This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Picking one singular artist of the decade proved difficult, because so many genres shifted, careers launched, and sounds grew—and frankly, there were a whole handful of musicians you could make the case for. So we decided to talk about all of them. Click here to see all of Noisey's Artists of the Decade, and here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.
It's easy to look at the story of Lil Peep and only see darkness. That's how he pitched himself, singing continuously of the magnetic pull of the void. One of his first great songs, 2016's "OMFG," starts with him deadpanning "I used to want to kill myself / Came up, still want to kill myself." And on the chorus of one the last singles released while he was still alive he sings mournfully and matter-of-factly, "Everybody tellin' me life's short, but I wanna die."
For the year and change in between those songs, he cried out desperately, detailing the few precious things that kept him distracted, if only for a moment, from the weight of the world: downers, girls, Gucci shoes. Then in November of 2017, he died on his tour bus of an accidental overdose of fentanyl and Xanax. It was exactly the sort of tragic, untimely end he always sang about, which only made it more crushing.
The last ten years have been full of similarly devastating events, both in the form of small personal catastrophes and global tragedies. It'd be impossible to recount them all, even in the broadest of strokes, but here are just a few: A rising tide of authoritarian governments worldwide have attempted to enact legislation to deprive parts of society that are already oppressed of basic rights—even now the United States Supreme Court seems divided on whether employers should be allowed to fire people for their sexual orientation. The environment is more or less damaged beyond repair, and any estimates for how much time we have to save it appear to be overly optimistic. Even in just the last year, the world has literally been on fire at least twice—first in the Amazon, and now in California.
Pop music, throughout the '10s, has gotten measurably slower and sadder. Sean Ross, a pop radio analyst, told Rolling Stone in 2017 that the change in tempo seemed to correlate with the state of the world. "[The lack of fast pop] seems to coincide with the national mood," he said. "Whoever you are, whatever you believe, there’s something to be angry and morose about in this moment."
When the world turns grim, it's comforting to hear music that reflects the magnitude of that darkness. That's a big part of why Peep's music was so resonant; he channeled those feelings deeply. His suffering was elevated to an almost mythic scale; he was a young Atlas with a face tattoo that read "Crybaby." He made songs that reflected his demons and an abiding sense that the whole universe was more or less unredeemable, and along the way he became a voice for a generation of kids who felt like they were bearing an ungodly weight in the same way.
The Long Island-raised loner born Gustav Åhr was certainly not the first person to apply this bleary-eyed emoting to his music. Early on, his music was often called emo-rap. It was an easy hyphenate to throw at him, because his producers often sampled the bleeding-heart riffs of mid-00s alt-rock bands, over which he sang, rapped, and moaned about the weight of existence and of trying to find connection in a cold world. He often acknowledged the influence of Future's Actavis-tinted songs of pain on his catalog.
But even with those reference points informing his work, from the very beginning his music was strikingly direct. He didn't cloud his feelings in metaphor or wordplay, he simply said what he was he feeling—and most often, he was feeling bad. It's an approach that caused this very website to wonder early in his career if he was "stupid as shit."
But he wasn't; he was just earnest. If you trust virtually every interview he gave, his genre-mashing wasn't intended as a confrontational gesture—he was sincere in his love for the bands that kept him company when he was alone in his bedroom in suburban Long Island. And time proved that his bleak view of the world was genuine too. While he was alive, that bald earnestness made his music feel cathartic. As the world crumbled around us, here was Peep, acknowledging openly how much it sucked, singing things like "let me bleed, watch me die." He was great for the same reason his music put people off. It wasn't just that it was sad or dark or depressing, but that it was all of those things without apology or pretense. He never pretended that things were going to be ok, or that there was a greener pasture that he could see on the other side. He embraced the darkness, luxuriated in it.
When Peep died, a lot of people's worst fears came true. He was a young kid who openly told the world how he felt, and then those feelings—or his attempts to cope with them—eventually claimed his life. For a while, that made his music hard to listen to, especially as posthumous material began to roll out. There's something uncomfortably ghostly about listening to songs in which a person who is already dead sings about wanting to die. It can feel impossibly heavy listening back, but two years after his death, you can almost see something different shining out of the darkness.
There's a hopefulness that's implicit in the most depressing music. Even as this young kid is singing about his eventual demise, he's still there singing. No matter how burdened by doubt or clouded by grief, he was still there, on stage, singing these songs. It was a defiant gesture toward a world that felt unlivable: Peep was pressing on anyway. That was the voice we needed to hear during a dark decade, one that would acknowledge how bad things were, but keep pressing on anyway. His story is a reminder that you may not ultimately be able to claw yourself out from underneath the weight of the world, but you can always keep trying.