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Do posthumous albums exploit or celebrate an artist’s legacy?

Riding a wave of controversy and die-hard fans to the top, XXXTentacion’s sophomore album ‘?‘ hit number one on the Billboard charts in 2018; in the very same year, he was shot and killed.

His previous scandals evaporated as the public grieved over the young, untimely death of an artist, mourning his promising career, which had ended as quickly as it began.

Except, it hadn’t really ended. Skins, his posthumous album was released in the months following, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200. Though he wasn’t around to see it, XXXTentacion’s death had increased his sales numbers by 1,603%.

The posthumous effect

After an artist dies, their work enjoys a surge of attention. This isn’t anything new. Think of Michael Jackson, David Bowie, or Prince, and the period of reverence that came after their deaths.

Messages of grief and appreciation pour out over social media, and music sales reliably spike. This effect is a tricky combination of nostalgia and remembered mortality: a regular, beloved fixture in one’s life has died, and that can be upsetting to long-time fans.

These unpleasant reminders of life’s impermanence can cause fans to cling to commemorative pieces of an artist’s legacy, an impulse to “keep the memory alive”.

Music companies are aware of this desire and leverage it to sell lucrative posthumous albums, merchandise, and collectibles. Modern jazz legend Chick Corea passed away on February 9th, 2021, and since then, my inbox has been flooded with emails advertising commemorative CD bundles, tribute concerts, and quote books.

These purchases are framed in terms of legacy and memory: “Where Chick Corea becomes Eternal!” “Don’t miss this tribute to Chick!” “The Chick Corea Legacy CD Bundle Sale!” We devour every piece of an artist offered to us, and memorialize them with our wallets.

Tarnishing a legacy?

But these vault-emptying posthumous releases often fail to meet the artistic standards of the musician, who never intended for their drafts to be published.

Releasing these unformed works might tarnish their legacy and disrespect their artistic vision, rather than celebrating their life’s work.

Some musicians have started to take precautions against this kind of exploitation.

R&B crooner Anderson .Paak went so far as to tattoo part of his will on his forearm, ensuring it would be seen by fans, and eventually, his coroner.

It reads: “When I’m gone, please don’t release any posthumous albums or songs with my name attached. Those were just demos and never intended to be heard by the public”.

While Anderson .Paak made his wishes undeniably clear, other artists didn’t have the foresight, especially those who died young.

To this point, emerging rappers have been dying at alarming rates, many of them barely into adulthood.

Losing our youth

Lil Peep, Pop Smoke, and Juice WRLD all passed away before their 22nd birthday, and all three have since had posthumous work released by their labels.

Very few 20 or 21-year-olds are concerned with writing a will, so it’s impossible to know if any of them would have wanted this. Though some fans were grateful to have another piece of their favorite musician, others considered these releases to be exploitative cash grabs.

Both viewpoints can be understood. The lost beauty these artists might have created is upsetting to consider; unreleased demos take on the tragic aura of unfinished masterpieces.

Furthermore, sometimes posthumous albums really do cement a legacy. The Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous album Life After Death received wide critical acclaim and secured his position as one of the rap greats.

On the other hand, 2 Pac has had seven albums released after his death, and some of them are so rough around the edges that they fail to reach the standards set during his life.

It’s a complicated, case-by-case matter, especially when the artist’s family gets involved. 

The case of Amy Winehouse

The production of Amy Winehouse’s posthumous album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, was composed of scrapped-together material from her emerging days as an artist.

Her father, Mitch Winehouse, worked to restore corrupted files with the goal of celebrating his daughter’s musical beginnings. “I want Amy’s fans to hear all this stuff so they can see she started there and she ended up here,” he said to the BBC.

He was concerned with his daughter’s legacy, and wanted her to be remembered for “her talent, her generosity and the love she showed us all” and “not just her troubles with addiction”.

When questioned about the money he might stand to make from this release, he said while it was true that “her music still makes a lot of money”, he would “give up every penny just to have [his] daughter back”.

David Joseph, the Chairman/CEO of Winehouse’s label, Universal Music UK, had a different stance on her posthumous releases.

Winehouse’s third studio album was in the works when she passed away, but instead of dredging up half-finished songs for a posthumous release, he deleted the demos.

“It was a moral thing. Taking a stem or a vocal is not ­something that would ever happen on my watch. It now can’t happen on anyone else’s.” 

David Joseph, Chairman/CEO Universal Music UK

How do we consume posthumous music?

When seeking to decide the morality of a posthumous release, the waters are muddy.

Massive profits incentivize the release of unpolished music, but despite the whirlpool of money-complicating intentions, there are undoubtedly some who set out with the goal of preserving a beloved artist’s life work.

Where do we draw the line? Should only intentional, completed works be included in a musician’s body of work? Or should Picasso’s grocery lists be considered art, enjoyed alongside his paintings?

Musicians should be able to decide for themselves. They might consider taking a note from Anderson .Paak, and define that intention before it’s too late.