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Who Profits From the Posthumous Album Release?

Hit projects from late rappers like Pop Smoke and DMX have become commonplace. But who's it really for?

posthumous rap albums
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    “Do not continue anything in my name if I die. You got this on record,” Tyler, the Creator told XXL in October 2021. “If I ever die, I don’t want people to put my music out… [with] features with people I do not fuck with. The companies are over with. Everything’s done.”

    Amid a continuous tide of posthumous releases, where quality and quantity battle against each other in the streaming era, that sentiment is becoming louder. In fact, Tyler’s fellow Californian Anderson .Paak went as far as to tattoo his perspective across his right forearm back in August: “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.”

    Tyler and .Paak are two of the more outspoken artists on this increasingly common practice; otherwise, it’s largely the fans who aren’t afraid to make their opinions heard. Then there are the label executives, who think they’re doing fans a service by providing closure and continuing an artist’s legacy — or at least, they’d like it to come off that way.

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    In 2021 alone, several posthumous projects have been released in rapid succession, with some labels only just waiting for the ink on the obituaries to dry.

    Barely one month after news of DMX’s death broke, new music was already on the way. “As fans around the world continue to celebrate the life of hip-hop icon DMX,” a press release from Def Jam in May 2021 noted, “his career-long producer and friend Swizz Beatz announces [the] legendary rapper’s posthumous studio album of all new original material, EXODUS.”

    However, many consumers have become savvy enough to recognize these efforts as acts of capitalism — attempts to gain revenue on the backs of fallen legends or rising stars that weren’t able to fully see their limelight. “Record companies are vultures,” one user tweeted in response to the EXODUS announcement. “Let the man rest. Unless he expressly wanted this music out soon while he was here, you only see death as dollar signs,” another wrote.


    The debate around posthumous releases may be about as old as the concept itself, which dates back to at least the 19th century, when composer Frédéric Chopin reportedly had a deathbed wish “that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed.” Sound familiar?

    Nevertheless, Chopin’s musical executor chose 23 unpublished piano pieces and grouped them into opuses 66-73, which were then published in 1855. (Billboard didn’t start publishing its album chart until 1945, so we can only speculate as to the numbers that Chopin’s posthumous releases might have pulled off.)

    The procedure has continued well into our current moment, of course. But as recently as a few decades ago, fans were more willing to open their hearts along with their wallets. The posthumous album, at that time, was still something special — momentous, even — especially within hip-hop.

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    There are examples, certainly, of when it works. Notorious B.I.G had a short career, yet is still considered among the hip-hop GOATs — in large part for what he delivered when alive, but more so for his 1997 magnum opus Life After Death, released 16 days after he was shot and killed.

    The album and its title are especially eerie, but the tracks serve as an autobiographical work that could not have been completed without Biggie’s touch. Diddy or any of his affiliates likely could have told his story well by putting together his unreleased cuts, but it would have never been the same as receiving them directly from the source. As a result, complaints about the 25-track Life After Death, which clocks in at just over two hours, were (and remain) few and far between.

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    The same cannot be said for 1999’s Born Again or 2005’s Duets: The Final Chapter. Similar to Life, both latter releases were long, but critics could tell they were thrown together as opposed to neatly arranged. Method Man, in particular, felt Duets had “n****s on that album that B.I.G. would have never rocked with, for real.”


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