Is Lil Peep's Music Brilliant or Stupid as Shit?
Lil Peep is the 2016 version of mallcore: a white rapper who samples Brand New and sings about suicide.
Still of Lil Peep via "white wine" on YouTube
"The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist shrieks with terror before being overcome." - Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris, published 1869
"Used to wanna kill myself / Came up, still wanna kill myself." Lil Peep, "omfg," published 2016
Lil Peep is a white rapper from Long Island who now lives in Los Angeles. His songs are about doing cocaine, wanting to commit suicide, and talking to girls about cocaine and suicide. Between his mixtapes hellboy and crybaby, as well as various one-off loosies and collaborations, he has rapped over samples of Brand New, Underoath, Avenged Sevenfold, Slayer, The Microphones, Sonic Youth, The Postal Service, and an acoustic performance of "Creep" by Radiohead. He attacks these samples with the same half-singing, half-mumbling cadence of rappers such as Playboi Carti or Lil Yachty, cloaked in the vocal tones of mall-rockers past. All of the songs on his SoundCloud are tagged "#Alternative Rock," and his account on the site reveals that he's left multiple comments on songs produced by someone named Marilyn Mansion. He is a member of a crew called GOTHBOICLIQUE, which also includes members with names like "cold hart," "horse head," "jpdreamthug," "wicca phase springs eternal," and "yawns." While researching this piece, I found a 4chan thread declaring him "objectively the GOAT" for getting the word "daddy" tattooed on his chest (don't worry, he also has the word "CRYBABY" tattooed on his forehead). His vibe is somewhere between "shoegaze Kreayshawn," "little brother of the guy Lana Del Rey sang about on 'Video Games'," and "Hey, remember that emotionally manipulative coke dealer you met on Myspace and then dated for three months back in high school? Well, that dude's still 19, and he raps now!" I'm not sure whether it's because of enjoyment, morbid fascination, or a genuine concern about his well-being, but I can't stop listening to him.
The natural first reaction to Lil Peep is confusion, especially if you are an adult. When he raps about "living at the mall, yeah" on "the song they played [when i crashed into that wall]," it's genuinely hard to tell if he's bragging about dropping stacks at the Giuseppe store or if he's been killing time there by shoplifting from Hot Topic and flipping vape juice to underage kids. Lyrics like "Girls, they try to make me mad / I try to make 'em sad" ("girls") and "Change my name / Shave my head / Tell my friends / That I'm dead" ("yesterday," which btdubs is a two-minute song that samples "Wonderwall" and ends with the sound of someone belching) say this is all a joke, but that giant "CRYBABY" tattoo on his face says that this is soooooo not a joke. Aesthetically, he markets himself in the same way as any other blog-baiting internet rapper, with videos that show him mouthing lyrics as he stands in a kitchen or in front of a door holding money. The remarkable thing about Peep's music, though, is that after the initial waves of incredulity and condescension wash over you, another shock will set in: that this demonic hell-child is genuinely talented. His best songs feel like perfectly constructed Warped Tour pop-punk masquerading as slurry pop-rap with lyrics so polished and professional that I kept googling them to make sure he wasn't quoting Future and/or Fall Out Boy. Consider this chunk of "crybaby," the Brand New-sampling first song off his mixtape of the same title:
Geeking on a Friday, I can never sleep right
Knowing I hurt you, I don't deserve you
I should've curved you, I know I'm the worst, boo
But I could be cool, too, and you got them dance moves
And I got this vibe, I swear it's perfect to ride to
I wanna die too, we all wanna die too
I got this vibe I swear she love getting high to
I love getting high too, I wanna hide you
How did I find you? I'll be inside, I'm making music to cry to
If you ignore the lyrics' actual content (which oscillates between asinine and laughable) and instead focus on their construction, you start to understand why you haven't stopped listening to Lil Peep even though you also think his music is virtuosically moronic. Each line seems to twist into the next, the plotline offering a series of reversals and then a minor miracle of wordplay, before ending on a punchline that doubles as a mission statement. He's capable of serving up an AIM away-message worthy line like, "you know I love you by the way that I kiss you," and then wryly undercutting it with a sound effect that's the auditory equivalent of the "Face Throwing a Kiss" emoji. The charging verses, subdued bridge, and HUGE_ASS_CHORUS.wav of "kiss" perfectly mirrors the tension-and-release formula of the best Blink-182 and Taking Back Sunday songs, and the track never lets you take a breath before hitting you over the head with another monstrous hook. The sugar rush of the familiar gets thrown into relief as Peep leans into the lyrical tropes of hip-hop, and right around the time he raps, "I saw the plug at the club, came back with a brick," you might find yourself singing along in spite of the arch silliness at hand. It's these little structural details that make a song stick with the listener, no matter their genre trappings. (Also worth noting is the fact that Peep is doing the heavy lifting in spite of his potentially gimmicky production. Contrast that with the early work of his fellow internet curio Yung Lean, who before he learned how to write songs like "Yoshi City" and "Kyoto," largely crested on sheer novelty, as well as the beats of his preternaturally talented producers Yung Sherm and Gud.)
Yes, if this were 2006, Lil Peep would probably be making terrible electro-screamo about slitting his wrists while parlaying his millions of MySpace friends into an early-afternoon slot on the Warped Tour mainstage. Let us not allow that to distract us from the fact that it is 2016, and Lil Peep is making out-and-out hip-hop about how he wants to die while racking up millions of plays on SoundCloud. Peep might represent the second coming of mallcore, yes, but only because the second coming of mallcore has come to include hip-hop itself. The well of influence Peep's drawing from here undoubtedly includes pop-punk, but his music is largely if not primarily informed by such post-#bars pioneers such as Speaker Knockerz and Chief Keef, the bespoke scumbaggery of early Weeknd, Riff Raff's refractive loopiness, and the discursive rambunction of SpaceGhostPurrp's Raider Klan. His contemporaries aren't the modern scenecore staples Palisades and Attila; they're the massively popular Miami trash-rappers Fat Nick and Pouya, the sardonic art kid burnouts in Atlanta's Awful Records, and the one-man rap game Blink-182 that is Lil Uzi Vert.
This is symptomatic of a greater musical shift that's occurred over the past decade––much like punk rock once did, hip-hop has spread in vast and unexpected directions, mutating and evolving as artists put their own spin on old traditions while merging them with influences outside of the genre. Combine Buzzcocks and The Cure, and you'll end up with My Chemical Romance; combine Screwed Up Click with David Guetta and you get RiFF RAFF. Combine My Chemical Romance and RiFF RAFF, and you might get… I'll let you finish that thought, but did you know that PacSun carries Fear of God and Been Trill now?
For what it's worth, I did ask the one person I know who has actually met Lil Peep––Adam Grandmaison of the popular No Jumper podcast––whether he thought the rapper is "for real" or not. "I think he's 100 percent serious and wants to be a huge pop star," said Grandmaison, who recorded an episode of his podcast with Peep but due to an audio error never posted the footage online. Unfortunate as the situation was for Grandmaison, perhaps the snafu worked to Peep's benefit, since it's hard to imagine what he could say to the press that wouldn't puncture the mystique afforded by ambiguity. (A teenager with a face tattoo possesses demonstrable proof that they lack the sort of judgment that prevents people from saying things that they will later regret; talking to one on-record should be considered a form of libel and outlawed.) He's managed to build a substantial head of steam––his songs get hundreds of thousands of plays on SoundCloud, he's currently touring the West Coast with Fat Nick, and, save for a denim cap that says "HELLBITCH," his merch is completely sold out online––while mostly controlling his own message.
That hasn't stopped people from drastically overthinking that message, of course. Pitchfork, for instance, named his single "kiss" the 100th best song of 2016, and the site's write-up of the single "white wine" highlighted producer nedarb's use of a sample of The Microphones' "(Something)," as if to assure the listener of their own good taste for liking what is essentially a rap-rock song. Trying to convince someone that they're smart for liking Lil Peep ignores the greater truth here, which is that the point of Lil Peep is that he is a dirtbag, and his music is stupid as shit. He interrupts the genuinely sexy sex-raps of "fucked up" to offer his lover cocaine, and one of the seemingly infinite hooks of "kiss" involves Peep asking, "What's your age boo? I'm legit still," as if he's trying to convince his high-school-aged girlfriend he's not too old for her. He knows he's being "naughty" in a sense, uttering things that he shouldn't over a style of music that people are predisposed to hate. But if there's a joke here, part of it involves never revealing there's a punchline to be had. As MTV's Meaghan Garvey recently wrote, "Some things are just dumb, and no amount of creative optimism or critical posturing will make them otherwise."
But within Peep's dumbness lies an odd strain of bravery. Nothing screams "bad taste" quite as loud as the sound it makes when grunge guitars wail atop a FruityLoops "trap" preset, and no musician has mixed rap and mall-goth with such temerity since Brokencyde. It takes chutzpah to survey the musical landscape, pick out a style of music that literally everyone hates, and decide to make music that sounds exactly like it. Yes, Lil Peep sampled The Microphones one time, but that doesn't magically negate the fact that he also sampled Avenged Sevenfold. Donald Trump is president; the canon can go eat shit. To teenagers fishing for music that is the context-free chum bucket that is YouTube, sampling each of these bands is not unlike spying a Gucci Shirt and a No Fear hoodie next to each other at a Goodwill and buying both. If, as David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap once mused, there's a fine line between stupid and clever, Lil Peep has mumbled and stumbled his way to standing on both sides of that line at once.
Drew Millard lives with his parents. Find him at the mall or on Twitter .