Confidentiality vs Closure: The Posthumous Debate
Issue 14, Volume 112
Tupac Shakur’s and Biggie Smalls’s tragic deaths were followed by new albums in the late ‘90s, and there has since then been a controversial debate surrounding the morality of posthumous releases, or projects published after their artist’s death. In determining whether or not to release a project posthumously, an artist’s legacy may be at stake, as well as their freedom of control over their own music, but the financial incentive for the label often outweighs any possible damage to the artist’s reputation.
An artist’s legacy is incredibly delicate. The idea of “15 seconds of fame” has been made much more accurate because of the streaming services that we have access to today. To stay among the top of the charts, artists have to drop a steady flow of material. This makes releasing posthumous music that much more important for labels that are concerned only with streaming numbers. There is a fear that a certain artist could be forgotten without the release of a subsequent album. Additionally, to listeners, especially the most loyal fans, an artist’s legacy may feel unfinished without a commanding, ultimate final statement. For late artists like Lil Peep, Pop Smoke, or Juice WRLD, many felt that they had something more to give to the world, even after their death. Pop Smoke, specifically, whose debut studio album released months after he was murdered, was carried to a new level of cultural influence post-mortem, showing that a properly handled posthumous project can be mutually beneficial for labels and artists alike. While we’ll never know what artists like Pop Smoke or Juice WRLD could’ve done with the chance to continue creating music, their posthumous albums provide a sense of closure for many fans.
These artists also enrich the lives of their massive fanbases through art. Loyal fans crave the sense of finality for their favorite artist, and they seek it in new music that provides a testament to their legacy while also evoking that staple sense of comfort. Considering most artists have music that they had planned on releasing, and the labels have the technology and ability to refine and release it, fans may view labels as unnecessarily restrictive if they choose to leave incomplete recordings in the vault.
In addition, artists with a lot of influence are able to impact people with their music. XXXTentacion, Lil Peep, Mac Miller, Juice WRLD, and more used their music to destigmatize conversations surrounding mental health. They were open and honest about their struggles, shedding light on the tough topics that impact many.
The most decisive factor for labels, however, is purely financial. Juice WRLD’s “Legends Never Die” (2020) generated over 400 million streams in its first week, making it the most popular posthumous release of the last two decades. The album also saw Grade A Productions, Juice WRLD’s label, sell over two million copies in 2020 alone. Meanwhile, both Pop Smoke’s “Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon” (2020) and Biggie Smalls’s first posthumous release, “Life After Death” (1997) debuted at #1 on The Billboard 200, demonstrating how media buzz around the death of a popular artist can be utilized to propel posthumous albums to success. Even with the aforementioned reasons, the financial and reputational incentives are the driving force behind labels’ decisions.
However, seeing as labels themselves are not the creators of music, it shouldn’t be their choice whether or not to publish it. Often, artists record songs solely for themselves. When considering how vulnerable artists can be through their music, it is understandable that they would prefer to keep some of it from the public. Reaching into an artist’s unreleased music without their direct consent is not only invasive of an often therapeutic outlet, but also shows a complete disregard for their confidentiality and control. While the artist’s family is always consulted when considering the release of a posthumous album, they may not be adequately informed to make a decision surrounding the release of posthumous songs.
Additionally, unreleased recordings may be left unreleased because an artist felt they were unfinished or not up to par with the rest of their music. In order to have a posthumous album sound furnished, labels have to manufacture the production without the jurisdiction or the consent of the artist. To compound this issue, the label often overcompensates or uses transparent gimmicks like heavy vocal processing to mask any elements of the album that may be missing. Individual songs can feel weak, underdeveloped and pointless, spliced together from bare snippets and merely added to extend the duration of the album without providing any value. The skeletal, unfinished mishandling of a posthumous release is highlighted perfectly in the contrast between Juice WRLD’s two recent posthumous releases. “Legends Never Die” (2020), which was nearly completed before his death, stayed true to his sound and style and led to his most profitable project yet. When Grade A Productions put out “Fighting Demons” (2021), however, it was beyond disappointing. Strung together from a compilation of demos and unfinished tracks, the project was riddled with unnecessary and annoying overproduction. The album fell flat, and many believed its inanition left a stain on Juice WRLD’s legacy.
Closure to a legacy shouldn’t have to come at the expense of the artist’s confidentiality and consent being disregarded. Ultimately, in the publication of posthumous material, the label’s financial incentive presides over the risk of the artist’s prestige being jeopardized, which is a paradigm that needs to change.