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Highsnobiety / Josh Sobel

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.

Over twenty years after the The Notorious B.I.G. first recorded Life After Death, his second album remains an undisputed masterpiece in the realm of gangsta rap, but little did the Bad Boy star know how prescient that title would become. Released just sixteen days after his murder, Life After Death enjoyed unprecedented success in the wake of his demise, but the album’s name took on a whole new meaning after The Notorious B.I.G. ended up releasing more records in death than he ever did in life.

This year, late rapper XXXTentacion became the first artist to chart posthumously at number one since Biggie did back in 1997 with the release of “Mo Money Mo Problems,” joining an elite yet tragic group of hip-hop chart-toppers. Controversy aside, the success of “SAD!” is well deserved on artistic grounds, yet there’s something rather unsettling about the accompanying video, which sees X attend his own funeral.

Although the promo was both written and creative directed by XXXTentacion before his death, seeing the young star resurrected on film so soon after his real-life murder raises some ethical issues. Fans might argue that the “SAD!” video is a beautiful elegy to X’s legacy and while that’s true to a point, it’s hard not to see how the record company also had plenty to gain from capitalizing on the star’s posthumous success for financial gain too.

Either way, it’s important to note that XXXTentacion had full creative control over the “SAD!” promo and always intended to release it more or less in the form that we see today. But what will happen in five years time when unreleased songs hidden in the vaults suddenly come to light? How would X react if he knew that unfinished tracks he didn’t approve could potentially become part of his musical legacy? This is a problem that plagues numerous posthumous releases these days, but the demand from fans is there nonetheless and there’s no easy solution readily available to satisfy all parties.

Ethics Don’t Matter To Me

Following the release of Scorpion, Drake’s latest studio effort, posthumous recordings made the headlines yet again after Drizzy dropped a never-before-heard vocal sample from Michael Jackson on the song “Don’t Matter to Me.” Fans seemed receptive for the most part, excited to hear something new from the King of Pop, but Michael Jackson’s nephew, Austin Brown, publicly spoke out against the recording, arguing that vocals of this nature shouldn’t be released in an unfinished state.

This isn’t the first time that Drake has tried to pay tribute to fallen artists using unheard vocals. Back in 2012, the Toronto rapper weaved Aaliyah’s voice into the single “Enough Said” and was subsequently named as an executive producer on the singer’s new posthumous album that would feature 16 unreleased tracks. However, the project was called off a couple of years later following the negative backlash from fans of the late artist, which included opposition from close friend, Timbaland, and even Aaliyah’s family.

Cynics would argue that posthumous recordings are primarily released to capitalize on the surge of sales that usually follows an artist’s death, and there’s certainly some truth in that. After David Bowie died in 2016, his final record, Blackstar, became his first number one release in America. Similarly, Prince outsold every other artist in the same year, living or dead, after his sudden passing that same year. Clearly then, there’s still money to be made from these legacies. After all, Tupac is somehow more prolific than ever, releasing a total of seven posthumous albums since his death, including three that topped the charts and sold in the millions.

Enough Said

It’s not all about the sales though. Drake’s genuine admiration for the likes of Aaliyah and Michael Jackson is well-documented, transforming songs like “Enough Said” and “Don’t Matter To Me” into elegies that pay homage to the musical prowess of both artists in question. And while some fans might want record companies to leave the reputation of these deceased stars alone, we also shouldn’t assume that there’s nothing left of value in their unreleased back catalog.

After all, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” was released after Otis Redding died, cementing his status as a musical icon, and if songs were never released posthumously, then we wouldn’t have game-changers like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” or Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” either.

Rather than destroy the respective legacies of such artists, these aforementioned songs enrich their work for the better, perhaps even surpassing what was released in their lifetimes. The key of course is that each of these cited examples were always meant to be heard eventually by the public. The problem then lies with songs that have gathered dust for years or even decades before record labels unearth them in time to celebrate the anniversary of an artist’s death and make some money in the progress.

Maybe Hidden Treasures Should Stay Hidden

Although fans understandably continue to hunger for new material from their favorite stars, the end result is often akin to poking through someone’s diary or private emails. Not every song that’s recorded is intended for release, and to do so without the artist’s consent is ethically questionable to say the least.

That’s not to say that this hasn’t happened. Before Jeff Buckley died, he refused to include the track “Forget Her” on his now legendary album Grace, but after his death, the song was then included on various editions of the album, complete with a music video compiled from various clips of unreleased footage. It’s hard now to imagine Grace without “Forget Her,” but outside of his devoted fan base, the majority of listeners will never know that Buckley didn’t want the song to be included in the track listing.

Similarly, we’ll never know if Michael Jackson would have approved the use of his vocals on Scorpion, but the fact that they’ve remained unreleased until now certainly suggests that he was reluctant for them to be heard. Artists regularly voice concern about tracks leaking online without their consent, but at least they’re still around to make their objections public. Releasing posthumous albums or incorporating unheard vocals from the deceased often does more for the monetary benefit of the label than the reputation of the dead, so who speaks up for them?

In a rare and extraordinarily divisive move, David Joseph, CEO of Universal Music UK, destroyed Amy Winehouse’s leftover demos to ensure that her legacy would remain intact in the way that she wanted. Unfortunately, various collaborators of the Camden diva still pieced together a posthumous collection titled Lioness: Hidden Treasures that added little to the star’s usually-stellar body of work. It’s one thing to release completed songs posthumously in an act of celebration – it’s another thing entirely to just rummage for scraps in order to make a quick buck or two.

A SAD! Future

The most offensive posthumous releases of all are usually those that artificially construct duets between artists living and dead. Although there was something rather poignant about adding Nat King Cole’s vocal posthumously to his daughter’s song, “Unforgettable,” the majority of collaborations from beyond the grave are actually better best forgotten.

Remember Duets: The Final Chapter? Released in 2005, eight years after The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered, this album was composed entirely of unlikely duets that even new fans questioned the authenticity of. Although it’s impossible to know what path Biggie’s career might have taken, it’s clear that the esteemed rapper would have never traded bars with someone like Nelly, and the inclusion of other deceased artists like Tupac, Big Pun and Bob Marley was an even more offensive affront to everyone involved. There’s a big difference between releasing completed tracks and constructing some bizarre Frankenstein-patchwork of sub-par material.

Beyoncé and JAY-Z might have incorporated the Mona Lisa into their own art recently, but they would never dare edit or alter the painting itself somehow. Why is it then that record labels feel that they’re justified in reimagining the work of someone like Tupac or The Notorious B.I.G.? Whether it’s tampered with or not, the merit of releasing material posthumously is ultimately subjective, much like the music itself. The key is to treat each individual case with respect, striving for the kind of authenticity that these artists delivered when they were still alive.

Bob Dylan once said that “Death is not the end,” and when it comes to the music industry, those words have never been more true. However, if the release of posthumous material isn’t handled right, then it’s possible that the legacy of a celebrated artist could come to an end, or at the very least, the truth of that legacy.

Now that XXXTentacion has become immortalized through his music, don’t be surprised if you see a new album from him on Spotify in five years from now, one that features posthumous duets hashed together with artists like Ed Sheeran and his rival, Drake. While we can’t speak for the young star and can only guess what he would have gone on to accomplish, it’s clear that such a move would have made him anything but happy. Sadly, a future release like this isn’t entirely out of the question.

For more like this, read our take on why JAY-Z’s shout-out of XXXTentacion on Drake’s ‘Scorpion’ was hugely irresponsible.

Words by David Opie
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