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.”