The Life After Death: Posthumous Works in Hip-Hop
With the release of the late XXXTentacion’s deluxe edition of ? and Lil Peep's Everybody's Everything LP, the ethical debates of posthumous works are once again raised as posthumous releases toy with making or breaking an artist’s legacy.
In hip-hop’s rich history, violence and drug consumption have been common lyrical and lifestyle themes throughout. Unfortunately, they have also led to the deaths of many cherished artists within the community, most infamously with the U.S. East and West Coast rivalry during the 1990s that is often believed to have resulted in the murders of hip-hop royalty Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.
At the time of Tupac’s death, he was sitting on a discography of four studio albums and, allegedly, had hundreds of unreleased songs. For B.I.G., his only album released before his death was the ironically-titled debut Ready to Die (1994), however, Life After Death (1997) was supposed to have dropped around Halloween of ‘96 before being pushed back until after his death. Posthumous works refer to the release of albums, songs or features released after the death of the artist. Out of Tupac’s posthumous albums, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996), released under the alias Makaveli, is one of his only well-received works (which really can’t even be counted as such considering it was completed prior to his death. Another classic posthumous album that comes to mind is Big L’s The Big Picture (2000) that was released a year after his untimely murder. Though The Big Picture was not fully finished at the time of his death, Big L had completed enough of the project for his creative direction to be evident and fortunately able to be finalised by his manager and partner. This is a significant example that demonstrates the importance of artist contribution. In all three of the previously mentioned examples, the albums were already intended for release and the artist played the largest creative role. The cultural impact of the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur respectively make it near impossible for their legacy to be broken, but so much of their music has been released posthumously to the point where verses become recycled, their original creative direction is lost and the intentions of labels and, unfortunately, the family become clear.
In a more contemporary setting, the deaths of XXXTentacion and Lil Peep raise the dilemma surrounding legacy. Lil Peep was a pioneer in the emo style of hip-hop with multiple EPs and his debut studio album, Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 1, under his belt. In November of 2017, Peep was found dead from a drug overdose at just twenty-one years old. The following year, the sequel Come Over When You’re Sober project was released through Columbia Records. Lil Peep and his producer Smokeasac recorded many unreleased songs throughout 2017 that would be used for the posthumous album. While this project was stylistically similar to its predecessor, with a larger focus on his sombre side, Columbia Records received a lot of backlash for their decision of features and behind the scenes actions that restricted Lil Peep's close friends such as Lil Tracy to release the music he had with them. That being said, Peep's mother Liza Womack did take creative control over her son's music for the release of Come Over When You're Sober Pt. 2 after being encouraged by Peep's brother. Knowing that Womack worked closely with the album can offer a lot of fans closure that his legacy is being cared for by people outside of the industry, but the presence of Columbia Records is still evident.
The lead single for the album was "Falling Down" featuring XXXTentacion, who had passed away after being shot during a robbery only a few months prior. The song originally featured iLoveMakonnen and was titled "Sunlight On Your Skin" that was also put on the album as a separate song. The collaboration was met with a storm of controversy, as Lil Tracy has stated the two were never friends and had conflicting values. While Peep's mother Liza Womack had publicly voiced her distaste for the song, XXXTentacion's mother and iLoveMakonnen supported it, eventually leading to its delayed release on September 19th of 2018. While the track was a commercial success, reaching as high as #13 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts, a lot of fans can't help but see it as an exploitation of both Peep and X's death.
The moral question of posthumous works continues with the release of XXXTentacion's music since his death in June of 2018. Though his Skins album featured vocals from Kanye West, an artist X had expressed interest in working with previously, the album was still not spared from poor critical reception. Slant Magazine criticised it for including songs that felt more like "demos than finished tracks—an effect that can be haunting." A fair criticism as many of the songs have a run time of two minutes or less - however the short lengths of X's tracks are nothing new. Though it's not a stylistic choice that benefits the work, X has always followed this pattern, evident in his eleven-track debut project 17 that had a run time of only twenty-two minutes.
Most recently, a deluxe edition of ?, the last project released in his lifetime, came with an additional thirty-five tracks. Yes, thirty-five. These included instrumentals of the original tracklist, unnecessary voice memos and his previously released EP with producer Ronny J, A GHETTO CHRISTMAS CAROL!. XXXTentacion fans will appreciate songs like "hate will never win" and "UP LIKE AN INSOMNIAC - Freestyle" now available on streaming services, however, the exhaustive extended edition seems like a cheap way to profit off of the late rapper's name. The voice memos could have been used more tastefully in a documentary or tribute piece as opposed to individual tracks for a deluxe version. The only positive that came out of the release was the "Nocturne" tribute by Yoko Shimomurac, which demonstrates a possible solution that could benefit the reception of posthumous works. Whether it be close friends covering or adding final touches to songs or including tribute songs to complete a project, this could be a more ethical and heartwarming approach to dealing with posthumous albums.
Unfortunately, the list of posthumous examples is plentiful, with a large number of eyes looking at what may become with the musical legacies of Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle. In September of 2018, a month after the release of his fifth studio album, Swimming, Mac Miller died from an accidental drug overdose. Two months later, his posthumous career was in full effect with the stripped back version of "Dunno" and a cover of Billy Preston's 1974 single "Nothing From Nothing". This was followed up by his feature on "Time" by the Free Nationals and Kali Uchis, where Miller's verse feels ominously comforting as he makes reference to his dependency on previous relationships. With Uchis' dreamy vocals to match, "Time" is groovy, sincere and well-received by fans. Miller's parents have been working closely with the hundreds of unreleased songs and by watching his tribute concert from a long list of close friends and previous collaborators, it's easy to assume his legacy is in safe hands.
Themes of substance abuse and mortality have always been evident in Mac Miller's music, and the recent 88-Keys-produced song "That's Life", featuring Miller and Sia, continues this. Originally leaked as "Benji The Dog", the song's lyrics feel more haunting in the wake of his death. Though a lot of his fanbase prefer the "Benji The Dog" version, "That's Life" feels more triumphant and joyful, with heartfelt lyrics like, "Today is full of regret, find forever in tomorrow." Unlike the previous artists discussed, Mac Miller left us with a rich and consistent discography dating back to 2007 under his alias, Easy Mac. There is believed to be another album's worth of completed songs from the GO:OD AM recording sessions, however, there must have been a reason why Miller made the decision to cut them from the end product. One of Mac Miller's producers, SAP, stated in an interview with DJ Booth that "he was somebody that put out everything that needed to be out." Having left us with a larger discography, labels and those in control of the work from deceased artists might feel less pressure to begin releasing large amounts of their previously recorded work.
The same can be said for Nipsey Hussle, who, in March of 2019, was shot dead outside of his Marathon Clothing store in southern Los Angeles. Apart from posthumously appearing as a feature on songs from DJ Khaled, Mustard and Rick Ross, Nipsey Hussle's posthumous music career has been somewhat quiet. However, Nipsey Hussle's legacy has been positively continued with his upcoming apparel collection collaboration with his brand TMC (The Marathon Continues) and athletic brand Puma set to release before the end of the year. The reception to this announcement has been universally optimistic, as the intentions of both parties seem genuine in staying true to the legacy of the rapper, who has previously worked with Puma for several advertising campaigns.
When an artist passes, many entities feel responsible for what actions should be taken with the work of unreleased music they've left behind. Though the most important part of dealing with posthumous works is for the labels, family and friends to do what they believe the artist would've done, in reality, there's no way of truly knowing this. Though posthumous works haven't completely broken an artist's legacy and their previously-held place in hip-hop, it's fair to say in situations such as XXXTentacion's, his name is seemingly used for cheap cash grabs that capitalise off his popularity.
What do you think the guidelines for releasing posthumous works should be? Should their music only be released if the work was completed? Should new feature artists be added to them or should it simply never be released?