Lil Peep’s Optimist Love Songs

Lil Peep’s Optimist Love Songs

Gustav Åhr was emo-rap’s most visible representative and the genre’s most mainstream success, but what set his music apart was not its despair but its deep sense of hope.


Gustav Åhr, better known by his stage name Lil Peep, had just turned 21 when he died last month of an overdose of Xanax, the prescription anti-anxiety medication, and fentanyl, a powerful opioid. For some, this sudden end was expected—Åhr never hid the fact that he was a heavy substance abuser, in either his lyrics or his life. Days before he was found dead on his tour bus, he left posts on his Instagram account that alluded to a deep depression. The caption to one photo read: “When I die You’ll love me.” Another was a video that showed him taking unidentified pills, likely Xanax. After the news of Åhr’s death broke, tributes poured in from across the industry; everyone from Juicy J to Alice Glass noted the tragedy of his passing.

But what has really troubled people is the sense that his pain had always been there, and that most of us had overlooked the warning signs. For many, self-destructive behavior feels like a vital part of the creative process; with Åhr, his intoxicated state had itself become part of his art. There’s a quote I saw recently that I can’t find anymore, about Jean-Michel Basquiat—it goes something like, “A junkie who can sell a painting for $60,000 isn’t a junkie; he’s a dead man.” Its meaning is obvious: Success doesn’t solve problems for artists so much as it exacerbates them.

Despite a career cut so short, Åhr released four mixtapes and six EPs, which share the genuinely transformative nature that all good art has. He was a savant in the way he put songs together; he had digested contemporary rap, pop punk, and indie rock to such a degree that he could tease out their similarities and weave the disparate strands into a sonic tapestry that was wholly his own.

Sometimes this took the form of a dare, as in “yesterday,” a song from Åhr’s 2016 mixtape crybaby: The guitars are lifted wholesale from Oasis’s global smash “Wonderwall,” and there’s an absolutely cavernous 808 kick layered underneath. The song’s lyrics are equally thrown together: The chorus optimistically describes an attempt to flee psychic pain, while the verse makes excuses for doing too much cocaine and forgetting to write back to a lover. “Yesterday is not today is not the same,” Åhr raps. It’s slight, a wisp of a track, but somehow you believe it as an optimist’s love song. Åhr pulls off the same trick on “white tee”: Most of the beat is sampled from the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” and the lyrics describe meeting a woman at the club who falls in love with our protagonist and then does all his drugs.

But what’s odd here is that the rap aesthetics feel rote, as they do in most of his songs—somewhat performed or put on—and this is because Åhr was indeed more rocker than rapper. His songs, for better or worse, are more closely linked to the emo music they’re often an homage to than the rap music from which they take their sonic direction. The songs are short, brooding, and duplicative of the worst parts of the emo scene’s numbing, narcissistic misogyny. Women flit into and out of the songs, but we never hear from them other than as objects that dispense or deny affection, or as anything separate from the singer’s feelings. Writing in Pitchfork on “The Unlikely Resurgence of Rap Rock,” Jayson Greene observed: “Whether you were shouting ‘give me something to break’ because your girlfriend cheated on you, or screaming ‘shut up when I’m talking to you,’ because, well, your girlfriend kept talking, rap rock has historically been a one-sided conversation between a raging man and his raw, unprocessed emotions.”

Greene locates the revival of rap rock—which Åhr mastered and became a prominent exponent of—in Lil Wayne’s Rebirth (2010), a critical flop that nonetheless influenced the current crop of emo-rappers by combining rock’s brashness with hip-hop’s élan. One could also add Kanye’s R&B-
inflected detour through Auto-Tuned songcraft in 808s & Heartbreak, which inspired rappers to hybridize their genre—Drake being the most famous example, and KiD CuDi one of the more successful. But it was Åhr who made a specialty out of merging emo rock with rap, using hip-hop as a vehicle to elaborate on emo’s alienation, anxiety, and depression (although both genres make a habit of tracing the contours of male pain). That feels especially timely given how much rock’s influence has waned and hip-hop’s stock has risen.

Åhr had many peers in the emerging emo-rap scene, which is based largely on SoundCloud and sprang up only in the past few years. Of his contemporaries, more than a few seem poised to go mainstream (or have already made the jump): Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, Lil Xan, Lil Tracy, and the rest of GothBoiClique among them. The scene’s producers—Charlie Shuffler, Smokeasac, Horse Head, Lederrick, Nedarb—have already begun to change the way popular music sounds.

But Åhr was there first, and what sets his music apart from his peers’ isn’t its nihilism or its themes. Instead, it’s that the songs he left behind showcase an overwhelming ambition and sense of leadership—or perhaps it’s more a sense of responsibility—for the musical scene he spearheaded. Åhr was emo-rap’s most visible representative and the genre’s most mainstream success. “beamer boy,” which came out last January, neatly describes the intersecting pressures that Åhr felt himself under:

You see me doin’ shows now, I’m a pro now
I got hos now and I got some dough now
But they don’t wanna hear that, they want that real shit
They want that drug talk, that “I can’t feel” shit
I’m never comin’ home now, all alone now
Can’t let my bros down, can’t let my bros down
I feel like I’m a no one, that’s what they told me
I’ma show ya, baby I was chosen

Åhr was the one who was supposed to make it—and, by the end, he did. Critics from Pitchfork to The New York Times have recognized what Åhr represented; by the time of his death, they had grown enamored with the sounds they were hearing and had begun to legitimize the scene’s musical project. That work will continue. But mainstream recognition never mattered to the people the music was for—the people Åhr’s age and younger, who saw themselves in it as they never had before.

Knowing what we know now, it is hard not to hear a sense of foreboding in Åhr’s music. He seemed to know what his habits were doing to him, or at least where his path might end. It came through in his lyrics as a wish to change—articulated but not actualized. Take “falling 4 me,” from crybaby:

Hold me, I can’t breathe
I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna OD
Cup full of lean, pure codeine
Ten lines deep, now I can’t see
I don’t wanna be this way for good
I don’t wanna live the way I should
Born in the ’burbs, but I’m big in the hood
Tell me that I can’t, but I know that I could
I can’t hear you callin’ to me (yeah)
I can’t see you’re fallin’ for me (yeah)

That’s the whole song. It samples Radiohead’s “Climbing Up the Walls,” an eerie jam from OK Computer that’s also about internal demons. (“And either way you turn / I’ll be there / Open up your skull / I’ll be there / Climbing up the walls,” Thom Yorke croons on the original.) At the center of “falling 4 me” is the tough relationship between an addict and his substance of choice.

Behind Åhr’s music is the opioid crisis, which continues to rage. The current moment is perhaps the most we’ve talked about a drug epidemic in this country since the heyday of crack, and it would be easy to take Åhr’s thematic fixations as a symptom of that larger dysfunction. But I don’t think that’s quite right—his music was always about the turmoil of his private life, his emotions. The substance abuse was a part of that turmoil, but it wasn’t his only subject.

Even so, Åhr’s music functions as a warning. What we’ve been left with are the barest outlines of what might have been a luminous musical career, as well as a set of hard questions that reduce mostly to: How could this have happened? The way that he spoke candidly about his anxiety and depression—in a Pitchfork interview in January, Åhr admitted that he sometimes suffered so terribly that he wished, some days, not to wake up—was rare for a musician of his stature, and we took notice. It was, in many ways, what drew us to the music in the first place. But it also spoke of a person in tremendous pain. Did our consumption make us complicit? That’s a question I can’t answer. All I know is how much more difficult it is to listen to Lil Peep’s songs now that there’s no space between his life and his death.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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