In recent years, the world has experienced the loss of musical artists at the peak of their popularity. Sometimes, though, a part of these artists is kept alive through the release of their music posthumously. Recently, we have heard previously unreleased music from the likes of Mac Miller, Juice WRLD, and Pop Smoke following their deaths. While some are thrilled at the chance to hear more of their favorite artists’ music, others are skeptical about the ethics behind releasing an album without artists’ consent.
Posthumous albums became popular in the 1990s after the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. In both cases, the artists had completed, but not yet released the albums “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory,” and “Life After Death,” respectively. In an interview with L.A. Times, Vibe Magazine music editor Sheena Lester said of Shakur’s posthumous album, “If you’re listening to a CD that can sort of serve as the soundtrack to your life, you’re going to relate. And you’re going to want to hear more.” Since their lives ended abruptly, and at their peak of their popularity, releasing the albums of these hip hop icons posthumously added to their legacy and helped the world mourn their loss.
The release of “Circles” by Mac Miller, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2018, was also intended to help heal the wounds left behind in his absence. According to the New Yorker, Miller worked closely with Fiona Apple, Kanye West, and producer Jon Brion, who has also worked with Beyoncé, on creating an album that he hoped would represent his artistic evolution. Miller’s former manager Christian Clancy said in an interview with the New Yorker, “The estate, the family — I think everyone — kind of knew that once you can get past the grief, as best you can, this had to come out because it was so good.”
When albums are highly collaborative like Miller’s, some question who will profit from the success of the album and whether it is ethical for anyone but the artist to profit. After the death of 21-year-old rapper Lil Peep in 2017, the New Yorker reported that his record label, First Access Entertainment, took advantage of the fact that he had not left a will by releasing his unfinished music for profit. His mother, Liza Womack, filed a lawsuit against them, claiming that decisions about her son’s music were being made without correct consultation and that they had exploited his assets.
Some argue that the only way to make sure the artist’s wishes are being fulfilled is to release music that was already in its final phases of production. In an article by the Economist, Miller’s family stated that he was “well into the process” of making “Circles” and intended for the world to hear it. Similar to the cases of Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G, there was little room for error when deciding to release Miller’s album because it had already been completed. Conversely, and much to Womack’s dismay, Lil Peep’s remaining music was scattered and his record label began making remixes and mash-ups without ever knowing what the artist himself would have done differently. Miller’s former sound engineer Vic Wainstein echoed this sentiment when he spoke to the New Yorker: “If Mac would have still been around going through this stuff, it would have changed another ten times.”
Geoff Mayfield, Billboard’s director of charts, says that the Notorious B.I.G’s album, “Life After Death,” was “certainly a contender to debut at No. 1, but his first album never threatened to do that. One big national chain said that its sales were four times the original projection.” In addition, his first album, “Ready to Die,” sold an additional 10,000 copies after he was murdered. Similarly, Shakur’s album, “All Eyez on Me” sold 67,000 copies in the first week following his death in 1997. His posthumous album, “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory,” outperformed his former album in the charts, according to the Washington Post. “Not surprisingly, it opened at No. 1 with first-week sales of 664,000.”