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Posthumous music releases: Nothing new but the new norm in hip hop

By in Culture

The posthumous album of Mac Miller titled Circles debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200 after being released by his family on Jan. 17. The album was announced on Instagram by the late rapper’s family saying, “This is a complicated process that has no right answer.”

On the same day, Eminem released his Music to Be Murdered By, which eclipsed Miller’s album by debuting at No. 1. The most popular track on the album, “Godzilla,” features a catchy hook recorded by Juice Wrld before he passed from a drug-induced seizure on Dec. 8. 

The media’s sensationalization of a famous rapper’s death has astounding effects on their popularity. Following Juice Wrld’s and Miller’s overdoses, their music streams rose 453 and 970 per cent, respectively.

Because Miller and Juice Wrld shared similar causes of death, their posthumous reception is at the epicentre of concerns about artistic intent and commercialism. 

While Circles and “Godzilla” were both projects worked on by the artists before their deaths, other proposed posthumous records raise questions about how the musician’s estates are managed and the ethics of profiting from deceased artists.

But posthumous album releases are nothing new in hip hop or music for that matter. Following the murder of Tupac Shakur, Interscope Records and his mother’s record label Amaru Entertainment released more albums than the rapper had during his lifetime. 

And after The Notorious B.I.G.’s death, his acclaimed Life After Death album came out and reached the top of Billboard’s Hot 100.

Similarly, Nipsey Hussle, who was murdered last March, was awarded with the best rap performance for his single “Racks In The Middle” at the 62nd Grammy Awards.

While these examples highlight projects that artists intended to release during their lifetime, the story of XXXTentacion’s posthumous releases show how this process can be prioritized on producing content for profits. Before the 20-year-old’s murder in 2018, he reportedly signed a $10-million record deal with EMPIRE Distribution inherited by his mother along with the rights to his estate.

Similarly to Miller and Juice Wrld, XXXTentacion’s popularity soared after his death and his streams rose 549 per cent. Since then, his estate has published four albums, including the most recent Bad Vibes Forever released on Dec. 6 and ahead of this, a brand new merchandise line was announced.

But if posthumous music was a spectrum of artistic intent, Bad Vibes Forever and Miller’s Circles feel like they would be on opposite ends. Miller’s album consists of 12 fully fledged songs and was produced primarily by Jon Brion. Comparatively, Bad Vibes Forever consists of 25 never­-released recordings made by XXXTentacion retrofitted into songs by 13 producers. 

The contrast between these two posthumous records shows the difference between honouring an artist’s legacy versus capitalizing on their image. Since Circles was always intended to be a companion piece to Miller’s 2018 album Swimming, it feels like a part of the musician’s vision.

But Bad Vibes Forever’s endless tracklist of what seems to be every demo recording XXXTentacion made during his lifetime set to unrelated beats comes across as shovelled out content to promote merchandise.

For these reasons, Circles has received much acclaim and has been praised by critics as a “fitting farewell.” Whereas, Bad Vibes Forever had poor responses and Pitchfork’s review described it as “more of a monument to XXXTentacion’s brand than his artistry.”

Like Miller and XXXTentacion, Juice Wrld’s family and label announced that they will be releasing posthumous projects “to honour Juice’s talents, his spirit … by sharing unreleased music.” However, it is unconfirmed whether the upcoming albums will continue with his habit of glorifying drug use after his tragic overdose at the age of 21. 

Juice Wrld reportedly had about 2,000 songs recorded at the time of his death that could be potentially used for future albums. But even if 100 Juice Wrld songs were released each year, there would be enough material for two decades worth of releases.

While there might be “no right answer” when it comes to releasing posthumous music and honouring a deceased artist’s legacy, the decisions made by the estates of Miller and XXXTenacion reveal two distinct paths Juice Wrld’s family could take for the upcoming album.

Noah Callaghan/ Staff Writer

Photo: Flickr/ Tyler Merbler

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