The Problem with Posthumous Albums

Sinéad Dunphy ponders the question: Do posthumous albums continue the legacy or exploit the memory of the artist?

It’s always painful to hear about the untimely death of an artist you feel had so much more to give. However, that doesn’t mean that any unfinished material left behind by musicians should be on the table for release considering they aren’t around to consent to it. Posthumous albums have always been controversial. They are often seen as exploitative cash grabs and as disrespectful to the integrity of the artist since that their labels release music that the artist may not have been happy with. It’s understandable that the loved ones of an artist may feel it is appropriate to share their work in order to keep their spirit alive, celebrate their legacy and to not deprive the world of their gift. However, through a more sceptical lens, it would be easy to assume that many families and business associates of artists who have passed may see a posthumous album as an easy way to cash in on the publicity that the individual’s death garnered.

The past year has seen posthumous albums from the likes of XXXTentacion, Lil Peep and Mac Miller, the latter of which is a perfect example of a posthumous album done well. Circles contributed positively to Mac Miller’s legacy and it closed the chapter that he had started before he passed. It’s clear to see that great care was taken to ensure that Mac’s legacy was respected and his artistic vision upheld. Circles was intended to be a companion album to 2018’s Swimming so, the fact that Miller was so far along in the process of making the album before his death and had collaborated so closely with producer Jon Brion on both projects made the process a lot easier. The musician has production credits on 75% of the new album and only one featured artist, Baro. The album feels like Mac. It feels intimate, special and true to his vision. The Mac Miller estate have conducted themselves in the most respectful way, only posting once on official Mac Miller social media on January 8th to promote the release the following week. The family even expressed their concerns regarding respect and exploitation in the promotional post, stating their wish “to communicate meaningfully while keeping sacred what should be kept sacred”. Circles was released out of love and respect for Miller, it’s plain to see. However, not every posthumous release feels as justified as this one.

Perhaps the most prolific artist in the posthumous album field is legendary rapper Tupac Shakur. 2Pac released four studio albums before passing and has had seven posthumous releases, the first of which was completed before his death. The artist’s mother, Afeni Shakur has been deeply involved in her son’s posthumous affairs and there’s no doubt that she has acted out of love and admiration for her son. Part of the reason for the rapper having so many posthumous releases is that he was so productive and creative in his lifetime, leaving behind him a treasure trove of unreleased material.

However, 2Pac’s numerous posthumous releases have seen him inadvertently collaborating with artists he never even met. One such example is his fifth posthumous album Loyal To The Game (2004) which was produced by Eminem and featured Eminem himself along with associated acts such as 50 Cent and Obie Trice. It’s obvious that Eminem was a huge fan of Tupac, as evidenced by the sweet handwritten letter that he sent to Afeni Shakur along with a portrait of her son that Eminem drew himself. Clearly Eminem didn’t enter into the task lightly. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that he had never even met Pac so who’s to say that he would be happy with putting his legacy in Em’s hands? Eminem’s production process involved adjusting the pace and pitch of 2Pac’s vocals and even chopping and pasting them to make it sound like Shakur said “G-Unit” and “Em”. I’m sure this was well intentioned but it’s also arguably pretty distasteful. The whole project just seems like Eminem living out a fanboy fantasy rather than doing what feels natural and like a service to Pac’s legacy.  

From Amy Winehouse to Michael Jackson to Biggie, regardless of the intentions behind a posthumous release, it is undeniable that it runs the risk of tarnishing a legacy and betraying the wishes of the deceased. It’s a tricky grey area and may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some fans. Others, however, will just be happy to hear more from their favourite artist gone too soon. The best way to approach a posthumous album is to only use work that was near completion in the artist’s lifetime and only use collaborators that worked closely with the artist. Otherwise, it becomes a kind of experiment that dilutes the integrity of their discography.