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Lil Peep’s Death Raises Difficult Questions

The dynamic, troubled 21-year-old rap star died Wednesday night of an apparent overdose. Fans wonder how to move on.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Lil Peep was angular and pale, his fingernails always too long, his stringy hair always in various shades of neon, a “Crybaby” tattoo above his right eye, a broken heart beneath it. “Get Cake, Die Young” was scrawled across his hairline. The defiantly anti-commercial rapper defied genre and expectations alike.

His music could have been classified as emo punk. It might have also been some mutated species of hip-hop, like if Fueled by Ramen were a rap imprint. His songs were no hook or all hook, brilliant or maybe brainless, and generally difficult to categorize. He certainly had a knack for popcraft, but unless you were one of the kids—a designation less determined by age than a willingness to listen and understand—it was tough to say for sure whether Lil Peep could possibly be serious, at least at first. There was an existential glaze over his public persona, like he, the person, was ignoring something the content of his music repeatedly demanded be dealt with. But the rapper, born Gustav Ahr, told Pitchfork in January that his struggles with depression were very real, and not at all an affect. “Some days I wake up and I’m like, Fuck, I wish I didn’t wake up. … 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.” The things that he was prone to say on social media were occasionally chilling, but usually delivered with a wink. There were more than a million followers on Instagram and 237,000-plus more on Twitter who related to that.

New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica described Lil Peep as “one of the most promising artists in the current generation emerging from SoundCloud.” The generation in question— Lil Pump, XXXTentacion, Lil Xan, and plenty others—grew up with iPhones and without preconceptions about what a rapper is or could be, which is reflected somewhat in the influences they claim. Gucci Mane and My Chemical Romance held equal sway over young Ahr, who put out his first mixtapes in 2015, under the pet name his mom gave him when he was growing up on Long Island: Lil Peep. His bleeding-heart openness quickly gained him a dedicated following, and he sold out shows playing to massively teenaged audiences after releasing two more mixtapes—Crybaby and Hellboy—in 2016.

He died on Wednesday night at the age of 21, and while the cause of his death hasn’t been officially announced, The New York Times reported that there was evidence of a drug overdose, which casts his verse on a song literally titled “Overdose” in a truly harrowing light:

I don’t wanna die alone this way
Read the tattoos on my face
Imma die young, but I get cake
I spent it on the drugs and act OK

He also had a song called “omfg” that came out in 2016, on which he confessed, over Bandcamp-grade guitars and skittering hi-hats: “Used to wanna kill myself / Came up, still wanna kill myself.” His work, which revolved around a few themes of suicide, drug use, and loneliness, was also accompanied by a sometimes distressing online persona. In one of his final posts to Instagram, Peep, barely coherent, said that he’d taken six Xanax pills. The post has since been deleted. Chase Ortega, who has been described by several media outlets as Lil Peep’s manager, broke the news of his death in a tweet: “I’ve been expecting this call for a year. Mother fuck.”

Ortega’s tweet, which is no longer visible to most because the account was made private, vividly illustrates the tensions many fans and onlookers have felt consuming Lil Peep’s music and persona alike: To what extent can listeners be held accountable for the struggles of the artists whose work and lifestyles they revere? With no obvious place to direct their pain, many fans began to lash out at Ortega in the initial hours after Peep’s death. The questions they asked of him, and of themselves, echoed many of the moral dilemmas fandom grapples with: If Ortega had been expecting the call for a year, then why hadn’t he done anything about it? How come no one took him to the hospital? Why are you sad about Lil Peep? Have you ever even listened to him?

As hard drugs like cocaine and Xanax continue to gain popularity among rappers and the fans who sometimes glorify their lifestyles (often while misunderstanding or commodifying artists’ struggles with mental health), it’s harder not to ask questions about the consequences of entire ecosystems turning a blind eye to the apparent suffering of their idols. A$AP Yams, whose birthday was three days ago, died in 2015 of an accidental overdose. The legendary DJ Screw died 17 years ago to the day of similar causes.

These artists may have been symbols to most, but they were first human. No matter your opinion of Lil Peep or recreational drug use—or your eagerness to share it—a person, who was young and beloved, is no longer here. People will need time to come to terms with that.