lil peep
Photo: Billboard

The Long Legacy and Tragically Short Life of Lil Peep

Lil Peep died yesterday at 21 years old.

The Long Island-bred rapper was a musical visionary, merely starting his ascent into the mainstream. In his brief career, he proved a primary influence on rock-influenced rap music on the predominant platform for it—SoundCloud.

While Peep’s music largely revolved around death, depression and drug use, fans told him it saved them from their own depression and sometimes even prevented suicide. Critics pegged him as the poster boy for “the resurgence of rap-rock” and “something like the scene’s Kurt Cobain.” They also drew connections between him and Linkin Park, the band whose own singer Chester Bennington committed suicide this year at 41. Many fans expressed similar feelings about Bennington, that while his music was dark it, also could help them see some kind of light.

Peep leaves behind a musical legacy mostly tied to SoundCloud. His best music was independent, underground, original and free. With Gothboiclique, he paralleled and presaged the rock-influenced styles of Lil Uzi Vert and Post Malone (though all these artists owe a large debt to the OG, Lil Wayne).

As a young musician, Peep was notoriously unproductive. After high school, he left Long Island depressed and anxious. In 2015, he settled in Los Angeles, hoping to start a new life. In the City of Angels, he was discovered by the rapper and producer JGRXXN, who had ties to satanic-styled/occult-themed rap groups Three Six Mafia and Raider Klan. He brought Peep into his own gothic rap group, Schemaposse, with third member Ghostmane. They made Three Six-ish/Raider-ish music and broke up almost right away.

Peep’s solo albums from this period, Lil Peep Pt. 1 and Live Forever, showed the distinct style he’d soon become known for. The combination of trap drums and emo guitars was not particularly celebrated at the time, but they showcased Peep’s voice—a tenor in rock ballad mode, with lyrical affectations influenced by SoCal punk and southern rap.

Rap fans of a certain age will remember their high school years, having to pick between rap or rock as which musical subculture they’d affiliate themselves with. Peep—naïve, white, suburban—made it his unspoken mission to collapse that. Though he never commented on this explicitly, rappers he worked with did. Thouxandbanfauni and Lil Tracy can be heard on the Peep-featuring “In This Bih” chanting, “Black boy/white boy swag, black boy/white boy swag.” Peep doesn’t join the chant, but he’s the reason it’s there.

After leaving Schemaposse, Peep released the transitional California Girls EP, which included the underground hit “Beamer Boy.” It was the first indication that Peep might blow up. Producer Nedarb Nagrom sampled “Headless Horseman” by critically adored indie singer-songwriter Mt. Eerie, as Peep dripped rapper swag while again singing in ballad mode. Rap fans were going to feel a way about this pink-haired white boy using “shawty” and singing about lean; rock fans were going to feel a way about a beloved noncommercial act being sampled for what looked like a doofy professional snowboarder’s vanity project. The pressure was on Peep to make the music good enough for both parties to agree. And he did. What stood out was the strength of the hook and melodic verses, and the lyrics about knowing exactly what the youth of America hungered for: “They want that ‘I can’t feel’ shit.”

Peep then linked up with the crew Gothboiclique and proceeded to make classic SoundCloud albums Crybaby and Hellboy. These are Peep’s most fleshed-out works, your go-to’s should his passing inspire you to begin listening to catalog. They are also the germ of his unofficial duo with Lil Tracy, his last musical chapter before switching up his style and plotting his mainstream breakthrough.

Gothboiclique was and still is a strange hybrid. Its founders Horse Head, Cold Hart and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal work with a similar blend of emo rock with rap. It feels like a bedroom art project until they absorbed the Seattle-based rap crew Thraxx House, which Nedarb and Lil Tracy were part of, inspired by the BasedGod, anime and witch house. GBC then essentially became a west coast Wu-Tang Clan of emo/goth rap. Few people were aware such a thing could exist or have mainstream potential.

Peep knew, though, and slid into their world as an obvious star from day one. Musically, 2016 was his year. Gothboiclique was better at articulating what Peep was going for than he was. Their music was more interesting, and their collective fashion sense had more swag. It was “wrong” in the right way—Gucci with Ed Hardy (Peep would apply his spin by rocking Gosha Rubchinskiy with UGG). But Peep wrote better hooks and he was altogether good-looking. If a movie is made about his life, he said Justin Bieber should play him. He was hardly a rapper at all; certainly not a mumble rapper, that’s for sure.

Crybaby’s “Absolute In Doubt” shows this relationship with Gothboiclique. Wicca Phase does the first verse and you’re like, “OK, this is a weird blend of hip hop with a depressed and scary white guy casting a spell or something. I hope he doesn’t hurt anybody.” Then Peep comes in and is melodic and memorable right away, his verse rising and anthemic, giving way to an even further-rising and more-anthemic second section. His part is written and performed so well it could be dissected and used for hooks on three other songs.

Crybaby introduced Peep’s crazy chemistry with Lil Tracy, as well, then going by Yung Bruh. Legend has it that the two made the song and video for “White Tee” within hours of meeting each other.

But it’s Hellboy that’s Peep’s masterpiece, because the songs with Tracy have a certain heat. Labels began showing interest then (Tracy says they turned down an $800,000 advance). The bass huge, the guitars totally natural, and both vocalists aligned on this theme of grungy rock. It was so much more raw than Post Malone’s “White Iverson,” but that was the lane, and this is where the promise of Peep was excruciating for underground fans. He was so clearly destined for big things.

Instead, he spun out with Lil Tracy on a cocaine binge that fueled a crazily productive vampire phase, stalking Hollywood and making mystical songs like “Witchblades” and the Castles EPs. Instead of a zig, it was an artistic zag that felt even more innovative than what he was doing on Hellboy, although it occasionally devolved into meaningless word salad.

In 2016, Peep partnered with First Access Entertainment and started making solo music with powerhouse producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Linkin Park, My Chemical Romance). He secured Warner Bros. distribution for his album Come Over When You’re Sober, a glossier record that failed to capture the nuance or heat of his previous work. Producers like Smokeasac remained from Hellboy, and Lil Tracy featured in the song and video for “Awful Things,” but their friendship soured before the record dropped and Peep seemed headed in a new direction.

After a move to London, he isolated himself from Gothboiclique, then began appearing in fashion shows and getting write-ups in GQ. He came out as bisexual and began a romantic relationship with Makonnen, with whom he recorded an unreleased album, which he described as sounding “like Interpol.” Peep never repaired his bond with Tracy, but had Gothboiclique members Horse Head, Wicca Phase, Fish Narc and Mackned with him on tour when he died.

If Peep had been able to live to at least Bennington’s age, we can only imagine what kind of musical giant he might have become. As it stands, he made a bunch of good music at a young age and helped invent the SoundCloud subgenre of goth rap and the idea of SoundCloud rap in general. All while not exactly rapping, he changed music while he was couch surfing in L.A.—a starving artist with a vision.

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