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Lil Peep by Marc de Groot
Lil Peep live at Patronaat Grote Zaal in Haarlem, Netherlands (Sept 22, 2017)Photography Marc de Groot

Revisiting Hellboy, the mixtape that captured Lil Peep’s breakout energy

We look back at the late artist’s forward thinking mixtape as it arrives on streaming services, shown alongside some never-before-seen live photos

Before Lil Peep tragically died in late 2017, he was on an unprecedented upward trajectory. Between his fourth mixtape, Crybaby, in June 2016, and its follow-up, Hellboy, in September of the same year, it was clear that he was an artist coming into his own, and wrestling with the complicated, new feelings that came with that success. Arriving less than a year from the release of his debut studio album, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1, Hellboy showed Lil Peep – born Gustav Åhr – at a tipping point. The world was just beginning to take notice of this tattooed, baby faced 19-year-old with a fondness for emo music and comic books.

For the four-year anniversary of its release, Lil Peep’s family released Hellboy on streaming services last week accompanied by a heartfelt message. “I know Gus would be proud of this re-release, and pleased to celebrate this moment with collaborators who helped him create this raw, intense, invigorating and heartbreaking piece of work for the world to cry to, scream to, and grind to,” the message reads. “He was only 19 when he made this. That’s quite an accomplishment.” And it was. As a poor kid living in a Skid Row loft, Peep used whatever was at his disposal, from emo samples to GarageBand to features by his friends. With just those limited tools he created a piece of work that played with the same themes he’d explored on his other mixtapes – sex, sadness, drugs – but refined them, hinting at the artist that he could have been with more time and resources.

Hellboy’s title gives so much away about Peep, the person and boy. In a comprehensive rundown published on GQ to coincide with the re-release, producer and friend Smokeasaac said that Peep “told me that he saw parts of himself in the character Hellboy. He said that people would judge him off the way he looked, when he really just wanted to help people out.” Peep himself talked to GQ three years earlier about his Hellboy neck tattoo in a video that captures the vulnerability and nerdiness that made him special; looking at the floor, he says, “that’s my first mixtape that really caught people’s attention. It was very important to me. I read the Hellboy comics but I just love him as a character and I love the whole idea. I think that movie is very underrated.” He smiles, shifting awkwardly on his stool.

It’s that boyish passion that made Peep so special and likable, and it’s woven throughout Hellboy from the very start; it opens with a voiceover from the animated film Hellboy: Blood and Iron setting the scene. “Could this be him? The one I have waited centuries to see? How strange. So far from his path that I barely see the promise of glory. Can this be him, this hellboy?” It sets him up as the complicated hero, but it also lays the foundations for a mixtape full of his inspirations and interests. Rapping about his feelings over an Underoath sample, as he did on “Hellboy”, Peep paid no mind to what anyone else was doing, and he didn’t need to. He did what he loved, he referenced what he loved, and he was unashamedly him.

Listening to Peep now, with everything since so imbued with grief and loss, it’s easy to forget how much joy surrounded the artist. In the wake of Hellboy, fans celebrated its release, while new ones flocked to his shows. It was Hellboy that found Peep the attention of the music press (he would be profiled in The FADER within months of its release) and fashion brands on a wider level. It was Hellboy that first made me really take notice of Peep, in particular his nerdy sampling of Bright Eyes on “worlds away”. He was the first in a generation of artists inspired by the emo that I grew up with to come up, and I knew I could cringe away from sad rap or embrace it. I chose to embrace it, and I soon found myself at the back of a Lil Peep show, blown away by the sheer energy behind the love of his fans. Teenagers cried, throwing roses on stage and screaming out the names of their favourite songs. I knew then that what he was doing was not only special, but real.

Four years on from Hellboy, Peep’s influence is felt throughout rap and alternative music, but there’s still been nothing like it. It’s at times almost charmingly teenaged as he sings about girls and sex, but at others there’s a wisdom beyond his years as he wrestles with his various demons; success, drugs, heartbreak. Peep was misunderstood by a lot of people then, but on Hellboy he just sounds like a tired boy fighting against a destiny: “I always been that kid / Maybe I won’t be if I live long enough,” he sings on “I Think Too Much”, as if his death is predetermined. On “OMFG”, his candour is chilling, rapping, “I used to wanna kill myself / Came up, still wanna kill myself.” But it was that vulnerability that made him so special; he let himself be known.

Returning to Lil Peep in the wake of his death is ‘what if?’ exercise. If you, as so many did, rooted for him in life, to listen to Hellboy is to look for signs. Signs of how much he was struggling with the avalanche of fame and attention, signs for what was next, what could have been different. It’s difficult to know what the landscape of rap and alternative music would look like without Lil Peep’s influence, without the work he did to break down the barriers between the two. He pioneered emo rap so deftly, and his impact is still felt. Sometimes I wonder what the world would look like if he had lived; if he had kept growing and learning and releasing new music, if he’d recovered and worked with the idols who had made their admiration of him so public, like Good Charlotte and Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz.

It’s impossible to listen to Lil Peep, particularly on something as game-changing as Hellboy and not wonder what might have been, but it’s as important, too, to remember what was. Over just two years and countless tracks, collabs and photoshoots, Peep had an immeasurable impact on music. More than that, though, he set an example with his empathy, fighting hard against homophobia and misogyny in an industry that often perpetuates it. I wish so much that his charming, dorky passion for everything that mattered to him was still here, but in a way it still is, and the fact that it ever was is enough. He loved so hard and so openly, and he set an example artists and fans will always look to.