Lil Peep, Vince Staples, & How Artists Sell Their Pain

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Vince Staples is Long Beach to his core, and he wants everybody to know that. FM! is something of an oddity in the 2018 music landscape; it is a 22-minute concept album that has a vision in mind and executes it adroitly. FM! is an album that plays out as a half-hour snippet of the Big Boy radio show, the most popular show in the Los Angeles area from about 1997 to its end in 2015. This radio show would’ve been a ubiquitous part of Vince Staples’ life, judging from where he grew up and his musical tastes.

The album art is bright and colorful, and the content mirrors that. It’s a summer album dropped in November, which is intentional because Staples wants us to see what lies beneath that cheery foreground. All the songs sound like breezy summer bops. FM!’s main producer, Kenny Beats, channels the G Funk sound which was the dominant party staple in the late 90s West Coast popularized by artists like Snoop Dog. But early on, Vince wants to remind us that this is no party; his first lines in the album are “Summer in the LB wild/we gon’ party til the sun or the guns come out.” Interspersed between the ostensibly sunny vibe are harrowing reminders of the danger and violence that Vince Staples faced growing up where he did. This was a violence he was very much a part of, as he raps, “wrong hat, wrong day, I’d kill my brother.” As the Pitchfork review put it, he’s “trying to capture the non stop party sound of summer while lyrically recognizing its darkness.”

FM! is really great though, on every level. Even without recognizing the overall execution of the vision, Vince is a wonderful rapper, and his lyrics are serious, insightful, and crafty. And somehow he finds humor in this objectively dark album, like on “Run the Bands” when he raps: “House so big need Kanye lipo/Nikes Off-White like halftime Michael/him no play him Bateman psycho.” Somehow he clowns Kanye and Michael Jackson, and also alludes to American Psycho in a three bar boast. The features in the album never overwhelm or detract from what Vince is trying to do. We get little glimpses of songs by Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga in 30-second skits played like a real life radio show’s teasing of new music. (And I would love to hear that full Earl Sweatshirt song, the tease got me.)

What Vince Staples expresses most throughout the album is his complicated relationship to his upbringing. He obviously loves his home, and there is a running theme throughout of loyalty; it doesn’t seem like Staples would ever turn on his people. Nevertheless, it damaged him. Like he raps on “Tweakin,” the most straight-forward reckoning with his past, “tryna get rich, get everybody fed/but everybody dead.” And Kehlani’s hook deals further with the compounding effect of frequent violence: “We just lost somebody else this weekend/I think that I am jumping off the deep end/I’m tweakin’.”

But this just brings it back to why Vince framed his album the way he did in the first place. It’s because he’s aware of his pain as a product. He knows there’s a listener. And he wants you to know that he’s commoditizing his experience for your enjoyment. Like in a skit where a caller calls in from Whittier (a town in LA county that is 1% white), and plays a game where he has to name celebrities that start with the letter V. He can only name one, and it is not Vince Staples. Vince knows that the listener doesn’t really care what he’s been through or who he is, they just want to know what he has to offer them. But he doesn’t want you to forget that he knows what’s up.

Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2

Lil Peep’s first posthumous album was released this week. Peep died a year ago from a drug overdose. He was a burgeoning star on the Soundcloud platform and was starting to garner some mainstream success. I was a fan of Peep, and like many people familiar with his music, his death did not come as a surprise. It was tragic, but his music was almost obsessively devoted to rapping and singing about death. Death and the drugs he used to numb himself until death’s inevitable arrival hovered around his thoughts like vultures.

But in his short career Lil Peep proved himself to be very influential in a growing field of emo-rap. His music bended genres and sounded more like Blink-182 than Migos, but still existed in an interesting space between. It’s not a stretch to say he was destined to be something like a rockstar. Now we’ll never get to see what he truly could’ve been. However, Come Over When You’re Sober pt. 2 provides us a glimpse of that.

After Peep died, his mom took his laptop to an Apple Store and got his unreleased songs extracted, and with some help from Columbia Records and his former producers and friends, they released an eleven-track project. It’s much more polished than anything Peep ever released, probably because of the deep pockets of Columbia Record bolstering the sound (Peep mostly released unperfected tracks via Soundcloud as that subculture more or less begets).

Is it good, though? Any fan of Peep’s work will surely be happy with it, and it seems to be a project he would be satisfied with. As his mother said, that was her intention, making the album he would’ve made if he were alive. Peep’s common themes are still very present: heartbreak, drugs, an all-encompassing existential emptiness rapped and sung over guitar-infused trap beats. His voice even sounds a little crisper than it did on previous projects. But it is decidedly not a happy album. As the Carrie Battan wrote in The New Yorker, “nearly every song is an eerie harbinger of what came to pass.”

Though there are some glimpses of some optimistic direction Peep could’ve have explored—like in “Life is Beautiful,” wherein it seems like he tries to force a vision of life upon himself, listing bad thing after bad thing but still insisting, “I think that life is beautiful.” And there are even some politically engaged lines which is never territory he waded into previously, such as “They’ll kill your little brother and they’ll tell you he’s a criminal… Welcome to America that type of shit is typical.”

There are two bonus tracks on the record. One was released as a single, before the album, featuring XXXTentacion, another artist who recently passed. This song was a remix, XXX added his vocals after peep died, and after X himself died, Columbia released this track as an ostensible moneygrab to take advantage of the problematic Florida rapper’s streaming prowess. The people close to Peep all agree that he probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with that, knowing of X’s history of domestic abuse. But in the original, with artist ILOVEMAKONNEN, Peep sings, “Come let’s watch the rain as it’s falling down/Sunlight on your skin when I’m not around” and it sounds happy, positive.ILOVEMAKONNEN even said that he and Peep were so happy at the time of the song that it was impossible to make a dreary record.

Vince Staples and Lil Peep

Why write about Vince Staples and Lil Peep’s albums together, though? Well, there is something they were both very aware of, and that is that they were funneling their painful experiences into a product. But it gets interesting in where they diverge.

Peep’s music represents the direct, unmediated experience of his pain as it was happening to him, but Vince Staples is removed from the harrowing events of his past, and he discusses it. The conceit in Vince’s album is about how his pain is viewed and mediated by an audience. Peep’s is just about how he is suffering right as he sings about it. Peep was too in it to comment upon it, and Vince has had time to abstract himself from his immediate feelings.

Both their experiences are very different though. Peep is not rapping about the gang violence that rocked his hometown. And there is of course the unavoidable matter of race as Peep is white and Vince is black and the suffering of people of color is always looked at differently than that of white people. Nonetheless, both these artists are uniquely wonderful. I finished FM! thinking of how absolutely impressed I was by Vince Staples, and I finished Come Over… thinking of what a shame it was that Peep would never get a chance to realize all his potential and wondering what he would be like if he could ever abstract himself from the pain he was in. Both these projects show explicitly how artists often commoditize their pain for our enjoyment, but they also remind us of how great art can emerge from harrowing circumstances. Hopefully it’ll complicate our un-analyzed enjoyment of the music, and we’ll think about who is delivering the product to us.

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