The Posthumous Album Paradox: The Problem With Music After Death, by Jason Meggyesy
Updated: Sep 5, 2021
On February 19, 2020, Bashar Jackson, better known as Pop Smoke, was shot during a home invasion in the Hollywood Hills. On December 8, 2019 (a couple of months earlier), Jarad Higgins, AKA Juice Wrld, lost his life to a drug overdose while aboard his private jet. A year prior to both of these unexpected deaths, Jahseh Onfroy, whose stage name was XXXTENTACION, was shot outside a motorcycle dealership in his home state of Florida.
After their untimely deaths, all three of these artists have released multiple songs and projects.
The music industry is undoubtedly one of the most popular in the world. According to Statista.com, the music industry accumulated $23.1 billion in 2020, with 56 percent of that figure pulling from streaming services.
But it’s no surprise that one of the most profitable and popular industries is also one of the most exploitative.
The Posthumous Album has become a hot commodity within the last couple of years as we see the death count of famous artists rise. Since 2016, the rap game alone has witnessed the passing of eight significant artists ranging from the trapped-out style of Bankroll Fresh to the oracle-esque wordsmith Nipsey Hussle to up-and-coming Chicago drill rapper King Von.
Besides family and close friends, artists leave behind trails of snippets, unfinished verses, and unmixed vocals that may have never been heard had death not come to pass. That is until the money-hungry executives, label heads, and powers that be of the music industry dig their claws into them in an attempt to flip the hollowed-out tracks into chart-topping bangers.
Today, it seems that posthumous albums often attempt to skyrocket artists from household names to bonafide legends. Sheldon Pearce of the New Yorker notes in his article, The Perils of the Posthumous Rap Album, that Tupac and Biggie were the ones who laid the foundation for what we now know as posthumous albums.
Pearce states that both legendary rappers’ respective albums—Pac’s “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory” and Biggie’s “Life After Death”—were released to create climactic and gripping statements about the careers of two rap icons. But there was a catch: before the deaths of these artists, both projects were already in the process of being mixed, mastered, and prepared for release.
Too often nowadays, it seems that the music coming from artists who have passed away is half-baked or completely manufactured. For example, on Pop Smoke’s most recent album, Faith, only six tracks of a 20-song album feature only Pop Smoke, and of those six is a 30-second interlude wherein Pop is seemingly freestyling an unfinished hook. The other 14 songs contain at least one other artist. Based on this evidence, it seems that the Pop Smoke well is quickly bleeding dry, and executives are clamoring to find a way to cash in on the young legend.
Pop Smoke is not an isolated incident. Both Lil Peep and XXXTENTACION have “released” several songs that feature their vocals paired with basic instrumentals to create some semblance of an entire track.
Some argue that the release of post-mortem music gives the fans what they deserve or provides the families of deceased artists a form of financial stability for years to come.
These points are well and fine, but they fall short of ethical from a creative lens. The most “honorable” action seems to be completing the last project that the artist had been working on, like in the case of Mac Miller’s final album Circles, to produce a poetic end to a career cut short. Although this still may interfere with the artist’s creative direction, at least engineers, producers, and close collaborators have some notion of what artistic direction best honors the artist. Going any farther than this, however, is a blatant disregard for the musician and their art.
Art in any form is an entirely individual and personal process. The creation of something that the artist had nothing or very little to do with can no longer be solely considered that person’s art. But to release the Frankenstein of that artist’s work is a disservice to them and ultimately peels back the curtain the music industry puts up, exposing all of the ugly truths that lie just behind the listeners’ immediate view.
The posthumous album debate gets brought up every time an unexpected death occurs, and a full-length project follows close behind. It still stands to reason that the current structure attempts to flip the name of a prominent star into a martyr worshiped by the masses, all to run up streaming totals and cash in a check signed by the memory of a beloved soul.