Lil Peep performed at Subterranean in Chicago last night, the first date on his first headlining tour. It was sold out well in advance, though Subterranean is not a huge venue; it wouldn’t surprise me if this were a strategic booking to get him concert legs for bigger stages in the future, and to foment hype. There was no opening act. It was also an all-ages show, and the vast majority of fans in the building had black x’s drawn on their hands. The bartenders looked bored.
The crowd, though, was very not bored. He descended to the stage from the second floor wearing a patterned shirt matching his skin tone, making him look shirtless before he was shirtless. The crowd knew the words to almost every song, and when the DJ killed the sound, filled the space with his words. Songs like “Girls” and “Beamer Boy” were rapturously received. In adopting rock’s textures, many of his songs pull back from hip-hop’s typically dynamic production, but the crowd enthusiastically bounced along regardless.
The bouncers, sternly overseeing the show like overworked parents, perpetually shined flashlights into the audience, occasionally kicking out teenagers for shoving. Peep ended the show singing along to Blink-182’s “Dammit.” I bought a tour t-shirt, which smelled kind of funky, as if it had been stored in the trunk of someone’s car alongside packages of uncooked sausage.
I don’t want to spend too much time in concert recap mode, because concert recaps are boring. But it’s worth mentioning that the show did draw something out of songs like “Crybaby,” which I’d never really appreciated until I could hear how it connected in a live setting, where wistful teen fans fall respectfully silent to let the stoned sad SoundCloud John Frusciante vibes linger.
My real purpose here is to say: Lil Peep is good. Not only do I like him, I think he’s making music that is genuine, refreshing, well-executed and emotionally real.
A good sign an artist is taking off is that everyone tells me who I should be listening to instead, and all of them recommend different people—none of whom really do what he does, or fill his niche. The smartest thing Peep figured out—which so few of the SoundCloud brethren with whom he’s often compared have—was to drop the Lord Infamous-derived flows that long ago lost their utility to convey menace, and instead embrace post-Sosa melodic stylings.* Peep just made the connection to pop-punk pioneered on records like “Love No Thotties” (& picked up by Uzi Vert) more explicit.
And he did so with a fully-felt appreciation for emo as the raw material to flesh out his world. This isn’t a genre I’m super familiar with, although I gather that some of the backlash to his Pitchfork feature was emo fans mad he’d been decreed “the future of emo.” I don’t know enough to say whether he qualifies as emo, although he’s obviously a fan of it, but I think he does qualify as rap music. Not only is his most frequent collaborator Lil Tracy the literal son of Ish of Digable Planets/Shabazz Palaces and Coko of SWV (do you get more of-the-culture than that? Here they are posing with Tommy Hilfiger, unearthed via Reddit). Not only was he brought into the game as a member of Schema Posse, a group formed by Three 6 Mafia producer J Green (see: DJ Paul “Cocky”). But its formal framework is hip-hop’s, and any attempt to remove him from that lineage only serves to marginalize the genre that made him.
Aside from arguing he doesn’t make rap music, critics have argued his appeal is “ironic.” Even people who seem interested in his work take this tack; Drew Millard called it “stupid” in a piece for Vice that otherwise feels like an endorsement. I still don’t understand what is meant by “stupid” or why music should be “smart”; that Peep’s aesthetic touchpoints aren’t critically feted & instead reach to derided mall punk / emo / “trash culture” forms suggests an inner artistic confidence, rather than a lack of intelligence. Resisting or ignoring inculcated, insular notions of “good taste” is a good way to make your work distinctive…and is artistically smart.
Irreverence towards “good taste” does not need to signify an ironic attitude towards art, and unlike the fake-enthusiastic Yung Lean fandom of a few years back, I don’t think his fans—again, mainly teenagers and two age-ed music writers (thanks to the Chicago Reader’s Leor Galil for the plus one)—are remotely interested in indulging in his music for the comical juxtaposition of a white person making rap music.** If anything, his music strikes me as quite sincere anyway: the lyrics have a straightforward earnestness that is decidedly populist. It is Cool music, but in a way which could translate as easily to a trailer park in flyover country as Brooklyn (if not moreso, judging by the handwringing I’ve seen in allegedly hipper corners).
When I expressed confusion to a friend about the kneejerk backlash after Pitchfork deigned to take him seriously, he suggested “the well is poisoned”—it has felt quite like that. A “Problematic”-stigma has overtaken any mention of Peep, as if his experience of hip-hop was somehow less authentic or more appropriative than, say, Mac Miller’s. If anything, I find his incorporation of rock music’s textures and emo samples and lyrical themes creates a more original—and more universally appealing—energy than Mac’s Lord Finesse remake or Odd Future-esque solo release. Or for that matter, G-Eazy’s Drake-lite, or Yung Lean’s thin Lil B emulation.
At the show, there was no fake-enthusiastic ironic meme action. Instead, teenagers sang his lyrics like they were their own emotions made real, or as if they were coming from the sensitive boyfriend they wished they knew. I’m not trying to deflect criticism of his work in the real sense; glorifying cocaine use is not a net societal positive, nor is romanticizing depression, and understanding what it is that appeals about his work is deserving of a measured analysis. But good lord—how is this different from the entire history of popular music? Has the conversation really become this basic?
* “To me, Chief Keef is totally punk rock. Like, the melodies he uses on his album– it’s like he’s not even rapping no more, he’s just singing. You could swap those synths and keyboards with guitars and fucking crazy drums and he’ll be a rock star.” —Danny Brown to Pitchfork, 2013.
**On a personal level I’m lightweight offended anyone would get that from my appreciation of rap music—I’ve been dismissive of Post Malone, Spooky Black, Yung Lean, et al from jump, whose appeal I’ve felt was relatively one-dimensional. Anything that attempts to connect through simple irony—that veil of “knowingness” that suffocates all other emotions in an effort to telegraph smug superiority—is anathema to me. Irony is a useful artistic tool but terribly one-dimensional as a worldview.