When I’m Gone: is it ethical to release music by deceased artists?

Anderson .Paak's new tattoo. Image via Twitter.

Some of 2021's most hyped albums are from Pop Smoke, DMX and now, Aaliyah. So what's the difference between honouring a legacy and cashing in?

Anderson .Paak is taking no chances. This week, the Californian singer and rapper shared a photo of a new tattoo that scans like an extract from his last will and testament to ensure the record industry can’t do to him what it has done to others. When I’m gone, please don’t release any posthumous albums or songs with my name attached,” reads the text inked on .Paak’s arm. Those were just demos and never intended to be heard by the public.”

The message was co-signed by Lana Del Rey, who shared the photo via Instagram. It’s in my will but it’s also on his tattoo,” she captioned the post.

Such drastic measures to control his post-death output has seen .Paak enter an old debate that’s been particularly prominent lately: what are the ethics around releasing previously unheard music by dead artists?

The phenomenon isn’t limited to rap – The Doors’ An American Prayer was released in 1978 some seven years after Jim Morrison’s demise; Rick Rubin continued to put out music he recorded with Johnny Cash after the country legend passed away in 2003 – but the genre does tend to produce a disproportionate amount of posthumous releases.

Rappers often record prolifically, creating huge archives of vocal tracks to be tapped. Too many stars have died young – Lil Peep, Juice WRLD and Mac Miller are among those to meet early ends in the last few years, leaving behind large quantities of unreleased work. And placing rap verses over new production is a relatively easy process when compared to drastically freshening up a pop or rock song.

It’s important to point out that posthumous album” is generally used as a catch-all term for any album released after an artist’s death, without taking into consideration whether or not the project was completed.

2pac (credited as Makaveli) had more or less finished work on The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory – which was released in November 1996, around two months after his death. The same goes for The Notorious B.I.G and his 97 opus Life After Death. These albums are core pillars of their artistic legacies. When I spoke to Swizz Beatz earlier this year, he insisted that DMX had finalised the recently released Exodus before he died in April and he was annoyed that the project was being called a posthumous album, no doubt because of the negative connotations connected to that term.

When records are finished – or, in some cases, produced from scratch – without the artist present to guide the process, things can become morally questionable. As Anderson .Paak’s latest ink alludes to, music that artists never intended to see the light of day is often commodified. It’s reasonable to ask if the practice goes against their wishes.

2Pac recorded at a furious pace. When he died in 1996, he left behind vast archives of material. For years, Pac’s unheard work was treated as a commercial resource as album after album was assembled from his discarded recordings. Verses were placed on beats the rapper never heard; collaborators he never worked with were invited to join him on songs (Nas! Ashanti! Elton John! Dido!). As for Biggie, those charged with protecting his legacy cobbled together an album in 2005 titled Duets: The Final Chapter, where collaborators that never existed in the Brooklyn behemoth’s universe, such as Eminem, The Game and T.I., could make up for the lack of Big verses they had to work with.

Pop Smoke’s recent posthumous album Faith, which was released on what would have been murdered rising star Pop Smoke’s 22nd birthday, is said to feature reference tracks among its odds and ends, which are padded out by guest artists on most tracks. Since his passing, the two Pop records have included long deluxe versions – with early hit single Dior tucked on the end of both, presumably to boost the streams.

Some two decades after her death, a new Aaliyah record is said to be in the works, featuring Chris Brown, Future, and other artists of a completely different generation. Drake once penned a letter to the singer he never knew personally, who died when he was 14. He has long sought to be involved in a new Aaliyah project and finally, it appears he’ll get his chance.

Charlatans who claim to have the power to contact the dead are denounced for messing with bereaved people’s memories of their loved ones. Isn’t aggressively recontextualising a deceased artist’s voice and words is a similar pursuit? Putting out new records that are often assembled from scraps to sit in their discographies is an act of legacy trampling. It is the capitalist pursuit of squeezing a person’s commercial potential for every last bit of juice.

Yet it’s not impossible to put out unreleased recordings in a way that feels appropriate, egalitarian even. For all the legal wrangling between Courtney Love and Nirvana’s surviving members over You Know You’re Right – the last song recorded by the band before Kurt Cobain’s death – upon release in 2002, it immediately felt like it belonged in the band’s canon. It was just one song, yes, but it boosted Nirvana’s legacy, particularly as it was unveiled as part of a cycle of releases that included a greatest hits compilation and the meticulously assembled box set of rarities, With the Lights Out.

But this puts us on the rather shaky ground of it being morally OK to release music after an artist dies if it’s good”, a subjective metric that’s impossible to police.

The difficulty of determining what is and isn’t OK to put out if laid bare by the fact that .Paak’s tattoo is somewhat ambiguous. He specifically mentions his demos” as being prohibited, but what about completed songs or albums? You can already imagine the future legal and moral wrangling.

Does it depend on who is championing the project? Former collaborators and loved ones may appear to be responsible custodians of an artist’s body of work – Swizz was Executive Producer on DMX’s Exodus and could reasonably be expected to bring it to the market; Mac Miller producer Jon Brion dedicated himself to finishing [the album] Circles based on his time and conversations with Malcolm” – but the record doesn’t always bear that out. Biggie’s ugly posthumous albums were championed by his friend and chief associate Sean Puffy” Combs; working on the troubling Aaliyah project alongside the artists who never knew her in life is the singer’s uncle Barry Hankerson and producer Timbaland.

Ultimately, posthumous music is best presented as close to the artist’s original vision as possible, and with heavy contextualization that makes it clear what the fans are listening to. Still, it’s impossible to put structures in place to guarantee legacies are treated respectfully. More artists might follow Anderson .Paak in putting their wishes into permanent text. In the music business, the end is not always the end.

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