One Year Later: Remembering Lil Peep

A reflection on his legacy.

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One Year Later: Remembering Lil Peep

Liam Gill, Reporter

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It was March 10, 2017. I was on a shuttle bus on the way to O’Hare International Airport to catch a Paris-bound flight for a school-organized ten day long tour of France. I’m not a huge fan of cramped eight hour overnight flights, and found myself searching, knowingly in vain, of something to keep me entertained for at least a few hours of the flight. I’m not much of a mobile game person, and God knows I didn’t have the data plan to download a movie. So I scrolled through my iTunes recommendations saving every song I saw – I’d surely weed out a gem or two over eight hours.

Then I remembered a Snapchat my friend sent me a week prior, telling me to check out some obscure internet rapper who sounded like “a mix between Yung Lean and blink-182.” Yung…no, Lil…Lil something. Oh yeah, Lil Peep. Not expecting much, I opened up SoundCloud and listened to a few of Peep’s most streamed tracks, a moment that marked the beginning of my adoration for and resonance with his music that still lives today, nearly two years later.

November 15 marks the one year anniversary of Lil Peep’s death.

Born Gustav Åhr, the 21 year-old Long Island, NY native was the pioneer of a new hybrid genre born in the depths of the SoundCloud underground. “Emo hip-hop” is a bizarre fusion between elements of third and fourth wave emo music, hip-hop, and trap with an occasional sprinkling of screamo and indie. Sound crazy? Yeah, I don’t blame you. On paper, it seems like a cacophony of genres with drastically different demographics, cultures, and, most importantly, music.

Peep made it work, though, so well that Pitchfork dubbed him “The Future of Emo.”

Along with close friends and frequent collaborative producers like Nedarb Nagrom and Smokeasac, he found his niche in a simple formula: trap hi-hats, synthesized drums, and 808 basslines overlaid on a guitar-driven or ambient sample, topped off with a variety of vocal deliveries ranging from more traditional rap flows in songs like Star Shopping  to nasally pop-punk-meets-grunge anthems reminiscent of blink-182’s Tom DeLonge and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in one of my favorites, Kiss. Peep’s music was often dark and melancholic, focusing primarily around themes of heartbreak and mental illness.

Peep never hesitated to wear his heart on his sleeve – or any other symbol of his self-embraced sensitivity and emotions for that matter; he had a myriad of tattoos to serve as personal reminders to maintain authenticity with himself, like huge cursive text reading “Cry Baby” above his eyebrow. His tattoos, coupled with an eccentric and eclectic fashion sense best described as “Hot Topic meets Kurt Cobain meets Saint Laurent,” evoked a “rockstar” image that only added to his oddity.

Lil Peep for Balmain at Paris Fashion Week 2017

How did Peep’s music possibly resonate with someone like me, a then Sophomore at a private high school in the suburbs of Southeastern Wisconsin? How did he make his way out of the underground to find mainstream success later in 2017, release a chart-topping debut record, and sell out venues on U.S. and European tours?

Lil Peep had an authenticity seldom found in popular music scenes today, including the one he did so much to cultivate and popularize. The vast majority of his music is noticeably low fidelity; some of his earliest releases were self-recorded and mixed when he still lived in Long Island, using beats sent to him online by equally amateur producers. Until August of 2017 and the release of his debut album, he remained unsigned to any record label, choosing to continue self-releasing through Gothboiclique, a collective of like-minded and stylistically similar artists and friends of which he was a member. From the limited genuine personality that can be displayed through Instagram and Twitter, it seemed like Peep really was just a shy kid that hated high school and moved to LA to try and become a rapper and he was just as surprised at his success as everyone else. In turn, his music and its lyrical content was able to resonate on a much more personal level with kids not that unlike Peep himself. Peep very much embodied the angst and the romanticism of youth, because he was still in his youth.

After his death, those close to Åhr – high school friends, collaborators, family – all eulogized him as someone with authenticity and passion very much consistent with what was perceived by those he spoke to through song during his tragically short career. Åhr’s public memorial service was ripe with heartbreaking tributes by those he was close to.

Åhr’s public memorial service in his hometown of Long Island, New York.

And as for my own experience with Peep’s music?

2017 was a rollercoaster of a year for me. Amidst a struggle for identity, a dramatic weight loss, and my first heartbreak, I experienced my first prolonged encounter with depression. That year demanded a lot of growing up from me – some of it I did, some of it I’m still trying to achieve. Lil Peep was also my most played artist across my main streaming services in 2017. Music has the profound ability to resonate differently with individuals based on their own subjective life experiences. The meaning found in certain lyrics over a poignant chord progression is often times derived from how much or how little of themselves they recognize within those lyrics and chords and the artist who created them. This emotional resonance can remind listeners that they’re not alone in their experiences whether they’re negative or positive. It can give voice to that which we cannot or do not want to articulate ourselves. That’s what Peep did – still does for me.

It’s why even now Åhr’s absence is still as striking as it was one year ago. As a child, the deaths of many iconic artists never upset me the way it upset my parents; their music had never connected with my life experience the way it did with my parents. Åhr’s death was the first celebrity passing to affect me with such raw and powerful force. At 21, he undoubtedly had so much more of himself left to discover and success to be achieved. His future was bright.

Years from now, when high school is a distant memory and most of the music I listened to is likely forgotten, Lil Peep will be among the few artists that, while they may not elicit the same emotional response and enjoyment they do now, bring a strong sense of nostalgia – a bittersweet remembrance of the experiences, both good and bad, that helped shape me. In this music will forever live a piece of the tragedy of youth.

In memory of Gustav Åhr, 11/1/96 – 11/15/17.

“Shout out to everyone makin’ my beats, you helpin’ me preach, this music’s the only thing keepin’ the peace when I’m fallin’ to pieces…”

-“Star Shopping,” Lil Peep, 2015



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