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Lil Peep was onto something. His music hybridized Midwest indie rock’s downcast, confessional over-sharing and hip-hop production values with such a cool simplicity that it threw a lot of die-hard fans of both genres for a loop. Peep’s lyricism was matter-of-fact and diaristic in its discomfort, and his handle on melody was bright and fey. That made it a tough sell for rap fans who consider themselves sticklers for intricate bars, flows, and metaphors. Bands whose work Peep and his producers used as source material for his subversions weren’t always crazy about what he came up with. Peep’s understanding of the inner workings of both genres was startling but undeniable, though, more firmly rooted in actual emo than the cadre of young rappers who enjoy the “emo rap” distinction in 2018 because their songs serve pop-punk melodies over trap drums. Lil Peep’s death from an overdose last November is hard to handle because his music spoke candidly to what haunted him, meaning the demons that won in the end are perched on the corner of every verse. Sometimes, to listen is to watch someone hurtling toward oblivion.
Posthumous albums are a gift and a curse. On the one hand, it beats back the disconcerting finality of death to get to hear a lost voice calling back through the afterlife. On the other, in cases of unusual or else untimely death, posthumous music often serves as a chilling dramatization of the artist’s struggles. Like a horror-movie chase sequence, you see strength, vitality, and valiance in vain. You see time running out, darkness closing in. Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on a Hill is a beautiful capstone on a career whose ambitions were still flowering. Hearing the man articulate feelings of pain and thoughts of suicide in songs like “A Fond Farewell” and “Twilight,” knowing what was around the corner for him is still disorienting, some 15 years after the fact. Biggie closing out Life After Death with “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” feels like stunning, steely clairvoyance. An unexpected death never sits right. It invites us to reassess what we thought we knew about a person. It comforts some to pick over the deceased’s thoughts and words, like detectives, trying to invent an understanding of an event that unsettles because it doesn’t appear to offer any. This habit maybe serves the living, but never the dead.
Lil Peep’s sophomore album, Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2, is tough listening because it encases the artist’s triumph and tragedy in amber. His skills were sharpening, but his ills were advancing. Peep’s honesty makes the two aspects of his life seem inseparable. It’s hard to hear a song like “16 Lines” (“16 lines of blow and I’m fine / Break my bones but act as my spine”) or “IDGAF” (“Ride ‘til the wheels fall off and my heart stop / I can’t feel my face but I won’t stop”) without facing the danger of the singer’s cavalier attitude toward drugs. There’s no engaging the drowsy, gravelly tone of his voice without meditating on the numb, hollow inertia of depression. You want to catch the glint of hope and resilience peeking out of songs like Crybaby’s Death Cab for Cutie interpolation “Skyscrapers (Love Now, Cry Later)” (“Love now, cry later / But I always take the chance”) and Come Over Pt. 1’s “U Said” (“Sometimes life gets fucked up! / That’s why we get fucked up!”), but there’s a lot of pain and dark portents to contend with to get there.
Just as disconcerting as the inevitability of loss that haunts Come Over Pt. 2 is the sense that Peep and producers Smokeasac and George Astasio of the hit-making ensemble the Invisible Men had zeroed in on a formula that seemed destined to push the artist past the pack of SoundCloud sensations he held court with since early tapes like 2015’s Feelz and Lil Peep Part One. The rock and rap foundations on Come Over Pt. 2 are sturdy. “Runaway” and “IDGAF” tout guitar licks ready-made for rock radio. The latter ever so carefully evokes Metallica’s “The Unforgiven,” quietly dwarfing all of the terrible attempts at giving the metal lifers legs in a hip-hop field of play on account of sheer poise. The guitars here are mostly delicate, frozen in the moment where a loud-quiet alt-rock ripper like Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” worms into your head unassumingly, full of secret spite and intent to maim. Rap-rock hybrids lack this subtlety. Their aim is confrontation, shaking up norms by serving seemingly incongruous ingredients in the same cocktail. (There is value in the practice. See: Public Enemy teaming up with Anthrax or anything on Faith No More’s Angel Dust.) Most modern “emo rap” treasures rock music’s mood and method but is rather allergic to the instrumentation.
Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2 is comfortable in its apparent contradictions. “Life Is Beautiful,” the album’s centerpiece, is a word about persevering through terrible circumstances. The duality in the lyric, a series of snapshots of people living through hard hits like illness and bereavement, is the core thrust of Lil Peep’s music: Feelings suck because they’re uncontrollable and unpredictable, but the never-ending push and pull in our hearts and our heads is the meat of human existence. But the song’s presence here illustrates the mindfuck of an early death. “Life” is a remix of an older Peep song; the original version closes out Feelz. The lyric is unchanged across the two versions. The difference is a brighter beat and a more lively vocal. But now, the question in the refrain — “Isn’t life beautiful?” — seems wry, almost ironic. A song that felt like a weary message of hope stands to be flattened into another piece of evidence that the man who delivered it was on the way out. It’s not a valuable thought process.
I met a person two weeks ago who claimed to have met Mac Miller in some professional capacity while he was working on the music that would come out this year as Swimming. The exchange got hot when it devolved into dishing about the reasons people think he is no longer living. I said that I thought it was a disservice to Mac’s memory to turn his life into speculative 3 a.m. bar gossip and to second-guess the fond recollections of the people lucky enough to have met him in the interest of playing caring sleuth and insider to an audience of strangers. Dying young doesn’t retroactively make an artist’s entire life a meditation on death, even if death is present in the margins of their work. They were trying to escape it, using art to locate and share a moment’s respite, and even though they didn’t beat what was bugging them, they should be honored as people who fought to live, not people who sat around waiting to die. I have no illusions about how difficult this is for people, especially in the cases of artists like Peep and Mac, who named and claimed their pain. I just wish people would remember them for who they were, not what brought them down.