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Lil Peep - Hellboy Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the definitive Lil Peep experience with his breakthrough 2016 mixtape.

It was difficult to know Lil Peep. You could say he was sad or depressed. He had a lot of tattoos. He sang and rapped about drugs. He died tragically young.

People knew Gustav Åhr, though. “He gets paid to be sad,” Peep’s older brother Oskar told People on November 17, 2017, hardly more than a day after Peep died. “It’s what he made his name on. It’s what his image was in a sense.” That image made you think you knew Lil Peep as someone who willingly revealed his pain and struggles in his music. How could the kid who sang, “I used to wanna kill myself/Came up, still wanna kill myself,” be anything but deeply inconsolable? But Oskar also added, “He was not as sad as people think he was. It’s frustrating as someone who remembers a happy brother.”

Uploaded to SoundCloud in September 2016, Hellboy is the masterpiece of Lil Peep’s lifetime. The mixtape is filled with suicidal declarations, rampant drug use, and moments of delight and impulse. All the while, Peep hid the reasons for his behavior from the listener. “I ain’t gonna lie, I’ma keep it real/I don’t wanna tell you how I feel,” he sang on “Fucked Up,” at once revealing and concealing the truth. Hellboy paints the portrait of a young person who is bursting open with emotion, trying to share his experiences as vividly as he can while covering all the formative scars that still ache. It’s callous, brazen, and indulgent, the sound of someone testing out the entire spectrum of feeling for the very first time. It is an artifact that brings you as close as possible to Lil Peep.

Hellboy arrived two disproportionately long years ago, before emo trap was marketable and mumble rap was canon. The top rap song at the time was DRAM and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli,” which sounds ancient now. This is not to say that Lil Peep single-handedly invented a genre or door-busted his way to the top of the industry. Even a nascent underground sub-genre like emo trap had its forebears: There was the Swedish “Sad Boys” cloud rapper Yung Lean—who, by 2016, had transitioned into the auteur portion of his career—and the mysterious graveyard rapper Bones, who finagled his way onto an A$AP Rocky album before retreating back into the darkness of the web.

But Hellboy stood out because it is extreme and obvious, a record that tells you exactly what it’s about. The songs can be defined broadly: “Drive By” is about recklessness; “OMFG” is about depression; “The Last Thing I Wanna Do” is about regret and pain. Peep made big songs with a central idea that he could fill with color, in lieu of conjuring moments or people or places. They don’t develop, so much as orbit around a theme. He didn’t complicate his songwriting. The chorus of “Fucked Up,” for example, starts, “I’ve been all the way fucked up/Girl, you got me fucked up/One chance and I fucked it up.” There was no need for excess when he made the consequences of his music so steep.

Amid the clear communication, however, were clues that Peep’s mind was impossible to penetrate. “You don’t even know what I been through,” the tape begins, with Peep rapping flatly over a bass guitar lifted from the Christian metalcore band Underoath, as if to suggest that the full story is not worth the time. That line feels like an invitation into his psyche, but he’s telling you that you will not know him. You cannot. It speaks to his barrier, a built-in defensive nature. If you’re going to engage with him and listen to his art, you’re going to do so on his terms and accept what he provides.

Still, the truth in Lil Peep’s songs matched with Gustav Åhr’s reality. “I suffer from depression, and some days I wake up and I’m like, Fuck, I wish I didn’t wake up,” Peep told Pitchfork in January 2017. He sang as much on “The Song They Played [When I Crashed Into the Wall]”: “I don’t wanna die alone right now, but I admit I do sometimes.” In that same interview, Peep said he didn’t want to take anti-depressants. “I just like smoking weed and whatever other drug comes my way,” he offered as the alternative. That intake indifference shows on “Cobain,” when Peep raps, “Sniffin’ cocaine ’cause I didn’t have no Actavis.”

The brilliance in Hellboy comes with how Peep juxtaposed his desires with his reality. The tape exists in a constant state of flux between Peep’s superego and his id, as on “Interlude” where he asks, “Two racks on my new shoes/Why the fuck I do that?/Tell me, why the fuck do I do that?” What are we to believe when he sings, “I just fell in love with a bad bitch/Told me that she love me too, baby, I’m not havin’ it.” Peep could be impetuous but maybe not overly serious; expensive footwear and reciprocated love are both distressing and perhaps funny or even boring to him. Instead of deliberating toward a solution, he communicated his uncertainty.

The through line in Hellboy’s confusion is Lil Peep’s voice, which reveals pain when he declares numbness, and joy when he claims ennui. He was not a classically gifted singer; his vocals were always a bit distorted, typically bathed in reverb instead of the more en vogue Auto-Tune warble. Whether on pitch or not, though, Peep sounded perfect. Nothing resonates with me more than when he sings, “Leave me to bleed” on the title track. He doesn’t sound like someone who’s asking to be left to waste away—he sounds rich and fulfilled, satisfied with his expression of strength in a dark moment.

Hellboy was a breakthrough in Peep’s discography in part because he just made everything louder. His vocals are at the very front of the mix and he could perceive the tiniest changes in tempo or key or mood to direct the song with his icy wail. Hellboy also utilized samples more expertly than on previous Lil Peep releases. Yes, Peep basically redid “Wonderwall” and the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” at different points on his previous tape, 2016’s Crybaby. But on Hellboy, producers including Smokeasac and Nedarb handled the source material with greater care. Instead of simply repeating the originals, the beatmakers reconfigured them into Lil Peep’s world. It was still apparent, however, that the beats were constructed around a sample, no matter how obscure, unidentifiable, or historically insignificant.

Fitting these samples into Lil Peep’s signature sound meant stripping away the saccharine sentiments of emo and pop-punk, rendering them darker but more fun—less woebegone and more destructive. On the opening title track, a whiny Underoath track is transformed into a Berliozian funeral dirge—melodramatic, bombastic, and jubilant in its self-righteousness. The guitars on “Gucci Mane,” sampled from Japanese post-rock band Toe, twinkle while Peep sings about “cocaine in your bitch brain.” Hellboy amplified the internet’s tendency to flatten the scope of music history: Toe have nothing to do with Avenged Sevenfold, who have nothing to do with Aphex Twin, but they’re all sampled here. They become pieces of sound, whittled down to a single element and recontextualized for this album. It feels like no coincidence that barely two years later a rap interpretation of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart”—a schmaltzy and unfashionable song—is able to become the No. 2 song in the country.

The way Lil Peep sampled and sang and drew from alternative rock music initially stirred ire from hip-hop and indie fans, no matter how much that discourse was washed away in the wake of his death at age 21. He made music that was, at times, intentionally uncomfortable, and part of Hellboy’s appeal is in its brazen ugliness. He said things like, “Coke in her nose, and my dick all in her butt.” And yet, he could sing these words tenderly—like on the mellow “Girls,” where he says, “They try to get me mad/I try to make ’em sad/So they fall in love with me/Yeah, girls I can read ’em like a book”—but the sting was still there.

So when I listened to Lil Peep, it was for these contradictions. The songs were an alchemy of major and minor key whose narrator sang of his cheer and suffering. He sounds at his most relaxed singing, “Nobody wants to talk to me, but everyone wants to walk with me.” And there are countless times when he opposes himself, asking a woman on “Hellboy,” “Please just hold me one time,” and then telling her, “You’re the same as my ex, fuck you.” There was a joy in figuring out how this all fits together.

I felt grief when Lil Peep died, but I still don’t know how to process it. It’s weird enough to come to terms with the death of someone who you never met, especially when that person’s music told you, “And as long as I’m alive, I’ma die, baby.” The video I watched most after Peep died was a clip where he sang his friend Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s opening verse on “Absolute in Doubt,” from Crybaby. The video humanizes Peep in a way that Hellboy never intends. Singing someone else’s words, he sounds shaky. It feels like peering into the apprehension that informs the self-loathing gusto of Hellboy.

Peep was deliberately dark but also didn’t necessarily take himself seriously. Agony and weariness lived side by side. Hellboy is at times hopeful and boastful, but also hopeless and dry: “I’ma die, I ain’t even 25.” It is at once a high-stakes affair of life and death and also an opus of intentional nothingness. The record begins with a sample from a Hellboy cartoon. “Can this be him? The one I have waited centuries to see?” the character asks. “Can this be him, this Hellboy?” It’s a question left unanswered.

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