Where should the line be drawn when it comes to posthumous releases?

With the release of XXXTentacion’s Skins along with the many, many monetization schemes that his label has put his brand through since his death, one has to wonder if this has begun to toe the line between respect and exploitation. The numerous collaborations with artists that he might never have worked with, plus with the potential lifetime biopic that’s about to begin shooting; XXXTentacion’s brand has been more prominent in the hip-hop release cycle now than when he was alive. 

Yet, it’s difficult to judge whether the choices being made for these artists after their death would have been what they intended for themselves. Their passing provides them with coverage that greatly exemplifies their exposure, granting their brand access to many resources that might not have been possible if they were still alive.

Lil Peep was an underground darling that championed punk rap. His drug-laden lyricism and unfaltering angst attracted a small but dedicated fan base that adored his music. While at the same time, much of the mainstream hated his work; brushing it off as an amateurish imitation of 2000s punk rock. Anthony Fantano – arguably the most influential music critic working today, called his mixtape Hellboy one of the worst projects of 2016, and his debut album Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 1 a laughable attempt at a co-opted trap emo. On the other hand, Pitchfork – one of the most prestigious music publications in the world, heralded Lil Peep as the future of emo. Fans of the genre were split to say the least. 

Yet since his abrupt death late last year, Lil Peep’s music has grown to become one of the forefront leaders of the emo resurgence (much like Pitchfork predicted). The admiration and love that he garnered were unprecedented. Voices of hate that once surrounded his music all but dissipated and was replaced with support and inquisition. 

Close to the anniversary of his passing, his 2nd studio album and 1st posthumous project was released – Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2. His mother called it a ‘model for honoring young deceased artists’ work’, as she heavily involved herself in the direction taken by his longtime producers and label. A heavy amount of care and respect can be felt from his recent string of releases this year. From his collaboration with Clams Casino on “4 GOLD CHAINS” to “Spotlight” with Marshmello. Though these songs were few and far in between, the context and motivation provided were often to justify that Peep’s artistic vision was being carried out.

“Falling Down”, however, is where the waters start to get murky. Immediately following the release of the song, the prior relationship that the two rappers had between each other was called into question. An alleged beef existed as X’s close associate Ski Mask the Slump God once called Peep a ‘faggot‘, and Peep ‘explicitly rejected XXX for his abuse of women, spent time and money getting XXX’s songs removed from his Spotify playlists’ according to fellow GothBoiClique member Fish Narc. Peep has also, allegedly, never heard of XXXTentacion’s contribution to the track before his death. 

Lil Peep’s family, friends and fans all vehemently hated the misuse of his leftover material; while XXXTentacion’s camp milked his corpse for all he’s worth, freely using any material he had left in the vault for collaborations and more new material. Here we are presented with two sides of the same coin – both camps have released one posthumous album each to middling reception. Lil Peep’s project was criticized for being too ‘polished’, his raw emotive vocals sacrificed for a more commercial sound. While XXXTentacion’s album sounded like mostly bottom-of-the-barrel leftovers, it did stay true to his familiar sound; most likely tracks that have been recorded before his passing.

The issue of posthumous releases unfortunately lacks a definitive method when it comes to fulfilling the goals of the artists involved. Any project announced is met with skepticism as insurmountable expectations are set. This doesn’t mean no new material shouldn’t be released after their passing though. Perhaps it’s not as much what the goals of said artists are but rather what they would have wanted from their music.

2Pac’s Eminem-produced Loyal to the Game was an experiment in updating him to a more modern, contemporary hip-hop sound that ultimately failed, despite Em’s best intentions. It’s a largely forgotten album in a sea of posthumous releases from the rap legend, but it did affirm the fact that it’s a tall order to switch up an artist’s sound to something that they weren’t meant to be in. 2Pac clearly had a specific soundscape in mind when he recorded his vocals, so adapting them to a wholly different beat meant sacrificing everything that made him appealing in the first place.

Alternatively, The Notorious B.I.G’s Life After Death is heralded as a rap masterpiece despite its posthumous status. Finished with the vocal recordings before his passing, the final mixing and production felt perfectly in tune with Biggie’s style as the record was an improvement on all fronts compared to his debut album – Ready to Die. Of course, the album might have been 100% completed by the time of his death so a better, more recent example would Sean Price’s Imperius Rex, released in 2017.

Dropping 2 years after his death, the album was a project made with love and labor by those close around him; seeking to recreate the gritty, grimy aesthetic that he excelled in. And they very much did. Nearly as impeccable as the studio albums that preceded his passing, Imperius Rex is a landmark achievement for every and all posthumous release to come. The respect that his collaborators had for his work can be felt throughout. 

Eventually, it boils down to the simple fact that these releases need to respect the artist’s original sound. Lil Peep’s album tried to improve on it to questionable success; XXXTentacion’s stuck to its roots and appealed to his core fanbase. Every posthumous release will come off as a greedy cash grab to someone, but all that matters is that the music released is coming from the artist themselves and not the labels.

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