The Art — and Spectacle — of the Posthumous Release
The death of an entertainer leaves a rift between their body of work and their unreleased creations. That leaves creators the task of seamlessly getting over it.
Losing an artist sometimes feels like losing a family member. While our face to face interaction with them may not have been anything more than a two minute meet & greet, we still feel like we knew them. Their artistry was our escape from the harsh realities of life and when it seemed like nobody was there — they were. All we would have to do is press play and they would arrive with the same comforting energy every single time.
With all artists there are songs that exist that we don’t get to hear. This happens for a variety of reasons, and there’s nothing we can do about it from the fan/listener side. When an artist passes away, these songs go through a more tenuous process before being shared with the world — whether the artist wanted them to be or not. As a “real fan” of an artist, you naturally anticipate new music but at the same time, would not want to do something that feels like you’re betraying them.
Considering the power of streaming services and digital files, it’s easier than ever to release a posthumous album for an artist. Rumors of our beloved music artist’s work coming out builds a lot of anticipation, and listeners can only hope that whoever is putting it together gets it right. Depending on the artist, there is a certain potential that can be reached, but realistic mindsets are just as important.
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The easiest way to gauge what will occur is to look at how releases happened while the artist was alive. If an artist’s based their career through social media engagement, we can expect a rollout for a posthumous album to be centered around videos of them engaging in the same behavior. Or, their team may try to show a different side of them in these videos in an attempt to reshape their public perception. If an artist’s focus was on how meticulous they were in the studio, we can expect behind-the-scenes videos of them working on the album to accompany the release.
One of the best examples of a posthumous release is Mac Miller’s Circles, arriving at the top of 2020. His previous album, Swimming released in 2018. The two were meant to be connected with the theme of “Swimming in Circles” but his untimely death prevented this format from materializing. Even so, the album was just as well put together as its predecessor was. Producer Jon Brion, who had worked with Miller directly on both, completed it.
As listeners, we can only depend on what we see on social media to inform us of new music, and when and how we will receive it. When whatever set standard we have is not met, we feel obligated to express our frustration.
Supporters praised the accompanying music videos for Circles where many featured nature based aesthetic loops combined with images of Mac while one was an endless scrolling of actual YouTube comments from these very same supporters showing their love and paying their respects. These videos filled their hearts with a wealth of emotions as well as how his family handled the entire release process.
The releases of Pop Smoke’s posthumous album got off to a very rocky start but ended on a high note. We all remember the situation with the original album cover for Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon which shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Designer Virgil Abloh, known for his brand Off-White and doing “THIS” to things was the designer of the original cover which was horrible — and Twitter ate him up for it.
What happened just felt disrespectful and just wrong — the one we have now is actually minimalist, likely hastily done after the backlash but much more pleasing to the eye and tone of the album. We have to wonder who truly approved it in the first place — and if Pop himself would have approved. He likely would have been forever grateful for the fact Virgil did it, but — we can only guess what the reaction to the cover itself would have been.
The album dropped on July 3, 2020 with 19 tracks and multiple features while a deluxe edition that took the tracklist to a whopping 34 tracks dropped on July 20, 2020 which is Pop Smoke’s birthday. Opinions on this decision are split, but the fact the album shows a variety of sounds/lanes from Pop is undeniable.
The aforementioned artists are key parts of our generation and thus have a totally different set of circumstances, especially when compared to legendary artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, who have had multiple posthumous releases and special edition compilations. Of course since they were such prolific recording artists, this is to be expected — but for artists like them who prided themselves on ownership of their masters and other related avenues, the situation is quite different.
When an artist passes away, these songs go through a more tenuous process before being shared with the world — whether the artist wanted them to be or not.
Michael Jackson’s Xscape album released in 2014 with a standard and deluxe edition. The deluxe edition featured 17 songs, with eight of them being the original versions of the songs on the standard edition, plus a bonus track. The biggest difference with these was the posthumously-added production on the standard versions, and on some songs these changes shifted the entire mood of them. Some received this as producers taking advantage of him and completely reshaping the vision he had for these tracks. Had the original songs only been released though, they likely would not have made as much money. But, with their versions being on both the standard and deluxe editions, they can make money off of both.
A well executed posthumous release for an artist is a gift to the fans. When the execution is poor, fans will take it as a personal attack. As listeners, we can only depend on what we see on social media to inform us of new music, and when and how we will receive it. When whatever set standard we have is not met, we feel obligated to express our frustration. However, the team in charge of these releases should have the right people before this point is not reached. They should be the ones who have been there for years — and put the best interest of the artist and their fanbase first. You cannot expect someone who is not tapped into the fanbase to know what is best for them.