When I walk into a club in Flat Iron Square on Friday night, the room is already packed. (Mostly) teenagers chant "GOTH BOI CLIQUE, GOTH BOI CLIQUE". A London rapper called Bexey, wearing enormous sunglasses and a headscarf held in place by another headscarf, has just finished playing his first-ever live set – but most people here know all the words to all his songs already. Barely minutes after the stage's thick red drapes close behind him, they fly apart again and a skinny figure drowning in oversized clothes emerges, like a miserable Jesus, through a wall of white lights and smoke. Arms go up, phones go up, the 350-capacity room is filled with deafening screams like Harry Styles just stepped out of a car to vomit. Lil Peep's here.
The Long Island-born, LA-residing rapper is one of 2017's biggest controversies. He's barely been around for a year but he's already managed to amass millions of hits on YouTube and Soundcloud, work his way onto Pitchfork's Best Songs of the Year list and complete a largely sold-out tour of Russia and Europe by virtue of being inherently divisive. At 20 years old, he looks like a scumbag Justin Bieber and sounds like Lil Yachty if he'd grown up on Avenged Sevenfold.
He sings about suicide, dresses like a cartoon and toes a line between sexual, violent and childlike – which is most apparent on Instagram where he mostly posts about drugs, oral sex and anxiety when he hasn't got someone's foot in his mouth. In his short time in the public eye, he has been labelled everything from "angsty, white-boy broke-inside garbage rap" to "the future of emo". Writing for Noisey last year, Drew Millard described his vibe as: "somewhere between 'shoegaze Kreayshawn,' 'little brother of the guy Lana Del Rey sang about on 'Video Games',' and 'Hey, remember that emotionally manipulative coke dealer you met on Myspace and then dated for three months back in high school? Well, that dude's still 19, and he raps now!'"
Like the My Chemical Romances and From First To Lasts he grew up on, Lil Peep is a perfect storm of components capable of enthralling anyone who gets it and burying himself under the skin of anyone who doesn't. He raps over samples of Brand New, Blink-182 and The Postal Service; he uploads pictures of himself in a bath lined with cans of La Croix; he has a broken heart tattooed below the corner of one eye, "CRYBABY" in bubble lettering above the other and "DADDY" splayed in gothic font across his chest. He may be part of a much larger internet collective made up of similar rappers/producers like Mackned, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Horse Head, Lil Tracy, Cold Heart, and Døves – all coming from completely different states and backgrounds – but you would struggle to find a more peak product of this precise moment in time than Lil Peep.
There's a reason he's been involved with GOTHBOICLIQUE for the least amount of time but has become the first to be paid serious critical attention and tour internationally; he doesn't stand out sound-wise but his Mickey Mouse Club Dropout aesthetic makes him a posterboy for every millennial raised on 90s anime, 00s emo and present-day sad rap. Still, there can be a big difference between the way someone who came up on Soundcloud is revered online and where they sit in reality. I half-expected the show to be littered with people like me who were there on a sort of anthropological mission born out of equal parts curiosity and genuine interest, but that couldn't have been further from the truth.
Friday's show at Omeara near London Bridge was Lil Peep's first and only UK date, billed very shrewdly (and very apparently) as 16+. I saw greasy fringes, people wearing heavy duty beanies indoors, prominent appearances by apparel with aliens on. The excitement before Peep came on stage was palpable; the kind of electricity that only ever asserts itself when a venue is made up primarily of fanatics. From the second he drifted on stage to the minute he left there was not a single still or silent body in the room – just relentless screaming and crowd surfing, all for a kid who isn't old enough to legally drink in the US but has spent the last week mincing around Europe on ketamine and shouting "cocaine" a lot over tracks without the vocals removed. It felt a lot like the 2017 equivalent to Crystal Castles' first shows, or mid-00s weekends spent queuing outside tiny venues in regional towns waiting to see The Blackout. Pitchfork's "future of emo" headline may have seemed hyperbolic at the time, but after seeing the way people turned out for him this weekend I think it might actually be completely true.
Even when you strip away the samples – which, from Underoath to The Microphones, help establish his identity as a sum of his interests like a Myspace "Influences" section – Lil Peep's songwriting is positioned firmly in pop-rap so well crafted it's difficult to fault outside of its melodramatic lyrical content. He's a mallrat raised on three decades worth of emo and influenced by the changing face of rap from Yung Lean to Lil Uzi Vert, Chief Keef to Odd Future, RiFF RAFF to The Weeknd. He is slur-rapping about sex, money and getting fucked up to classic pop punk melodies, inserting chants of "switchblades, cocaine, Goth Boi Clique make a hoe shake" in the structure of a Blink-182 song.
Conversely, he's also ripping lines like "I don't wanna die alone right now, but I admit I do sometimes" and "this is the song they played when I crashed into the wall" straight out of the Jesse Lacey book of songwriting and singing them over Fruity Loops trap snares. In the same way punk purists bashed Taking Back Sunday for being overly sentimental and rap purists reject Lil Yachty on pretty much the same grounds, Lil Peep's rise is destined to be controversial even when he isn't trying to be. He just makes music that lends itself to total derision. Critics will find ways to legitimise him by pointing out that he has sampled The Microphones but in doing so ignore the entire reason he has a fanbase in the first place. Lil Peep doesn't have a consistently sold out merch store because a few shrewd adults noticed he sampled Glow Pt. 2 instrumental "(Something)" on "White Wine", it's because he shouts out pills, Gucci and his former Myspace friends in the same verse. Lil Peep is the bullseye on a Venn diagram of heartbreak, sex, drugs, violence, depression and self-destruction – which is precisely why people flocked to bands like Hawthorne Heights in the 00s in the first place.
Will it last beyond the next 12 months? Who knows. Equally antagonistic and sincere genre-splicers Brokencyde mixed screamo and crunk in the mid 00s, ended up on Warped Tour and released an album last year for some reason; Tumblr rapper Kreayshawn signed to a major, missed her own wave spectacularly and disappeared; Crystal Castles elevated inaccessible witch house into an institution off the back of a single Myspace demo before it all went to shit; PC Music marketed themselves all the way to a McDonalds advert. When you build your fanbase online and that snowballs into you breaking out, despite making music that would otherwise never be cosigned by the mainstream music industry, it can go pretty much either way.
GOTHBOICLIQUE have forged a sound and aesthetic that hasn't existed before. Taking every sentiment you set as your MSN screen name that you'd wince at now and turning it into a modern brand could potentially be covered by Vogue, there has never been a more 2017 artist than Lil Peep – which gives him a lot of currency right now but the hyper-specificity of it means his future is basically in the hands of his fanbase. Three hundred and fifty enthralled British teens passionately shouting some combination of the words "goth", "baby" and "club lights" does not a pop star make, but it's not to be underestimated either. Whatever you want to call what Lil Peep and GOTHBOICLIQUE are doing, it's brand new. It's music made by teens, for teens – and it's working.
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