Should we listen to music against a dead artist’s wishes? Determining how to appropriately immortalize deceased artists is a tall order, and one of the hardest questions in 21st-century pop music.
The deaths of XXXTentacion and Lil Peep felt unreal. Two of the most promising talents to emerge from the close-knit SoundCloud scene vanished just as they were seemingly nearing the creative peaks of their respective careers. Both individuals were in a position to push the genre-bending aesthetics of emo-rap to new heights; their sudden passing left devastated fans wondering what could have been. In the midst of each tragedy emerged questions of how to approach the posthumous work of each artist. It’s an artist’s responsibility to clarify what should happen to their music when they die, but what if they don’t make the proper arrangements, as was the case with both X and Peep? Furthermore, would either of them have wanted us rifling through their unfinished recordings? Who has the artists’ best interests at heart, and who stands to gain the most?
These are the complex issues that the music industry is forced to contend with as a result of the expanding digital age. We can’t help but be drawn to the private works of our favorite artists. But when one listens to an artist’s music against their wishes, it’s a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the phrase, a particular kind of voyeurism that is near impossible to justify. When approval is posthumously assumed, it feels invasive; the fact that neither X or Peep left behind explicit instructions as to the matter of their unreleased music understandably elicits feelings of anxiety and guilt.
In the wake of “Falling Down,” a recently released collaboration between the two artists, word has begun to spread that both X and Peep were working on projects prior to their deaths. A few weeks before he was shot and killed, XXXTentacion had signed a $10 million album deal with Empire, the independent music company that released his first album, 17. Ghazi Shami, the founder of Empire, said that X had completed “a significant amount of material” for the new project, but that there has been no established plans for its release. The industry pressure to strike while X’s name is still in the headlines reaffirms just how much record companies have to gain from capitalizing on an artist’s posthumous success. X’s weekly streams have quadrupled since his death on June 18th, earning him a posthumous No. 1 single, for “Sad!”; he became the first artist to chart posthumously at number one since The Notorious B.I.G. did back in 1997 with “Mo Money Mo Problems.” During his brief career, X released two full-length albums that helped transform him into the poster child of a new era of stars, ones who form deep connections with fans online and disregard industry norms and restrictive record deals. He achieved an audience of millions before traditional gatekeepers became clued into his existence.
Close collaborator and ? co-executive producer John Cunningham said that X had largely finished the recording of his new album before his murder. “We basically started making this next album right after ? came out,” Cunningham said in a phone interview with Genius. “The songs and the ideas and the vision of it all was done or very close to being done.” Cunningham is chiefly responsible for making the remaining creative decisions for the album and said that the leftover work involves “getting it mixed or mastered or a certain thing added.” However, he mentioned that he’s following the framework that X left behind. “The whole idea, the concept, the songs, [all that] was done,” he said. “There’s work out there, but the question of what should come out is a totally separate question,” he said. “That hasn’t been answered, not by me or his mom or anybody, in terms of what happens after this album.” X likely has a treasure trove of unreleased material that his estate will seek to license in the years to come.
Lil Peep’s camp finds itself in a similar predicament. Peep released his first full-length album in August 2017 titled Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1, but died just a few months later in November of a drug overdose while on tour. His go-to producer, Smokeasac, revealed in February that he’s been working on perfecting Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2; he also confirmed that Peep did his vocals prior to his death. The producer has made it clear that he wants to do right by Peep and his fans, but has faced severe backlash nonetheless. "While some of you guys are busy harassing me I have to go through the heartache of hearing Gus’s voice over and over for hours while I polish these tracks up In the studio. can you imagine how I feel? my best friend is gone I’m working with his raw vocals wondering why the fuck he’s not next to me... i try my fucking hardest everyday to not freak out,” he said in a since deleted Instagram post. An album of unreleased material from Peep is set to be released through Columbia Records in the coming months.
Listening to posthumous releases may be satisfying to fans, providing momentary relief from the grief associated with an artist’s passing, but the money changing hands leaves the listener with an unpleasant feeling. This is the ugly downside of the streaming era: listening has become transactional, and the monetary benefit of the label often takes precedence over the reputation of the dead. It’s one thing if an artist has left a blueprint; rummaging for scraps is another thing entirely. Cobbling together a posthumous outline of bits and pieces feels insincere and unfulfilling, and highlights what’s missing: the artist. The faithful collaborators of X and Peep seem to have a grasp of which songs are finished and worth releasing, but that doesn’t fully alleviate fears that successors could Frankenstein a record out of rough drafts and demos. Both X and Peep took the job of crafting an album very seriously, and there's a real possibility that their uncompromising vision could be diluted in the construction of something that is made without their expressed consent and guidance.
On the flip side, would an artist want their hard work to disappear forever? The artistic process should be respected, but it’s also critical to realize the ramifications of “deleting” everything. One shouldn’t assume that there’s nothing of value left in an artist’s unreleased back catalog; unreleased music may enrich an artist's comprehensive body of work for the better. Unfortunately, the romantic notion that an artist’s best work is ahead and that gems are bound to be unearthed has diminishing returns, as is evidenced by the posthumous careers of Biggie and 2Pac. Since their deaths, the two central figures of 90s hip hop have been treated as cash cows to be milked for every last penny. The narratives that they captained while alive have been tarnished through releases such as Duets: The Final Chapter and the heavily commercialized Pac’s Life. Biggie’s second album, Life After Death, released sixteen days after his murder, was a masterpiece of gangster rap. While the album enjoyed massive success, the title took on an unsettling meaning after more records were released under his name following his death than were released while he was alive. Similarly, seven posthumous Tupac albums have come out since the rapper’s death in 1996, including three that topped the charts and whose sales total well into the millions.
The most offensive posthumous releases are those that artificially construct collaborations between artists, resulting in a patchwork of sub-par material. Tampering with the authenticity and truth of an artist’s legacy raises questions of motive: why do labels feel justified in reimagining the work of artists who have long since departed the realm of the living? Do posthumous releases exploit tragedy? And do they turn the person behind the music into a commodity? It’s tricky to achieve honest answers to these questions, namely because no one can claim to have insight into an artist’s mind. There’s no way to know if music would have been released in roughly the same form if the person who made it was still alive, or how the artist would feel if unfinished, unapproved tracks became a part of their musical legacy.
Although it should be self-evident to artists that they’re responsible for the recordings they leave behind, such a proactive approach doesn’t always win out. The bottom line is that if there’s no preemptive action taken, then humanity is bound to muck around in an artist’s unfinished work. And if the music isn’t released to the public through avenues such as the Library of Congress or the Free Music Archive, then the money changing hands will only muddy the waters even further. Merit is ultimately subjective, but it remains ethically questionable to assume consent in poking through an artist’s unreleased material. This is the primary problem that plagues posthumous releases: there’s a huge demand, but no easy solution to satisfy all parties involved.