Editorial Notebook

How ethical are posthumous albums?

Posthumous music notoriously gathers mixed opinions from listeners. With the commercial triumph some posthumous songs receive, that reality may slip the mind. The track you are listening to was not approved for release by the artist it honors. Listeners may dismiss this fact and declare that it does not matter as long as the song is good, but does it? Are posthumous albums ethical?

When a successful artist dies, particularly musicians and writers, the family or the estate may likely choose to “honor their legacy” by releasing their works posthumously. This claim is sometimes valid in regards to giving fans high-quality art that the artist would have likely approved if alive. Still, that claim can sometimes be used as a throwaway line to cover some cash-grabbing tendencies. I have listened to a plentiful number of posthumous albums in recent years, all of which, to me, can be easily separated into three categories: tasteful, starting off tasteful but becoming tasteless, and just tasteless.

What makes a posthumous release tasteful? To me, first and foremost, it is when the family is involved. I think when the artist’s family spearheads the process, usually but not always, the thoughts of putting out lousy work for a quick buck go straight out the window. My magnum opus example of posthumous legacies goes to Mac Miller, who died in 2018. Miller’s family released only one album, Circles, in 2020, which consisted of work Miller had almost completed with an album cover he had already chosen. The family only had to tie up some tiny loose ends he did not finish, and they released his sixth and final album to the approval and appreciation from both critics and fans. The same could be said for Lil Peep, who died in 2017. In 2018, his mother and producer released his second and final album, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, to primarily positive reception. His mother described the album as what Peep would have wanted, considering he had already released the Pt. 1. What made Miller and Peep’s posthumous albums tasteful was that they contained songs they had entirely or mainly completed before their passing, not some shelved demos they never intended on releasing.

Mac Miller and Lil Peep are rare examples of artists truly being respected by their estate rather than oversaturating their streaming page with obviously incomplete songs. That same situation initially seemed to be the case for Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke, but slowly, their names became more revenue-generating. After Juice WRLD died in 2019, his family released Legends Never Die in 2020, which I think is his best album. But then, in 2021, they released Fighting Demons, which was a considerable step down in quality, in my opinion. While I don’t necessarily believe that this project had any intentions other than releasing what they deemed Juice WRLD’s best songs, I think they should have kept Legends Never Die as the last album because that essentially contained the best songs he had that were simply unreleased. There is another album on the way called The Party Never Ends, which I hope will include better tracks to release. Juice WRLD’s catalog has much to pick through, considering he died with about 2,000 songs in the vault. The same example applies to Pop Smoke, who died in 2020. A few months later, his family and 50 Cent worked on releasing his debut album, Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon, which I thought was great. I can infer Pop Smoke was not in the studio as often as Juice WRLD, and thus, he didn’t have a huge back catalog. This led us to the next posthumous album, Faith, which his friends claimed contained all the remaining songs he had left, and some were not of releasable quality after listening, in my opinion.

Now comes the blatantly tasteless releases. These releases had no care or respect for the artist’s legacy and were only released by the royalty owners to fill their wallets, in my opinion. The most potent example is certainly XXXTentacion. After he died in 2018, six months later, his mother and team put out a 10-track, mostly incomplete album called SKINS. I remember upon first listening being underwhelmed, but I did not care because I knew it was all the unreleased material he must have had, which I was eventually proven wrong. In 2019, his mother and team released another album, Bad Vibes Forever, with 25 tracks. This album was a collection of odds and ends XXXTentacion had recorded that should have never seen the light of day. There were so many features to fill in the one hook he had recorded with some artists he likely would have never collaborated with, such as Noah Cyrus and Blink-182, making me think they were only put in to draw attention. In my opinion, Bad Vibes Forever should have been more appropriately titled Various Artists (including XXXTentacion).

With these examples, the question of how ethical posthumous albums are is hard to answer. If one were against music being released posthumously, a counter argument could be, “The Notorious B.I.G died sixteen days before the release of his album Life After Death. The album was intended to be released, so it shouldn’t be now that he is dead?” It’s a complex decision on what an artist would have intended or not. Some have already prepared their desires if they die mid-career, like Anderson Paak, who got a tattoo on his arm detailing his wishes that none of his unreleased music gets revealed when he is gone.

I have always been fascinated by posthumous music. Hearing what my favorite artists had kept in the vault or awaiting release has always appealed to me. While it would be hypocritical for me to dismiss posthumous music entirely, I do harbor some reservations. Ideally, such releases should only occur when the artist's family is reasonably certain that the work represents the artist’s intended vision and desire for their fans to experience. This stands in contrast to hastily unearthed scraps of forgotten voice memos. Rather than outright opposition, posthumous music merits fair evaluation, deserving both celebration and critique as circumstances warrant.