What can we take from Lil Peep's music following his death?
This won’t be about the tour bus. Or the messy details of an overdose. This won’t even be about the life of a kid named Gus. Someone else— a mom, friends, a brother, old lovers— will reckon with those fragments. They don’t belong to us. So instead I’ll write about the musician Lil Peep, brief thoughts on what he gave. Let’s call it a piecing together.
(“When I die you’ll love me”) A week ago I’d have looked at that Instagram caption and pegged it as rockstar histrionics. It fit with Lil Peep’s unique flavor of emo— crybaby rap, vocal-modulated teen angst, and guitar riffs littered with trap snares and xanax. Now it reads like a premonition and, just as then, as a fallacy.
He might disagree but I think love isn’t the right word for what he wanted. He had love. Damn near everybody loved him in that nebulous way that all celebrities receive love. Sometimes disguised as haters, sometimes in the form of a fan— two kinds of flattery worshiping the same idol and delivering more ”love” than a person could ever use. And so it’s interesting that the outpouring in response to Lil Peep’s death so much resembles the outpouring in life, especially in those spheres that first brought him to fame. There have been condolences and public grieving from the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Post Malone, and Diplo. But if we talk about Lil Peep the rapper, the image, the most telling mourning (loving) is happening quietly in the comment sections on SoundCloud and YouTube— teenage fans that connected to some bit of Peep’s message. And the story of the musician Peep just as much belongs to every lonely sixteen-year-old who heard “I ain’t got no remedy, bury me” and understood exactly that oppressing darkness, as it does to the musician himself.
It’s not a novel idea to approach celebrity as a form of surrendering one's image. Lil Peep knew. He was keenly aware of the weight his object had to bear, the weight of the projections and hopes and fears of his young fans, at one point posting about how tortured he felt that he wanted to be “everybody’s everything”. Paradoxically, painfully, he thrived on it— because he also wanted from people. He wanted love because he gave so much of it.
Almost as much as through music, Instagram was a way of giving that image. At just over 1.7 million, he had fewer followers than many of his SoundCloud peers, but created a far more intimate gallery. It is flooded with selfies and goofy pictures posted on the first take, and increasingly dismal captions typed out hurriedly without regard for punctuation. Just as his music blended the self awareness and immediacy of rap music, his image was ubiquitous and immediate on social media, always now. Try keeping track of all the new tattoos and hairstyles that passed through his page. All those selfies, all that giving away of your immediate image demands a body in flux. Otherwise, what do you have left of yourself? (“Burn me down ‘til I’m nothing but memories”)
The challenging, complicated part of Lil Peep’s artistic legacy, even before he died, was precisely that barrier. He was obsessed with authenticity, artists who truly lived the image they presented and gave away (he cited Future as an influence, and Anthony Kiedis as an idol), but just as much expressed the need for musicians to have characters, deliberate personas to make them stand out. Independently these beliefs form a dense contradiction, but together they seem to ask for an uncertain transformation. Both ends were composed of pain and depression. Maybe they grow from each other. Maybe they grow into each other. If he was surrendering an image that was rapidly colliding with the part of him that was not-image, what was Lil Peep becoming? You could point to last week’s tragedy as an answer. I’d like to hope, though, that there’s something else.
It poses such a challenge that I almost considered writing this piece in imitation of a Tumblr post, written from the the point of view of a teenaged Peep fan grappling with Lil Peep’s death. Because to understand Peep’s connection with his fans, and the line his music offers, you have to inhabit the unironic angst that characterized his movement. I’m talking about the kind of earnestness that brings you to rap over The Postal Service’s wistful, indie hit “Such Great Heights”. It’s music that isn’t worried about seeming uncool for singing, “I wanna die”, over trap beats. Suddenly, the unironic, depressed Tumblr writer has a glimpse of light. (“One day maybe I won't die young and I’ll be happy”)
Before Lil Peep died, fans were rushing to thank him for creating music that had saved them from suicide and helped their depression. This effect couldn’t have come solely from the solidarity and understanding his music seemed to offer— any emo group could have done that. It was how he did it, the empathy created by the immediacy of rap. Rap music is the music of now. Situated in a talented narrator’s mind, its intersections of time and place become tangible and urgent to a listener. For Lil Peep those intersections fell somewhere dark and, incidentally, lifesaving.
Lil Peep gave away is image and his now. He gave because he carried. (Everybody’s everything)
I’m reminded now of one of his biggest hits, where he sings,“Bother me, tell me awful things”. Critics often compared him to Kurt Cobain—which they surely will even more now— and Lil Peep himself encouraged the connection (another deliberate persona?), so maybe that’s why the song’s imperative is so reminiscent of Cobain’s on “Rape Me”. It’s a surrendering on both their parts, accepting that with giving there is reciprocity, an expectation of something to be carried.
The carrying part is important, though. The obverse it implies is an optimist’s answer to the question of what Lil Peeps music became. It was an endless giving.