It seems pretty clear that the music industry is having trouble understanding ‘til death do us part.’ Posthumous albums have become the new norm in an industry that is constantly mourning its losses and ultimately, capitalizing on it. Lil Peep, Mac Miller and Juice Wrld are its most recent victims, soon to become defined by the work they didn’t get to witness the release of themselves. Yet each generation seems to have their own set of ill-fated artists whose music surpasses them, their legacies formed in an era they don’t even witness themselves. It’s nothing new but the music they release certainly is.
The Notorious B.I.G is just one of those ill-fated artists. Life after Death is a posthumous album but not by design. When Biggie was shot just sixteen days before its release the arc of his own career was seemingly changing. His works filtered the airwaves of radio whilst he himself was forever trapped in the year 1997. It was defining an era he wouldn’t even be a part of. But we know that Biggie wanted the world to hear this so it was honoured as if he was still alive. Seems to make sense, right? Once Born Again was released in 1999, the trilogy of albums he intended to finish himself was complete. Yet his discography surpasses this trio.
The same goes for Tupac. The mystery of his life and death is poured over like his music and that interest hasn’t died down. Under the alias ‘Makaveli’, The 7 Day Theory was released four months ahead of schedule. It’s a blatant play on his passing, which is a shame considering these are his last recordings before he was ultimately shot. It’s a play on his fans’ nostalgia. Average reviews don’t matter so much if it hits number one, making the artist an icon whilst doing so.
Their deaths didn’t halt their careers but arguably solidified their status in the hip-hop scene. Somehow their deaths made them more present than ever, with what they still had to say and what producers could release in regards to this. The same can be said of Cobain. Because people would listen more carefully this time and fans flock to the only thing they have left.
And so, at the very heart of such releases can be the commodifying of an artist. Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York session didn’t get an official release until after the suicide of its frontman Kurt Cobain. It’s an infamous part of their catalogue but not due to the decisions made as a band, because the band couldn’t have existed without Kurt. Fans flocked to this though because, in their defence, it is one of their finest hours. The authenticity is obvious.
Is it irresponsible? On some accounts, yes. Montage of Heck would never have been approved of release by Cobain himself and it doesn’t take listening to even half the record to realise that.
We’re essentially eavesdropping on a conversation we weren’t invited into with this one.
Kurt’s cover of And I love her seems to be the track that resonates with listeners of the album but because it’s the only fully-formed demo it contains, placed in-between a bunch of fragments and guitar reverbs. It’s not trying to masquerade as a studio album but that didn’t stop a label releasing it to the world.
The Cobain curiosity has yet to die down and it’s imitated in the artists of the present.
Lil Peep’s Come over when you’re sober pt.2 is a companion to his previous work but it didn’t come without its’ own fare of backlash. To pair his music with XXXtentacion’s is another bruise added to an already open wound. But it just shows that it’s not always about integrity or fulfilling final wishes, because whoever owns rights can do as they please, regardless of the vision that the artist would have curated themselves had they still been with us. Because realistically, that collaboration wouldn’t exist if Peep had anything to say about it himself.
Hopefully those who listen know this…
Musicians’ lives are invaded in life so it doesn’t slow down when they pass. It just leaves more unanswered questions.
People leave behind their most prized possessions and for artists it comes in the form of voice notes and melodies. There are fitting tributes and then there’s the gimmick, the latter being the stocking stuffer of an album that usually fans see right through. It’s easy to be a cynic but to say that Circles was released with bad intentions would be a disservice to Mac himself. What he started someone else finished for him. It deserves its praise in its own absence of glorification. Leading on from his previous work, Swimming becomes Swimming in Circles. Whether we get more of his unreleased music isn’t known but it isn’t completely unimaginable.
There’s much to be said of ‘famous last words’ and record companies are playing on this nostalgia more than ever. Mac Miller’s final album leaves us with soft, melodic sentiments on the last year of his life. Eager fans are waiting for Juice Wrld’s next album, wondering whenthe release will happen, not if. And if you really care enough, you’ll find scratchy demos and unreleased songs of most artists under the sun. There is a fine line between intimacy and violation and honestly, it’s walked so finely. As record companies overstep the boundary they are aware of the morbid hype it’ll bring them. The ethics aren’t written but the music is, so it’s bound to find its way to the masses at some point.
Visuals by Ashna Wiegerink and Janita Purcell