense which earned him a hefty Instagram following and photo shoots from GQ and V magazines. His music, like his physical appearance and online presence, had a grungy, rebellious allure which marketed itself, and explained entertainment industry optimism about the path of his career — he was booked for shows by the powerful agent Cara Lewis and managed by Sarah Stennett, whose roster includes One Directioner-turned-solo star Zayn Malik.

Yet in an era of cross-platform “stars,” whose primary purpose is to act as air traffic controllers for the marketing and peddling of influence for brands, Lil Peep's fame was built upon a sturdy foundation: his compelling and distinctive voice as an artist. This was reflected through his image and its trappings — Peep would acknowledge the pro wrestling-driven dynamics of celebrity in interviews. But his work, though divisive, captured the attention of its most devoted fans for qualities far beyond its economic potential or his evident sex appeal. Peep’s strength was in creating emotionally direct songs about indirect emotions, to confidently craft anthems of uncertainty. His catalog — captured across five tapes, at least three EPs, and assorted collaborations and loosies — homed in on a modern conception of anxiety and longing and depression, and about the often unhealthy ways we cope. At their best, his dysphoric narratives were euphorically reassuring, paradoxically offering the abjectly lonely an absolute sense they were not alone.

Lil Peep was born Gustav Åhr November 1, 1996 in Pennsylvania, then moved to Long Beach, Long Island when he was five. He was afflicted with depression early on; in nearly all his interviews he mentions dealing with anxiety. He grew up listening to emo and pop-punk, and discovered rap music through the internet. He was a loner who made friends online, and left high school to move to Los Angeles hoping to connect with artists he’d met there. Early on, he rapped in the group Schema Posse alongside producer JGRXXN, a young beatmaker from Memphis who’d worked on the later recordings of Oscar-winning hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia.

In 2015, Peep purchased a mic and a $100 audio interface and began recording and engineering his own solo music. His debut album, LiL PEEP Part One, came out on BandCamp at the end of that year. “Star Shopping,” one of his earliest records, attracted immediate attention in the small online underground circles of the time. Peep’s recording process was fairly intuitive. “I just let my brain take over,” he once told me. “I don’t really think much. I just write the lyrics and I’m just in the booth and I just go. I just get into a mode. I’ll be really focused.” The sound of his solo material veered away from the more aggressive darkness of the underground at that time, which traded heavily (and repetitively) in the rapid-fire percussive flows of ’90s Memphis legends like Lord Infamous. Instead, he downshifted to a melodic, meditative kind of darkness inspired by the contemporary sung-rap style of artists like Chief Keef, whose slang term “GLO” Peep had tattooed on his hand at age 14. Peep’s voice stood apart, a consistent, controlled melodic and textural tool which made other rappers’ vocals sound faint in the contrast.

In Los Angeles, Peep couch-hopped and sold his possessions on Craigslist to get by. Schema Posse were soon interviewed by Adam Grandmaison of the No Jumper podcast, whose longform video podcast interviews acted as a useful promotional tool. No Jumper would become the media epicenter of an otherwise-rootless new movement within the hip-hop world, as a marginal rap underground leveraged its increasing influence through SoundCloud and YouTube. Heavily tattooed and often encouraging of his guests’ occasionally questionable behavior, the 33-year-old Grandmaison had an earnest enthusiasm for the style and sound of the moment, which helped him serve as a crossover vector for artists seeking a whiter, often suburban cool-seeking audience. He became a legitimizing platform for young, underground artists angling to be seen, and performers whose music could be marketed through a lens of suburban nostalgia found urgent success. Alongside rappers like the controversial XXXTentacion, Peep was one of several artists who approached that sound organically.

No Jumper’s YouTube channel today has nearly 1 million subscribers, but it was in the nascent stages of its influence when he posted the video for Lil Peep’s solo cut “Come Around” in February 2016. From that moment, his fame snowballed. Schema Posse broke up, and as Peep’s career gained traction, he joined GBC, or Gothboiclique, a group of artists whose underground pastiche aesthetic — Mass Appeal described it as a blend of Lil B, “anime, and witch house” — offered Peep raw material which he refashioned to his own purposeful ends. Peep was seldom the first to use the sounds he built upon, but he used them to convey what he wanted more fully than anyone else.

The similarly torpid, drug-induced dysphoria of 2013-era Chief Keef provided the closest to a blueprint for Peep’s overarching artistic approach. But through his production choices and engineering style, Peep shifted the sonic template towards rougher, acoustic textures which better reflected his own ambient influences in the West Coast underground, and growing up in suburban Long Island: chromatic grunge melodies, Frusciante-like guitar lines, and a vocal timbre which suggested Layne Staley as much as any rapper. His subject matter likewise narrowed, though he retained hip-hop’s brash delivery and persona-driven narratives. He leaned towards depression, anxiety, and heartbreak, preferring the conceptual focus of rock groups he’d grown up on, like My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday, and Fall Out Boy.

Most white rappers, including some of the genre’s most successful voices, have a tendency to blankly emulate the genre's black innovators, and rely on the ignorance of nonblack audiences to stand apart. Peep’s approach was more honest. His tendency to incorporate the wide range of his influences into his musical vision reflected his unselfconscious creative process. “I listen to so much music, all the time constantly, it’s all I do, it’s kind of therapy for me,” he said. “I just kind of channel artists who — I don't even know who I’m channeling, it could be a combination of a hundred different artists but I’ll just do it over an instrumental that I hear. I’ll make a melody up and lyrics will come to my head that relate to my life."

Peep was not the only artist to accomplish this, of course, but the novelty of his sound and its proximity to the zeitgeist made his work stand apart. Though it was divisive, he had his critical champions, many of whom celebrated his post-genre welding of hip-hop and emo as if it were some prodigious innovation — and perhaps it may turn out to be so. But in reality, he was more synthesist than innovator, building on his home genre of hip-hop and marshaling tools from his life’s own mood board to say what he needed to say. The result reflected rap's slang, narrative grammar and evolving compositional framework, cut through with the textures and melodic sensibilities of a range of rock music, from ’90s grunge to the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Peep idolized RHCP frontman Anthony Kiedis), from the emo songs his producers sampled to Blink 182’s pop-punk (Peep closed out concerts blasting the group’s “Dammit” over the speakers).

Peep made depression his subject at the levels of text and texture; his songs have a melancholic sincerity which flirted often with the notion of his own impending death, and with the numbing consequences of drug use. In reaching for emotional truths through the Lil Peep persona, he had a level of knowing detachment from that persona, which many — including his own brother — interpreted to mean the persona itself was false, that he couldn’t also be hiding a depressive personality, or softening its blows through addiction. That the “brand” superseded his brother's ability to see the real Gus speaks to a broader misunderstanding about Peep’s appeal — specifically for those who saw him as yet another “ironic” white rap artist whose career was based upon the lazy juxtaposition of whiteness in the context of a black art form, for whom its tropes were in and of themselves a one-note joke.

I saw Lil Peep live at Chicago’s Subterranean in the spring of 2017. The bulk of the audience had X’s marked on their hands; the bar line was nearly empty. For each song, the audience sang along to each lyric as if possessed, to see their emotional turbulence made real. His lyrics were unapologetic in their embrace of his own cliche, and self-aware about it: “They want that real shit, they want that drug talk, that ‘I can't feel’ shit,” Peep intoned on “Beamer Boy.” His self-awareness, Peep knew, was not a ward against the ill feelings beneath. A deeply-wired pessimism enabled him to comprehend a frightening reality: his self-awareness, his brilliance, his art itself was impotent in the face of his depression. It’s easy to wonder if it was this depression itself which enabled such artistic confidence, how facing down his own demons, and dulling the pain with pills, was connected to his lack of self-consciousness as an artist. As an artist, he was fearless, because life itself offered enough to worry about.

David Drake is a writer living in Chicago.
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