In memoriam: Lil Peep, 1996-2017

The rising 21-year-old "emo trap" musician represented hip-hop’s malleability as a template for creative exploration


Lil Peep, a rapper and singer whose genre-blending combination of emo and hip-hop made him the face of a growing new sub-genre, died Wednesday night in Tucson of a suspected overdose.

He’d just played Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre on October 25 in support of his debut Come Over When You’re Sober, an album that hinted at a breakout career that was tragically cut short.

Peep, a name derived from a childhood nickname, was born Gustav Åhr and raised in Long Island, New York, to a college professor father and an elementary school teacher mother. Despite that lineage, he dropped out of high school, eventually graduating from an online program.

He began releasing music recorded in his bedroom in late 2015. His first release, LiL PEEP Part One, a spare and penetrating debut, paired the despondent lyricism of 2000s emo with the 808 drums typically found in hip-hop. He followed up with Hellboy and Crybaby in 2016, liberally sampling 2000s emo greats to create a hybrid pop-style that resonated with younger audiences and confounded many more conservative old-guard rap fans.

His look – rail thin with multicoloured hair, tattoos from his lower-body to his dome – along with his propensity for sticky melodies and singsong chants straight out of the 00s post-hardcore playbook made Peep the standard bearer of the burgeoning subgenre dubbed emo trap, whose sonic imprints are also found on mainstream hits like Lil Uzi Vert’s XO Tour Llif3, and up-and-comer Trippie Redd’s Love Scars, among others.

The hybrid often created fascinating contrasts. Peep could settle into the aspirational braggadocio that characterizes much of contemporary mainstream rap on songs Benz Truck (Remix), dive into the dissolution of a relationship with the fervour of Taking Back Sunday or My Chemical Romance on a song like Awful Things, or do a combination of the two on a song like BeamerBoy.

His music frequently dealt with his lifelong battles with depression, suicidal ideation and drug use. In a 2016 interview with Pitchfork, he discussed his depression. “Some days I wake up and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I wish I didn’t wake up,’” he said. “I realized it was just myself – it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain. Some days I’ll be very down and out, but you won’t be able to tell, really, because I don’t express that side of myself on social media. That’s the side of myself that I express through music. That’s my channel for letting all that shit out.”

Peep was an original, and represented hip-hop’s malleability as a template for creative exploration. Musically, his ceiling was high: he had the charisma, pop songwriting capabilities, and ambition of a future superstar. He hadn’t yet worked with any of rap’s cabal of super-producers, which could have taken his sound to new frontiers. 

When Pitchfork asked him where he thought he’d land in the world of rap earlier this year, he said, “I have no idea. But I know it’s going to happen and it’s going to be really fun to see where I end up and who ends up fucking with me. No one’s ever been in this genre before, so I couldn’t really compare it to anything from the past. I’m excited to find out.”

Fans and friends will mourn the fact that we’ll never know.

music@nowtoronto.com | @jordanisjoso

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