For the past two weeks, music history has been made on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart; the top 2 charting albums are both posthumous releases. The first spot is taken by Legends Never Die, the bitterly ironic and wholly beautiful release by Juice WRLD, who died at only 21. The second spot currently goes to Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon by the up-and-coming Pop Smoke, who was only 20 when he passed. Both albums were highly anticipated and critically acclaimed, reaching 497,000 and 251,000 sales respectively and critics lauding both albums as solid visions of what the artists would have wanted. But it’s important to note that for every Legends Never Die, there is an Everybody’s Everything: a poorly assembled project that portrays itself more as a collection of badly mixed voice notes than a cohesive project. This is where the real problem concerning posthumous albums exists: how far they can present themselves as honoring the original artist’s craft and not the money-grabbing cash bags they often become.
Take two posthumous albums that were released within two months of one another; Lil Peep’s Everybody’s Everything and Mac Miller’s Circles. The former, although certainly not a horrible album, was a complete mess, with way too many tracks that, at times, seem more like tracks with Lil Peep features than actual Lil Peep tracks. The actual quality of the tracks varies, but there is no questioning that Peep’s record label viewed the release as little more than a means of gaining streams. Circles, however, is a completely different type of album—it has an unmistakable lack of studio interference, and the record is thematically and sonically cohesive beyond measure. It’s this type of posthumous album that clearly exists not as a profit-grabber, but as a work of art that truly depicts what the artist originally wanted.
These two albums exist on completely opposite sides of the modicum of posthumous albums—but overall, what purpose do posthumous albums actually end up serving? For one, they allow fans of artists to feel almost vindicated; these albums can end up serving as final goodbyes. I still remember listening to Circles for the first time, sitting alone in my room and listening to Mac Miller ruminate on his depression and anxiety. I couldn’t stop the wave of emotions as I listened to the 26-year-old artist softly sing with an almost predictive tone about his death.
That’s what good posthumous albums do. They hit you in the heart, because you’re listening to the album that is supposed to represent the artist at his or her artistic peak. The album is supposed to be the artist at their best, and you can’t help but tear up because you know how far they could’ve gone. It’s the same reaction I felt when I listened to Legends Never Die only six months later, mourning the loss of yet another hugely talented and extremely young artist. With the exception of a select few collaborators, the album was just Juice WRLD through and through, with painfully sad lyrics that, when considering the rapper’s passing, just become even more tragic. But Lil Peep’s Everybody’s Everything made me sad for a completely different reason; sitting on my bed and listening to Peep’s voice, I could audibly hear the changes made by record labels and outside producers. Any leaked song that made it onto the album was massively changed. It was just depressing.
The decision for record labels to put out posthumous albums is, from an economic standpoint, completely valid: these albums tend to be the best-selling albums of an artists’ life, as people often stream them to, in their own way, honor these artists. But it’s these same record labels that tend to release these albums specifically to get money out of the fans; works such as Everybody’s Everything tends to be a collection of voice memos, short samples, and verses that don’t seem to belong on the song in the first place. Legends Never Die definitely subverts the trope, but it’s a trope that has yet to be subverted by record labels.
By Kenneth Kim
Illustration by Julia Tabor