R.I.P. Gus, Long Live Lil Peep

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Inside a pink-lit hotel conference room during the memorial service for Lil Peep, friends of the man born Gustav Åhr shared stories about the regular-ass suburban things they used to do together just a few years ago when they were all in high school. It was somehow poignant to be out in Long Beach, New York, the area where Peep grew up, and hear those mundane details about him and his buddies smoking weed, hanging out in each other’s bedrooms, and how “Gus’ house was the cool house,” since you could find CCS catalogs laying around and his mom didn’t mind if you cursed.

Also touching, but not shown on the public YouTube live stream, was when Peep’s brother in music, Lil Tracy, walked alone into the hotel lobby following the ceremony and collapsed crying into the arms of Nate Wiegman, their longtime video director.

Tracy and Peep had grown apart over the past year, as Peep shot toward the mainstream. Day one fans knew Peep’s 2017 breakthrough was a direct product of them killing shit as an unofficial duo in the L.A. underground in the past couple years, along with the crew Gothboiclique. As a grassroots emo rock/rap phenomenon with no industry machinery, GBC developed fans who felt like part of a movement, who would honor them as the anime characters they always wanted to be, and write a 47-chapter fanfic about Peep and Tracy. Crossing over was a good bet. The wider world had to get it at some point.

But after Peep signed to First Access Entertainment, moved to London, and blew the fuck up, Tracy confusingly did not join him on the sold-out tour dates promoting his crossover album Come Over When You’re Sober.

Peep’s final concerts were uncomfortable. Even though Tracy featured on “Awful Things,” the hit single from that album, Peep would cut the song short before Tracy’s verse when performing it live. Fans theorized about why, talking to each other on the Gothboiclique Reddit and in social media comments. On No Jumper, Tracy vaguely commented on the disconnection by saying, “Gus knows why.”

Whatever went down, “Awful Things” charted on the Billboard Hot 100 13 days after Peep died on November 15—a painful reminder that in a perfect world, these artists were supposed to glow together.

In any case, it didn’t seem like any love was lost on Tracy’s side. Watching him in the lobby, I realized that these people missed Gus the person, and I had no idea what they were really feeling. I walked away and stopped intruding on their moment.

Gothboiclique DJ Yawns and producer Fish Narc. Photo by Gregory Spears.

Lil Peep’s 2017 rise was one of the biggest stories in music this year. Then his tragic, untimely death became an even bigger one. Now there’s a push to tie up Peep’s life with a bow, so we can feel less freaked out by how little we understood about him, or we can feel like we did right by him. Publications who never cared about Peep’s music now seem to care a lot, on some celebrity death shit.

Like most of us, I only knew Lil Peep through his work before he died while on tour in Arizona from an overdose of Xanax and Fentanyl. I did have the opportunity to dap him up on Halloween and tell him I was a fan, which he thanked me for, but that’s it.

At the memorial, I had to shake my head out of an overfamiliar fog, because while Peep’s music was structured in a way that enabled close emotional connection, in the end, it was about character development, storytelling, and his masterful handle on a sound—an emulsification of emo rock, pop punk, and Atlanta rap. It was not a first-person documentary. Liking Crybaby and Hellboy did not mean I knew him. As a songwriter, he tended to skip straight to emotional third base; you meet this guy, and right away he’s singing about heartbreak, suicide, riding until the end, crazy love on the edge of overdosing. But that was his rock star posture. While the circumstances of his death seemed to match what he sang about, we have to take Peep at his word when he said he considered music similar to professional wrestling. 

Peep was an independent star, music and image-wise, two years ago before he signed up for the music industry apparatus—the high-powered management company First Access Entertainment, publicists, etc. He began developing his style with the Gothboiclique crew out in Los Angeles, gained a huge social media following, and eventually, if you were looking for it, became an unspoken influence over bigger acts like Post Malone and Lil Uzi Vert. After he died, the artists he touched confirmed as much, tweeting testimonials and changing their Twitter profile pics to his face.

Fan love remained consistent: Peep was selling out all his shows before he died and has been celebrated posthumously with fan-organized vigils across the U.S. and Canada, as well as ones in Germany, England, France, and Russia.

The critical conversation, on the other hand, swung from “stupid as shit” (Noisey, 2016), to after he died, “one of the most unique, inventive and promising artists of the last few years” (Noisey, 2017). Those words are from two different writers, but that’s how the treatment went. Peep was at first brushed off as a joke by critics, then celebrated. The same flip-flop happened with Chester Bennington from Linkin Park after he committed suicide in July of this year. Rap-rock is something critics love to hate, at least initially.

Jadakiss famously rapped in the year 2000 that “dead rappers get better promotion.” That’s even more true now in the social media era, when time feels sped up and we’re instantly nostalgic. I’m trying to be careful about it personally, since I’m prone to hyperbole and known to describe Peep and Tracy’s work together as “iconic.” I recently retweeted TrillPhonk saying, “I miss the days of Raider Klan, Thraxxhouse, and Schemaposse.” And I meant it, even though that stuff is just a few years old.

We should be wary of writing history too soon. The internet pushes us to think in terms of recent pasts and future projections, increasing our ability to pretend we understand what’s happening before it’s finished. Sometimes it seems like the overall effect is to limit our involvement in the messy present.

And what’s going on in that present? Peep is gone, but “Awful Things” is still floating around, gaining Peep new fans. Now it’s fallen off Billboard‘s Hot 100, but who knows what will happen next? Peep has at least two more albums finished, presumably to be released at some point: Come Over When You’re Sober 2 and Goth Angel Sinner. Some G.A.S. songs are out now as concert bootlegs.

In the meantime, his producers and rapper friends are tweeting about quitting drugs. It sounds like it’s going painfully for the producer Big Head (one month sober) as well as for the rapper Mackned. How is Gothboiclique doing? The crew always seemed unstable, and things became more strained once Peep started to pop. Are they still communicating through this difficult time?

The media can’t resist making a martyr of Peep, using him as the face of the American opioid crisis, propping him up as the representation of SoundCloud rap and goth rap, the inventor of a new type of emo/pop punk/trap ballad. He seemed to be the future of rock & roll, indicating a time when instruments wouldn’t be necessary and everything would go through the aux cord. But that didn’t come to pass. Yet. Maybe it will, given how influential he was.

If Peep were alive, there’d be less hero worship and more complex conversations around his behavior and music. Peep’s death was shocking, but his music suggested that he had a serious drug problem. What is the responsibility of the people who profit from music that is made by those who are endangering their lives?

That’s a question we have to ask industrywide, as labels are glomming on to teenage SoundCloud rappers who openly use heavy drugs. What about Wifisfuneral with his multiple overdoses? What about Lil Pump with this Xanax shaped birthday cake? What about Smokepurrp, who was recently so high on Action Bronson’s VICELAND TV talkshow that he could barely put a sentence together?

Was Peep a mirror for a profoundly anxious generation, in which it’s common for teenagers to reach for Xanax the way their parents used to reach for weed? Or was his situation more unique and nuanced than that?

Lil Peep’s grandma mid-hug, with Lil Tracy standing nearby; photo by Gregory Spears

The memorial service seemed like an First Access Entertainment production, from the slick audiovisual presentation to the fact that nobody from Gothboiclique spoke. It was almost as if Peep’s pre-FAE time never happened. Save for the family and friends sections, the program functioned as a greatest hits of Lil Peep’s past year, with slideshows leading up to Come Over When You’re Sober. FAE is one part of Lil Peep’s life, which I’m trying to unlearn as an “era,” and see as concurrently existing with his growing up on Long Island and his incubator in Los Angeles. While FAE didn’t help him produce his best music—Peep working with My Chemical Romance’s producer and Iggy Azalea’s songwriter were a little too on the nose—it did have him doubling down on his image in effective ways. The “Benz Truck” video, Mario Testino photoshoot, and Peep modeling on runways in European fashion weeks, all that stuff was dope. But would keeping things more familiar music-wise have been a better move? Or maybe that was all Peep’s call.

During the ceremony, GBC’s Lil Tracy, Fish Narc, and Mackned looked on from the side, oddly disconnected from the service.

After the memorial, out on boardwalk, Tracy led around 75 fans in an unamplified singalong of his and Peep’s underground hit “Witchblades.” Then he walked to the beach as a few hundred people followed him, treating him like the pop star he says he is in his music. Fans lit candles and threw roses into the water. Then Tracy hugged Peep’s grandma and cried again.

The entire event made me realize that while I thought about Peep as a Los Angeles artist—since that’s how I met him, through his music—he was really an East Coast kid from a beach town that freezes in the winter. He missed his friends, his dog, his mom, and his grandma. His “old” life back in Long Island wasn’t old at all, it was ongoing.

We, the fans, just got to meet Peep recently, and we have a shallow understanding of him at best, as an artist and as a person. His music arrived fully farmed, so it hit at once. That was partially because of the shock of the new, but also because of how meticulous he was about recording his vocals. His execution seemed naturally easy, but he practiced hard all through high school, with his mom wearing earplugs as he recorded. He was a goal-setter and had high standards. He wasn’t just unconsciously expressing himself.

Peep didn’t invent emo rock and pop punk mixed with 808 Mafia type beats, and it’s not necessarily true that Gothboiclique did either. The mixture was coalescing amongst many different artists. I do feel GBC did it the best, though. And if GBC was Wu-Tang Clan, Peep was Method Man, the best-looking one with the best flow. It wasn’t just that his music sounded fresh, it was that his style was easily graspable. He hit the notes cleanly, sounded good harmonizing, sang out to connect with the back of the room.

Photo by Gregory Spears

High school was yesterday to Peep’s childhood friends. You could hear it in the clarity of their recollections at the memorial. Seeing how different Peep ended up appearance-wise from his old homies was striking. One of his friends was dressed like an off-duty chairlift operator, and he started hitting his vape immediately after the ceremony. Another looked like he bought his fit at Costco and told jokes with a funny, dad-like delivery. They seemed like good people, but not destined for the pages of Vogue.

The thought crossed my mind that Peep had completely left his old life behind and reinvented himself. He became a designer-draped punk star. A SoundCloud rapper. A streetwear model. But that’s Instagram stuff. It’s cool, but it’s surface. And while Peep was huge on the Gram, he was a whole person. And these were his people, his original tribe.

Right now it’s too early to know what Lil Peep meant to music. Predictions about what he would have done inevitably foist one’s own hopes. He came out as bisexual and cast trans women in his video for “Girls,” but did that mean that he and his friend Makonnen (who is gay and with whom Peep is rumored to have completed another album) were about to fight for LGBTQ rights? He gave an emerging sound a huge push, but does that mean it was about to take over?

Suddenly it seems like everyone has a deep appreciation of Lil Peep and his music. But even the discography that his “Beamerboy” producer Nedarb Nagrom tweeted out is only a starting place. New-to-me Peep songs pop up all the time; I’m a fan, but didn’t hear Lil Peep and Lil Tracy’s “Gods” until after Peep died. It’s probably one of the best songs they made together.

What we already learned from Peep was that he was an underground star with mainstream potential, and that the industry was late in discovering him, out of touch with what he and GBC were doing on SoundCloud at at shows. We learned that the fickle criterati seemed predisposed to not liking him, then reconsidered his value as an artist. We learned that he made better music with his friends than he did with expensive producers and songwriters. We learned that if your artistically exciting crew has a handsome white guy who makes more accessible music than the rest of you, he’ll be the one the industry grabs. And we learned that sad music about death, love, and drugs is popular amongst Gen Z.

Lil Peep wasn’t an icon yet, and while it looked like he was on his way to becoming one, we don’t know if that would have happened or what it would have been like if it did.

At the memorial, Peep’s mom was adamant about not judging people by their appearances, a sentiment that clashed with the words of FAE president Sarah Stennett, who said she signed Peep after seeing his “beautiful face” and listening to “ten seconds of ‘nineteen.’” While it seems like we need to talk about Lil Peep now that he’s passed, maybe it would be better to shut up. There was a lot of prospecting around him before he died and a lot of that’s gross now. But he left behind a bunch of music, with more trickling out all the time for us to digest and reflect on. Instead of acting like the story’s over and we know what it was about, let’s just listen.

Image by Andrew Matson.

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