There’s a horrendous hot take up on The Guardian at the moment which asks the question: “how did constant references to depression and prescription painkillers move into the mainstream [of hip hop]?”, posted just a few hours after the public announcement that 21-year-old rising star Lil Peep had died of a suspected drugs overdose.
I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t heard of Lil Peep prior to the flurry of online obituaries but, listening to him now, I hear manic echoes of a sub-sub-genre of so-called “Cloud Rap” that I found particularly interesting back in 2014.
This spooky black EP, for instance, was on repeat for months in my old, dark and damp Welsh flat:
Or, earlier still, the oppresive atmosphere of Spaceghostpurrp that soundtracked a lot of stoned urbex misadventures in 2012:
Lil Peep’s sound phase-shifts this morose R&B and trap through a window of countless 2000s music trends.
I’m endeared to Lil Peep because I hear everything I used to listen to in his samples. Listening through his various mixtapes there are tracks built around the surface fodder of Oasis and Radiohead tracks. Elsewhere, his tracks sound like Slint or even Low, post-rock and slowcore ruptured by contemporary hiphop weirdness.
Then, to my surprise, there’s even a chopped and screwed sample of – I’m 90% certain – The Microphones on “OMFG” from 2016’s Hellboy – a music project that had more influential on me in the 2000s than anything else.
Peep’s sonic palette has been championed as the future, but what I hear is the familiar sound of my generation, bottled into a singular experience – a schizomodern smorgasbord of immanentised digital cultures trawled off the seabed whilst island-hopping from forum to forum, blog to blog.
All this is missing from Ben Beaumont-Thomas’ Guardian article, in which he insists on positioning Lil Peep at the narrow end of an explicitly Black lineage of (“gangsta”) rap, despite Lil Peep himself being white.
Concluding the article, he writes:
Rap has always told its drug stories in more than just its lyrics. Snoop conjured the sensuality of his own buzz through his very vocal cadence and languorous G-funk backing, as well as his words. In Houston’s “chopped and screwed” scene, rap tracks are radically slowed down, designed to match and enhance the corporeal sluggishness that comes from drinking codeine cough syrup. And it’s the same with this new breed of rapper: their deadened flow and sad, anxious production replicates the anti-high of Xanax in sound. It can be hard to tell which of them are genuinely troubled and which are – like the fake gangstas of the crack era – trading off the glamour of drugs and pain. But the tens of millions of streams they’re getting mean it doesn’t matter: their popularity shows that people are hearing their own pain, fellow participants in a culture that has been left to manage its own wellbeing.
There is nothing about Lil Peep’s music or mannerisms that leaves doubt in my mind that he was struggling, but maybe that’s because it’s all too familiar.
It is infuriating to read 1500 reductive words articulating the most basic point – people buy music that they can relate to – but Beaumont-Thomas seems entranced (in true Guardian style) by the fact that this relatability can include taking drugs and suffering from mental illness. Far out!
Beaumont-Thomas’ racialising of these subjects as Black, however, means ignoring Lil Peep’s whiteness as a central part of his story. When he speaks of “a culture that has been left to manage its own wellbeing”, he is certainly speaking to the politics of Blackness but is that appropriate in orbit of the death of a troubled young white boy?
Peep’s whiteness does not mean he can’t be a gangsta rapper (necessarily…), but his sound is blatantly his own and a few steps removed from the lineage that Beaumont-Thomas is insisting on placing him within. Peep easily sidesteps any Post Malone appropriations by exercising an all-encompassing approach to culture that is common to his generation through a style that is very much his own. Yes, Peep is bombastic, firmly marketed towards the weirder end of mainstream hiphop’s unusual gothic tendencies, but he still sounds white, still sounds like himself, and that is important. In fact, I’d argue the horrific potency of his lyrics, despite the inflection of so many diverse cultural references, comes from this whiteness.
Without explicitly taking this into account, Beaumont-Thomas’ reading is doomed to fail. The article ends up saying nothing about the wider cultural landscape that Lil Peep was an up-and-coming part of, completely ignoring the hybridisation actively at work in his sound that speaks far more explicitly to the manic aesthetics of a culturally ungrounded whiteness than gangsta rap’s victims-turned-entrepreneurs of circumstance – I’m thinking of the redemptive songs of the Notorious B.I.G., for instance, or the fantastical realism of Clipse.
The latest trend of rappers discussing their depressions and addictions with a sharp melancholic edge – arguably brought into the mainstream by Earl Sweatshirt’s existential crisis of a record, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – is obviously a symptom of something else. Is it a natural progression of radical Black expression? Not really. Not for Peep, anyway. He is rather speaking to wider, less racialised problems.
I’m reminded of Gary Younge’s recent travelogue – also from The Guardian – in which he recounted his trip around the USA talking to angry white men. (Younge’s travels were also the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, from which an interview with Richard Spencer went somewhat viral).
At one point, Younge interviews Andrew Kiezulas, “a 22-year-old sports star from a middle-class family” and a recovering opioid addict. He writes:
… his doctor first prescribed opioids for a back injury. With his thick neck perched on top of mountainous shoulders, he had the air of an all-American boy from an all-American family. But, behind the facade, things had started to go wrong. “Very quickly, the prescription drugs were removed and I was left with an emotional addiction, a mental addiction and a very physical addiction to the opiates – and, very quickly, I transitioned over to street drugs,” he explained.
Kieszulas has had to struggle hard to remain sober these last five years. His achievements are his own. But he would be the first to tell you that being white helped. When black America was blighted by the crack epidemic, it was understood as a crisis of culture and treated as a problem of crime. African Americans were locked up in unprecedented numbers, leaving more Americans in prison than had been incarcerated in the Soviet gulags at its height and more African Americans in prison than had been enslaved in 1850.
“If you are white and middle class, it’s much easier to remove the negative consequences of a use disorder,” Kieszulas explained. “You’re less likely to go to jail, less likely to have any kind of negative criminal consequence. I myself don’t have a criminal record. I did some very interesting things to support my habit and to find relief. And transitioning out of that without a criminal record at all? I think it speaks for itself.”
Thanks to contamination through needle sharing, the opioid epidemic is also turning into an HIV crisis, which is particularly acute in rural white areas. Of the most vulnerable 5% of counties at risk of an HIV outbreak, almost all voted for Trump.
In late October, Trump called it a “public health emergency”, while offering little in the way of new funding. When your privilege amounts to this amount of pain, no wonder you can’t see it. But just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
With this in mind, I wonder: what is happening here, right now, with Lil Peep? Why is he being aligned with perceived problems of Black culture despite his actual problems, his aesthetic whiteness? Peep has the potential to become a light that shines on much more systemic problems than just the racialised problems with a culture that he is inherently outside of.
In the video above, it is Erykah Badu who scales up the crisis as needed:
I think the world is in a certain place where it’s needing some kind of coping mechanism – the whole world – and we’re reflecting it, definitely. I see it a lot in the youth. They’re on a totally different frequency … We are in need of some self-medication, of some sort.
Lil Peep is not exemplary of a Black problem but he’s not exemplary of a white problem either, although the whiteness of his expression makes the message far more transparent.
Peep is an avatar for young people in general under capitalism, and a distressed form of whiteness particularly, whose creative joy paradoxically revolves around depression and self-medication – the long-term modus operandi of the troubled but now trouble is mainstream; trouble is everywhere. Young people are “looking for an answer on another dimension”, Badu says, implicating capitalism in this endemic mood. “They watch us work back to back, cheque to cheque, and we still sitting in the same rocking chair on the porch – so they know that’s not the answer.”
Young rappers – young people in general – are looking for exits both cultural and political. Lil Peep found his, at first aesthetic and then all too real. His is a tragic exit and one all too common for this generation. Racialising this because of the circles in which his music is popular completely misses the bigger picture.