When an artist dies unexpectedly or prematurely, their fans and the music industry often have the desire to honor their legacy and continue to release their music. In such cases, unreleased songs, demos, or unfinished tracks are often gathered and completed by producers, collaborators, or family members to create a posthumous album.
A large reason for posthumous releases is to allow fans to remember, mourn and memorialize the artist through their work. Enjoying the album can be a sort of act of remembrance for the fans, especially when the musician was taken from them so suddenly.
While the artist should be cherished and remembered fondly, this is often not the case, as record labels will sometimes release albums solely for profit.
The ownership of the artist’s music is what makes the process of releasing posthumous albums so complex and is often what causes so much controversy over the topic. The decision-making factor in ownership and rights ultimately comes down to whether the artist created a will before their passing.
More often than not, artists are taken suddenly in some tragic accident rather than a long-expected passing. In this case, they likely did not create a will and because of this, the music would likely stay in the hands of their record label. Fortunately though, most of the time when this happens, the label will work with the family of the artist to put together a posthumous release.
Unfortunately, unless the artist has designated their unreleased tracks to their estate, the label has most of the power in this situation, and thus, enjoys most of the profit from the release.
“Come Over When You’re Sober, Part 2” by Lil Peep
Lil Peep’s posthumous album, “Come Over When You’re Sober, Part 2” was released in the year following the artist’s death back in 2017 by his estate and collaborators. Part of what made Lil Peep such a respected artist was his noncompliance with the boundaries of genre. He seamlessly mixed emo, punk, and hip-hop to create a one-of-a-kind sound. Although many artists’ legacies aren’t as fortunate, Colombia Records and Peep’s family were able to create a posthumous album that stayed true to his style. They worked hard to honor him rather than profit off of his unreleased songs. Liza Womack, Lil Peep’s mother, who played a big role in the release said, “Study the artist, his words, and his work. Listen to him. Don’t chop it up and put features on it unless it’s somehow clear to you that that’s O.K. with him,” she said, “Honor the young talent by honoring the work.”
The posthumous albums of other artists, unfortunately, were not as honoring as Lil Peep’s was.
“Faith” by Pop Smoke
Pop Smoke, whose real name was Bashar Barakah Jackson, was an American rapper and songwriter, known for his drill and trap music. He tragically passed away on Feb. 19, 2020. A year later, his label, Victor Victor Worldwide, and Republic Records released, “Faith,” which would be his second and final studio album.
Sadly, the album generated a lot of criticism as fans quickly realized the release was more of a cash grab than a memorializing of their beloved artist. While the tracklist boasts features from icons like Kanye, Pusha T, 21 Savage, and Kodak Black, critics speculate that these features were haphazardly thrown into Pop Smoke’s unreleased recordings in order to generate more clicks and thus, more profit for the label.
“Life After Death” by The Notorious B.I.G.
The Notorious B.I.G., otherwise known as Biggie Smalls, passed away suddenly on March 9, 1997. Two weeks later, his second and final studio album, “Life After Death” was released.
Upon its release, "Life After Death" received widespread critical acclaim for its production, lyrical depth, and overall artistry. The album was a success, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart while selling over 10 million copies in the United States alone. It is considered one of the most popular and influential hip-hop albums throughout history.
In fact, until “Legends Never Die,” by Juice WRLD was released in 2020, “Life After Death” was the most streamed posthumous album of all time.
The album is so celebrated, likely because it was done completely in Biggie’s style, without being altered by the record label after his passing. It is likely that he was preparing to release this album soon anyways, so by the time he passed, the album was almost completely finished and ready to be released.
“R U Still Down?” by 2Pac
Tupac Shakur, who is widely considered one of the most influential American rappers of all time, was killed tragically in 1996. The tracks in his double album were recorded during his time at Death Row Records and boast 26 songs from his collection of over 200 unreleased songs.
Although fans praise the album, which reached incredible commercial success, critics can’t help but point out that the tracklist is a random collection of songs, lacking the artistry that Tupac usually infuses in the making of his tracklists.
“The Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory” by Makaveli
Makaveli is an alias and alter ego associated with the American rapper, Tupac Shakur, derived from the esteemed Italian philosopher who wrote about control, power, and manipulation. Tupac announced the album but passed shortly after, so it was later released posthumously by his label.
The cover depicts Shakur’s crucifixion on a cross and because of this, along with some lyrics that fueled conspiracies about Tupac faking his own death and returning as Makaveli. This album is uniquely different from Shakur’s other posthumous album as it was fully created by him with the exception of the release itself.
The topic of posthumous album releases is extremely complex and nuanced. For fans, posthumous albums can evoke a mix of emotions. Some may feel excitement and gratitude for the opportunity to hear new music from a deceased artist they admire, while others may be cautious or skeptical about the intentions behind the release. Questions may arise regarding the artist's original vision for the music and whether the posthumous album truly reflects their artistic intentions.
Critics of posthumous releases argue that the music industry sometimes capitalizes on an artist's death by releasing unfinished or subpar material simply for commercial gain. They argue that these albums can tarnish an artist's legacy if they don't align with the artist's artistic standards or if they dilute the impact of their previous works.
Ultimately, the responses to these albums vary greatly on a case-to-case basis and it is undeniable that in order to preserve the style and creative process of late artists, record labels and collaborators should take extreme care when releasing these albums.
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