Image via Lil Peep/Instagram
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Donna-Claire listened to this new Lil Peep album on the floor of her office and pondered the immense value of the archive while the cats meowed at the door for attention.
Lil Peep and ILoveMakonnen. Diamonds. Out now. A series of sentences I was unsure I would be writing once Peep passed away in November 2017. Prior to his tragic death, in interviews and on socials, Peep regarded the album as “legendary.” Makonnen was Peep’s favorite artist. It makes sense. Makonnen broke as a Southern rap oddball making hustle anthems with a working class twang in his voice. He reshaped the texture of the underground rap scene in Atlanta and beyond. Though he would get mistreated by a heartless music industry for being queer, Makonnen’s influence and innovative approach to hitting high notes remains undeniable. For his part, Makonnen has gone on record speaking of Peep in just as high esteem. Diamonds was a fabled part of the Lil Peep canon that fans did not think would see an official release.
“Lil Peep and Makonnen completed the first fifteen of what would be twenty-one songs and would later be known as the album Diamonds in Los Angeles, exactly 6 years ago in August of 2017,” Liza Womack, Peep’s mother and foremost archive-keeper shared in a statement. “Gus was absolutely thrilled about working with Makonnen.”
Recorded in Los Angeles and London, Diamonds feels like a landmark moment for Lil Peep, for Makonnen, and for the history of emo rap. The elasticity of Makonnen and Peep’s complementary vocals undoes the previously conceived boundaries of the pop heights emo rap could reach. Let’s backtrack for a moment. Emo rap was codified in the 2000s by Slug of seminal rap duo Atmosphere. It was vulgar, often-pathetic stuff with a sharp point about the failing of the modern man. By the 2010s, though, thanks to aesthetic help from Kid Cudi, Makonnen, and even Lil Wayne, emo rap became a near-inescapable mode of hip-hop popularized by titans like Juice WRLD, XXXTentacion, and, of course, Lil Peep. All three of these artists, the ones who shaped emo rap into a commercially viable subgenre and culture, have passed away.
In the 2020s, it stands to wonder if emo rap even exists—or, at the least, if it will ever reach towering monoculture heights as with songs like “Lucid Dreams,” “Awful Things,” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3.” I believe in the form of emo rap as crucial to understanding the perspective of today’s young artists. Emo rap is for everyone, even if its musical signatures have been folded into other sects of rap’s flowing pain music. Even if it has been largely maligned in the press and online.
Despite critics considering emo rap to be a navel-gazing failed experiment, the music is shockingly resonant. It is flooded with nuance and subtle textures that explore the depths of young angst. The abject horror of being dumped for the first or fifth time presents as beyond the realm of the banal—instead, dressed up in the timeless signatures of trap percussion and thanks to familiar samples, emo rap arrives as a thing out of time with each and every song. The genre peels away from itself like a worn sticker, curling up but no less flashy. Good emo rap is a mirror into the stricken molten core of what it means to be young. The vexation, the tension, the unease and uncertainty of each passing day. Diamonds fuses the coolest thing with the lamest thing to make a scampering and slippery third thing that I will happily allow to eat away at my brain.
It’s also not lost on me that much of emo rap is centered around performing a feminine affect: the hysterics are bar none. With Makonnen being openly queer and Peep’s final interview including a coming out statement, the sinister feeling of men being rewarded for performing women-coded hysterics melts away and a larger point emerges. That is, so much of emo rap—the good stuff—allows for a more fluid and free gender expression. Yes, I know, the space of emo doesn’t play well with the scope of seeing women as more than liars and muses. But! When emo rap works as I’d hope, potentially as intended, it creates a precious space for young men to express crumbly and hard-to-place feelings without shame. With that in mind, Diamonds is rife with that blithe shamelessness. It is a record of woes that feels simultaneously triumphant.
I started writing this Soundcheck dispatch from the floor of my writing room—very Virginia Woolf of me. By the mid-afternoon, sunlight filters in through the trees of Fairmount Park and in through the bay window, leaving bright puddles for me to bask in as if I were a languid housecat. So, right now, I’m on the floor and taking notes in my phone. I’m listening to the chosen single, “November,” which Peep told producer Smokeasac was his favorite song of his recording career. A lesser writer might be at their desk proper, perhaps opening 50 tabs as is our vocation, and beginning a piece with something more salient. But I am not a lesser writer—I am not even a writer right now. I’m an enthusiast who has done some of her best work while staring at a ceiling fan as strips of sun sawed her in half.
“November.” It’s a very ‘80s synth-pop experiment meets late-2010s emo rap-pop concoction. The song battles up to a Lil Peep classic line about bleeding out, and grows like a moonflower vine around the melodic sensibilities Makonnen has brought to popular music since his breakout of Atlanta in the early 2010s. The thing about a moonflower vine is the aforementioned flowers only open up when the sun goes down. They look like morning glories, but somehow more shimmeringly brilliant—they’re huge. A young moonflower vine, I’ve learned this growing season, can’t always support the weight of its flowers. Sometimes you catch a moonflower opening and by morning the flowers are shriveled and scattered across your yard. We get the point of this inclusion, right?
Now, back to “November.” I wonder to myself, what makes this one the song Peep loved most? It must be the joy nudging through the angst. You can hear a lucidity and freedom in Peep’s voice. Footage of the recording sessions dates to mere weeks after Peep’s debut studio album, the glossy Come Over When You’re Sober, Part One came out. In studios both in the states and abroad, Diamonds’ creation appears to be a far cry from the earliest days of Lil Peep whispering his raps into a computer in his bedroom so no one else in the family home could hear him making music. “November” takes big swings with staggering confidence. Makonnen’s warping warbles and Peep’s back-of-the-classroom swagger collide to create a world I can only describe as a film still from an acid trip.
I think of the documentary the estate released to go with the lead single, and the struggle Makonnen has making eye contact with the camera, clearly looking beyond the scene in the park where he was placed and into a well of memories. Maybe I’m projecting now. I do make it to my desk eventually for this next part: Diamonds was made in 2017, the same year Peep passed away from an accidental drug overdose.
The Diamonds documentary is moving—it hits all the right notes to elicit an emotional response. But the most striking moment is the final bit of producer fish narc’s talking head interview. fish narc refers to Diamonds’ upcoming release as a “document” to honor Peep, and not something retouched with the intent of being sold. As I listen to Diamonds, and as I prepare to spend several months intensely editing a book about emo rap, where the conceit of several chapters rests on the value of the emo rap archive, I can’t shake this distinction.
“Gus knew there was more music to make, and he knew he had limited time due to his upcoming fall tour, so he organized his next chunk of studio time so he could meet Makonnen in London, where they made the last batch of songs,” Womack added. “We all waited with anticipation for the release of this album. Then Gus passed away. I knew I had to do everything I could to help get this album released—and released the way Gus and Makonnen had made it.”
I guess this is where I break and remind readers I’ve written an entire book about emo rap. It’s called CRYBABY. It comes out in 2024. There’s chapters on Peep and Makonnen. I’m extremely proud of it. I feel blessed to be able to continue cataloging a subgenre and culture in rap music that is simultaneously misunderstood and completely gotten by fervent fans who are themselves keepers of archives. For my part, emo rap stirs a consuming vortex in my chest. Of course, I used to listen to the stuff when I was beset with the deadweight of sorrow, but I’ve grown to love the music regardless of my swirling emotional state. It just feels good. I can’t go beyond that. The music is so perfectly timed at the intersection of a crumbling America, the death of youth, the advancing of tech into the music industry. It all comes together at this nexus point. Emo rap is there. It is the beating heart of, to me, our cultural moment in the 2010s and early 2020s. This is why the archive matters.
I believe in the posthumous archive as essential—I understand the ethical questions, and I understand the role capital plays in making it so a posthumous release is usually the furthest thing from an archival statement. But I also understand if we wish to construct a history of popular music worth engaging with, we must, necessarily, treat musical giants with the tenderness and canonical regard as other artistic greats. I have books upon books of published correspondence between writers who have passed—monographs from photographers’ archives that have been lifted up from the darkroom—and I look upon these with a fondness for the historical context they provide. The archive enriches the living works.
What I mean is: I want the full picture. I am someone who wants to understand. I’m feverishly nosey. In the case of emo rap, a genre ravaged by untimely death and tragedy, I’m not saying pilfer hard-drives for ill-placed verses on songs the deceased would never have wanted to appear on if they were still alive. I’m not saying release every draft with abandon. I’m saying, if the archive can be treated with care and intentionality, we can get these “documents” released into the world as fish narc explains.
The grace and reverence applied to the release of Diamonds—as I once wrote of Mac Miller’s Circles in my first book, The Book of Mac—by Makonnen and Peep’s estate, and the team involved in bringing the record to the masses, is exemplary. There are scenes in the supplementary doc that show Makonnen reading off tracklistings Womack provided from Peep’s phone notes. There is an attention to detail, and the detail itself is that of last wishes. This is a team of artists and producers, but also documentarians. Diamonds makes me believe in the archive even more, and gives me further disdain for other posthumous releases that may not have been treated as documents, but rather as pawns for capital by people several degrees removed from the tragedy of such a situation.
An archive is, to me, an expression of love in its purest forms of dedication and time. The time and fastidiousness applied to bringing Lil Peep’s music home, to releasing Diamonds, to bringing the old records to streaming, this all comes from a place of love not just for Gus, but for the act of cataloging music history. A posthumous album will always raise questions until we go full-on post-currency. But I have no questions about Diamonds. I have no qualms about money and what it means to the project of keeping Peep’s memory alive. For the release of Diamonds, I only have gratitude.