Who Is Lil Peep, the Trailblazing Emo-Rapper Dead at Age 21?
Why the rapper’s unique blend of brazen hip-hop production and the emotional angst of “emo” lyrics made him such a phenomenon with young fans, and a lightning rod in the industry.
Lil Peep, a young rapper championed for his unique blend of bombastic hip-hop production and the angst of “emo” lyricism in his music, has died at age 21 in Tucson, Ariz., following a reported overdose. According to The New York Times, the Tucson Police Department confirmed evidence suggesting an overdose on the anti-anxiety medication Xanax.
It’s a tragic ending that the rapper, New York-born Gustav Ahr, had arguably spent much of his still-young career writing the lead-up to. His penchant for charting his own journey with depression and drug use through his music struck an emotional chord that earned him a legion of young fans, cult fame, and the kind of critical and thinkpiece recognition that foreshadowed a promising future.
A quick survey of reactions to his death can be generally classified into two tiers: 1) the obvious “Who is Lil Peep?” and 2) fans mourning the rapper’s passing in tandem with his candor about depression and drug use—an honesty that intensified his connection with those fans.
And then there’s the general consensus of “too soon,” which certainly goes without saying because of his age, but also because of a palpable sense that he was an artist poised to make a big splash in the industry.
Countless essays dissecting Lil Peep’s music and fame have been written in the last two years, with each one tempering its navel-gazing over his career with the aforementioned question: Who is he?
The name was given to him by his mother, a first-grade teacher on Long Island who said he looked like a “little peep” when he was young. He left high school early for California—he later got his diploma—where he joined the rap collective Gothboiclique and started bridging the gap between emo and rap that would eventually define his sound and shake up the industry.
He built his recognition and a devoted fanbase through early recordings posted on YouTube and SoundCloud. He put out his first mixtape in 2015 followed by two more last year, “Crybaby” and “Hellboy.”
In the midst of it all, he became an internet celebrity, with the same fascination on social media over who he dated and rapped about in his music that checkout-line tabloids reserve for the likes of Taylor Swift. (The craziest example of this is Fox News' wild SEO in its headline announcing the rapper’s passing: “Lil Peep, Bella Thorne’s Ex, Dead at 21,” capitalizing on the internet fame of actress and influencer Thorne, herself a celebrity whose popularity is confined to a limited, though rabid, demographic.)
Scour the pieces heralding Lil Peep’s arrival on the scene and parsing his genre-bending music, and you get the sense that he was an artist no one knew what to make of. That’s what made his future so exciting.
In a piece about Lil Peep published last January, Pitchfork wrote that “combining themes of suicide and revenge with trap drums and scraggly guitars,” the rapper was “reinventing heart-on-sleeve agony for a new generation.”
The piece mentioned the bizarreness and uniqueness of a sound that straddles the line between rap and rock, not leaning enough in either direction to be strictly defined as one genre. Phrases like “new emo” and “emo rap” emerged in an attempt to describe a sound that boasts influences as varied as Gucci Mane, Crystal Castles, and Panic! at the Disco.
Perhaps equally important to his fans are the way his lyrics grappled with coming-of-age, poignantly tackling issues like drugs, suicide, and heartbreak as he encountered them in his own life in real-time. “His music recalls Kurt Cobain’s sense of self,” Pitchfork wrote.
And while some critics contended with the unusualness of Lil Peep’s style and how it fit into the modern musical landscape, others noted how it arrived on a movement and at a moment that didn’t just welcome it but, for a certain crowd, might have needed it.
“When Drake first arrived, he was dismissively called ‘emo rap’ because his mix of frank emotions and relationship struggles ran counter to the machismo still attached to rap,” wrote David Turner in GQ. Lil Peep’s sampling of throwback emo bands like Brand New and The Microphones evolved that a step further. “After a decade of rappers opening up their feelings and a renewed interest in emo music, new and old, Lil Peep arrives at a moment when guys are embracing being too ‘in their feelings.’”
It’s a lot of handwringing over a 21-year-old rising star’s catalog, which catapulted from SoundCloud uploads to only his first proper album, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1 earlier this year.
The polarizing nature of his sound, in turn, became a fixture of music writing, even if a broader awareness of his output didn’t necessarily match the coverage it was given. (Though even that is its own unusual phenomenon. A video for the track “Awful Things” grabbed more than 1.2 million views in just two days.) It’s a debate that writer Shea Serrano mined in a piece for The Ringer this summer headlined, “Is Lil Peep a Good Rapper or a Bad Rapper?”
“He’s either an innovator of a new kid of hip-hop—or maybe not a hip-hop artist at all,” Serrano wrote. Even Lil Peep himself acknowledged the challenge mainstream press faced in trying to grasp who he is, the kind of music he made, and the impression he was leaving on the industry. “I read six sentences and I’m like, ‘eurghh,’” he said. “But I think it’s really hard to explain me and capture me. There’s so much to it.”
Recognizing the contradictions in Lil Peep’s music, not to mention the fascination those contradictions sparked, is one thing. But recognizing that those things didn’t matter as much as—or may even have been the reason for—the intensity of the connection with his fans is another.
As Emma Garland wrote for Vice, “His fanbase though—which is substantial, obsessive and comprised largely of teens—just see a guy communicating his feelings, which mirror their feelings, through a fusion of genres that make total sense in 2017.”
Further confounding those attempting to wrangle an impression of Lil Peep was his image.
This is a white 21-year-old rapper who is nearly covered in tattoos, be it the “LOVE” tattoo covering his torso (a sad face inside the “O”), “Daddy” emblazoned across his chest, or the bevy of face tattoos, most notably the word “Crybaby” written across his forehead. He typically sported a shock of bleached blonde hair, and often performed shirtless, showing off his gaunt body.
It’s a striking image that won him work moonlighting as a runway model, having walked in Fashion Week shows for Balmain, Marcelo Burlon, and Rick Owens.
“It’s like professional wrestling—everyone has to be a character,” he told Pitchfork. “If you’re not a fun enough character, then no one’s gonna fuck with you because you don’t have enough shit that’s different.”
Lil Peep was certainly a character, a character who was well on his way to being a singular voice of his generation.