Who shapes the legacies of dead, young rappers?

Posthumous releases from Lil Peep and XXXtentacion seek to cement their artistry, even as their reputations were still in flux when they died.

Who shapes the legacies of dead, young rappers?

Posthumous releases from Lil Peep and XXXtentacion seek to cement their artistry, even as their reputations were still in flux when they died.

A couple of months ago, “Falling Down,” a posthumous collaboration by the deceased rappers Lil Peep and XXXtentacion, was released to the world. The official account for this song’s existence, so it goes, was that X had recorded some verses after listening to fan-uploaded snippets of the hook on YouTube, which had in turn been stripped from previews of the track from Lil Peep’s Instagram videos. X’s management reached out to Peep’s team, including Peep’s friend and longtime collaborator iLoveMakonnen, and finished the song. Not long after, X himself was killed.

But what was intended by management as a touching tribute to two young artists taken before their time was complicated by X’s real-life history as a domestic abuser. Had Peep ever liked X, or wanted to collaborate with him? There were conflicting reports on whether Peep’s mother Liza Womack had agreed to the posthumous collab; Makonnen called X’s parts a “tribute” to Peep, even as several of Peep’s collaborators rejected the idea there was any relationship between the two. (Somewhat manipulatively, the song included an audio clip of X expressing his regret over not being closer to Peep.) The song peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard charts, but it was left off the official tracklist for Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2, a posthumous Peep album set to be released November 9.

This kind of label manipulation to link two artists in the afterlife is bracingly common; artists like Michael Jackson, Tupac, and the Notorious B.I.G. have seen modern artists grafted onto their unreleased recordings, all with the approval of the estate. But “Falling Down” was a rarer kind of release — an attempt to jointly burnish the reputations and legacies of two young artists who, at the time of their passing, were still carving out their careers. As Makonnen himself pointed out, no one knows for sure what Peep wanted; what’s left of his music can’t speak to his ambitions or their desires. But the music industry needs to assume or hypothesize what the two young artists might have been like, might have accomplished if they had survived. In industry parlance it’s called “preserving and extending their legacy,” to share their music and expand the fanbase. Who, then, is speaking?

Lil Peep and XXXtentacion rose out of a loosely connected group of young rappers who used SoundCloud as a means of promotion and collaboration. Peep was born in 1996, and X was born in 1998. They grew up in an unprecedented era of music streaming and distribution, of communities forming in forums and LiveJournals and Tumblrs and middle schoolers bonding over literally any cultural artefact you can think of. Peep and X were avid consumers of culture and music, reflected in their unabashed mix of emo, punk, and rock with trap beats.

That the two rappers are so popular among teenagers a little younger than them is emblematic of how well they synthesized our little cultural moment. Both built their music and personas around struggle, but not in the same mold as their hip-hop predecessors. Where Biggie, Tupac, Ice-T, Jay Z et al. rapped about hustling and gang violence to survive a racist society that offers black men no chances, Peep and X spoke of ennui, threading emo guitar riffs alongside plaintive gripes about depression, drug abuse, and attempts at emotional vulnerability that end in failure. Young, skinny, adorned with tattoos, they were some of the first to articulate the dread of living in a society that offers no safety net or future for their youngest — no dice, just stagnation. They championed memes and channeled irony with the gusto that only comes from having an organic, symbiotic relationship to the Internet.

And yet they were not loath to interact with their fans with a humility and candor usually reserved for real-life acquaintances and friends. Both often used Instagram Live and Twitter to reach out and comfort their sorrowful listeners. Plenty of fans list the ways in which Peep and X’s music allowed them to accept their insecurities and mental illnesses, but their fandom wasn’t just predicated on music that articulated their fears. Peep and X amassed their cult-like following out of the growing sense that these kids made it. Despite their obstacles, they leveraged their pain and elevated it into art. It gave teenagers the vague sense that maybe some of them could waddle through our perennial sense of ennui and sadness and make it too.

The similarities between Lil Peep and XXXtentacion end there. X was a well-known domestic abuser, who once bragged about beating up a gay cellmate in prison, who systematically brutalized his ex-girlfriend and admitted to it. His unmitigated rage, his proclivity for violence, and the hypermasculinity that covered for his insecurities shone through in tracks like “Floor 555,” in which he screamed “fuckboy, don’t test me” for about 30 seconds. In a moment of honesty, X meditated on unspecified wrongdoing in the SoundCloud-released track “I spoke to the devil in miami, he said everything would be fine.” As with many bad actors who refuse to apologize or take responsibility for his actions, he said his soul was already in the hands of the Devil, that he was “trapped in a changing maze,” and that real change was near impossible. The track, in a way, offered a blueprint for diehard fans looking to exonerate him, claiming that his troubled and underprivileged upbringing and his struggles with mental health justified his unapologetic violence towards women. Others weakly protested, saying that he was trying to changehis misogynistic ways despite evidence to the contrary.

Of course, if you even mention any of this to said diehards, they will brigade and harass you, just as they unstintingly harassed his ex-girlfriend for filing charges against X. X died a hero, his music universally acclaimed, his last album ? debuting straight at the top of the Billboard 200 Albums Chart. The industry seems willing to ignore X’s legacy of violence and harassment in marketing his posthumous work, which is on its way. It doesn’t help that X deleted tweets and Instagram posts that contained his rage-fueled threats of violence even when he was alive; now, his team has deleted almost every single post from his Instagram. At the BET Awards, Vic Mensa faced severe backlash for calling out the music industry’s willingness to sanitize X’s violence in front of the whole crowd. Recently, XXL actually asked if X could be considered this generation’s Tupac, owing to some broad similarities in their rise to fame.

Operative in that audio clip in “Falling Down” — bro, we were so alike — is X’s positioning himself as a kindred spirit of Peep’s. But X can only say that he and Peep were alike in the same way that I’d say I’m like the both of them, in that we’re all depressed. Peep, for all the performative masculinity in his music, was rumored to dislike X, allegedly paying Spotify money to remove X from a curated mixtape featuring his music. He came out as bisexual prior to his death, frequently sported red nail polish and calling out homophobes on Twitter and Instagram. He also very obviously did not take himself seriously, contrasted with X’s militant affectations, which included his pretending to hang himself on Instagram. Before his death, Peep was warning his followers to “do [their] research on the artists [they] support.”

In a recent profile, The New York Times described Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2 as showing “the star Peep was primed to become, if only the world would catch up.” The truth is that Peep’s sound wasn’t so fleshed out when he was alive. His mixtapes and record all feel unfinished, as if he had anticipated coming back to these tracks years later to demonstrate his growth as an artist. Peep never got the recognition that he was going to get two, three albums deeper in his career; before his death, there were still articles being written about whether he was any good, period. In the wake of their deaths, X’s audio clip also becomes a self-reflexive comment about their legacy. When people die, that’s when we like them, you know? ‘Cause your remorse makes you wanna check them out.

What unites Lil Peep and X in death isn’t just their music, but their fit within the archetype of the genius (usually male) artist who has left us all too early. You know exactly the type: your Rimbauds and Sid Viciouses, your Eddie Cochrans and Basquiats. The haunting quality of the 27 Club isn’t the range and artistry of its members, but the pure, accumulated potentiality of the human spirit, of the unquantifiable losses culture has suffered in the wake of their untimely deaths.

So it goes for Peep and X. In a culture that fetishizes youth just as it lambasts it for its unruliness, such troubled, talented young men who didn’t even get to live into their mid-twenties are catnip. Unlike the ‘80s and ‘90s, we now have automatic access to a full archive of almost everything they’ve ever said and released — thousands upon thousands of tweets, every single track on SoundCloud waiting for fans new and old. But this official record can be adjusted to reflect the needs of its owners. X’s Instagram has been erased; his Twitter, which is filled with provocations and challenges to figures like Drake, might be next. His fans are already eager to only remember the good parts. The burden of remembering the bad, as exhausting as it is, will fall to the people who remember how it really happened, even when there is a concerted effort to rehabilitate X’s image as a kind philanthropist.

Once a space for tour dates and merch, X’s website currently features the words “XXXTentacion Foundation” and a “Donate” button. There does not seem to be a sustained plan for fan-raised money beyond X’s mother, Cleopatra Bernard, donating to the Travyon Martin Foundation and other GoFundMe campaigns on his behalf. Bernard also manages X’s trust and unreleased music alongside X’s manager Solomon Sobande, and X’s lawyer Bob Celestin. The New York Times reported that X had signed a $10 million album deal with Empire prior to his death, and that his estate may benefit from licensing unreleased material in the years after.

As for Peep, his mother Liza Womack has been personally involved in tweaking and preserving Peep’s posthumous legacy, from approving the usage of Peep’s childhood drawings for a music video, to sporting and promoting Lil Peep merchandise on her personal Instagram. Terrence Malick, a reportedly close friend of the family’s, has been slated to be the executive producer of a documentary on Peep’s life. Close friends of Peep’s, Smokeasac and iLoveMakonnen plan to release their collaborations with Peep, of which Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2 is one.

Genius, or the prospect of it, justifies everything in the creative business. In the full year since Peep’s death his friends and collaborators have tried to pick up what has been left and eulogize him as the emo-trap superstar he never was, but perhaps was destined to become. X’s team has tried to consolidate his legacy by eliding his violence. To see attempts to bowdlerize and canonize happen so quickly with artists who hadn’t yet fully matured in their regular lives is a sobering reminder of how unstintingly the industry slouches towards profit. The afterlife of an artist is removed from who he was when he lived; all is forgiven, and fans drink up every piece of him that they can get.