TW: mental health and suicide

In 2016, Lil Peep’s Hellboy mixtape dropped on Soundcloud. In 2017, Lil Peep died of a drug overdose. The release of his fifth and final mixtape on major streaming platforms, exactly four years after it first came out, offers an opportunity to rethink the ascent and tragedy of one of underground emo rap’s gems.

On this mixtape, Lil Peep (real name Gustav Åhr) creatively combines electronic and hip-hop production, moody alternative rock, and distinctive reverb-heavy vocals. The atmosphere is depressive rather than abrasive. Although Hellboy, like earlier mixtapes, is sample heavy, his vocals are no longer layered over other people’s riffs. They emerge clearly from a sea of emotions, allowing us to discern his alternation between anguish, frustration, apathy. At times, a brief clarity emerges, searing, scary, and surprising as he seeks out hope in darkness.

The hazy instrumental of ‘We Think Too Much’is the album’s most serene point: “I just wanna lay my head on your chest, so I’m close as it gets to your heart/We can fall apart, start over again”, he promises. “I know all about the pain that you go through”, he sings, as the Aphex Twin sample fades into the next track. It is as if he’s speaking directly to the listener, and in this moment one can imagine Lil Peep’s tortured universe enmeshing with their own. It is the final track that he recorded for the album.

As the face of a newer brand of emo, his music has always attracted complaints. Reduced to bare lyrics, some songs seem repetitive, juvenile, even shallow. “I used to wanna kill myself/Came up, still wanna kill myself/My life is goin’ nowhere/I want everyone to know that I don’t care” – and then repeat, for the chorus of OMFG. “Tears in my diary stuff”, scorns music reviewer Anthony Fantano: the “worst and most extreme” of edgy Soundcloud rap. Further controversy surrounds Peep’s subject matter: the extensive drug use, the apparent beautification of suicide, and the generally self-destructive way that he navigates sex and emotions. If the lyrics, delivered through off-pitch vocals and melodramatic production, seem turgid, self-absorbed, even dangerous, then they naturally seem to amount to an aesthetic nothing.

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Yet, this disregards how appeal of emo music partly lays in the realm of the affective. Any album attempting to thematically explore a gamut of feelings, a variety of confused, chaotic experiences quickly runs into difficulties. Some part of his psyche remains deliberately impenetrable: on the titular track, he raps, “You don’t even know what I been through”. ‘Fucked Up’ mixes raw sexual desire with the regret of taking drugs, while ‘The Song They Played (When I Crashed Into the Wall)’ is a bittersweet, whirlwind look at a past life. These songs all make extensive use of samples, the bassline of an Underoath song or a Blink-182 acoustic are recognizable, yet are assimilated into Lil Peep’s own sonic world. It is less of an aural disharmony that permeates Hellboy, than a tumultuous personal navigation of ennui and earnestness, fulfillment and fading away.

Some brief digital archaeology might illuminate Fantano’s puzzlement at how “for whatever reason there seems to be this really big following for dark edgy rappers”, exemplified by Lil Peep. Attraction to and connection with any artist are personal and intimate: Cherwell’s own Joe Bavs, writing in the wake of a 2017 concert, would posit that he was “our greatest living icon” – both gig and crowd spirited if amateurish. The comments on YouTube or Soundcloud sincerely professing a kinship with Lil Peep’s own dark moments, giving a quick thanks or small tribute (“in tears over this, man I miss peep”), are countless. Walking about in a town of 8,000 in Slovenia last summer, a piece of graffiti caught my eye:

Image: Ernest Lee

In death, a great number of Lil Peep lyrics seem prescient. Not eerily so, for part of his charm lay in the tragedy and self-knowing passion of choruses proclaiming: “And as long as I’m alive, Imma die, baby” or “These drugs are callin’ me, do one more line, don’t fall asleep”. Lil Peep did as much to prop up the mythos of the rockstar prematurely departed, as he was consumed by it: “Call me Cobain, she can see the pain/Look me in the eyes, tell me we are not the same”. Debates about the quality of his music – whether he could rap, or did justice to the musicians he sampled – have become muted.

In other ways, he seems to live on. Lyric pages are dotted with annotations that unfold into anecdotes from living friends. His mother, who has managed his songs and estate, makes her love for him and appreciation for his music evident in various interviews and speeches. Some songs, their samples now cleared, have been re-released, and in their accompanying videos, another side of him always emerges. Last year, the documentary Everybody’s Everything was released. The volume of unreleased songs and footage, of course, dwindles.

If any album is deserving of being called Lil Peep’s magnum opus, Hellboy might be it. Whatever nascent genre it could be fitted into – ‘emo trap’ a good contender, or ‘alternative rap-rock’ – would flourish only in the wake of his death. Even here, there are signs of his dynamism. “I’m not coming back/Move on/Be strong”, goes the chorus that closes the album. The final song features growled ad-libs and hints of metalcore, a tantalizing hint at the shifting directions future albums might have taken. We will never know.