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Do Posthumous Albums Damage an Artist’s Legacy?

Michael Jackson Aaliyah
Carlo Allegri / Frank Micelotta, Getty Images

The following is a true (albeit creepy) story.

When my family came from Italy, they moved down the street from a really strange family. The family would place chairs in front of their two-family home (but on the street, not on their property) and sit in Bermuda shorts watching cars drive by as if everyday life was a NASCAR event. Yes, that’s odd, but they had another tradition, which completely trumps that. The patriarch of their family passed away, and it was the duty of the community to pay their respects. When people showed up to the funeral home, they were absolutely shocked to find that the family removed the corpse from the coffin, propped him up in a chair and began taking pictures with him as if he weren’t the dearly departed star of the show — rather, he was an attendee paying his respects to an empty coffin. They did this with almost every family member who passed away like it was a tradition in a horror film.

That’s the real life embodiment of posthumous albums: grabbing the last few bits of art from those who are no longer with us for (selfish) memory’s sake.

On a surface level, the posthumous release stands as the completion of unfinished business. Often times artists die suddenly — more often than not in the midst of recording more music, for what was supposed to be a future project. The reasons for of a posthumous album can be layered, since recording contracts might not always include a “death clause” and “The Estate of So and So” has been a recurring theme when it comes to musical releases. Then of course there’s the idea of the legacy of the artist, where every last bit of music must hit the airwaves until there’s none left. And even then, it’s a matter of recreating what is left to keep the momentum (read: album sales) going.

Take Bob Marley as a glaring example. The reggae legend passed away in 1981, but in 1983, Tuff Gong/Island released a Bob Marley and The Wailers album, ‘Confrontation,’ full of rare releases and b-sides. 1999′s ‘Chant Down Babylon’ was another posthumous Marley release also under Tuff Gong/Island, marketed as a “cover/remix” album, yet Bob’s voice was cleverly inserted into the project — most notably on his ex-daughter-in-law Lauryn Hill’s cover of ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low.’ Thirty-three years later, and the Estate of Bob Marley has licensed out enough of Marley’s music to independent distributors that it feels like Bob is still alive and recording.

Listen to Bob Marley & Lauryn Hill’s ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’

In 1991, Natalie Cole released an album of duets with her father, the late Nat “King” Cole titled ‘Unforgettable…With Love.’ Seventeen years after that, in 2008, she dropped the “OK, we get it” follow-up ‘Still Unforgettable.’ The sentiment started as sweet, yet transformed into a career revival tactic. Natalie “Queen” Cole wasn’t the only artist to do this, clearly.

The Notorious B.I.G. passed away in 1997, but the ‘Born Again’ album debuted in 1999 and ‘Duets: The Final Chapter’ in 2005 (both via Bad Boy), featuring collective contributions from the likes of Nas, Eminem, T.I., Snoop Dogg and many others. Both of Biggie’s afterlife works charted well on Billboard — ‘Born Again’ hitting No. 1 on the Hip-Hop Charts, and ‘Duets: The Final Chapter’ reaching No. 3 on the Billboard 200 (selling a staggering 438,000 copies that week). Let’s not even get into the umpteen amounts of Tupac Shakur releases since his demise in 1996. It’s no secret that ‘Pac was a studio fixture and clocked in more hours recording than most have in a lifetime, so the music can (and will) continue.

The posthumous album release trend is inconsistent, yet exists. TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes died in 2002, but there was an ‘Eye Legacy’ album that flew way under the radar in 2009. Amy Winehouse passed away in 2011, and what followed was the multi-platinum success of ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures,’ arriving within months of her passing.

Most recently, two albums have become part of controversial conversation and they haven’t even been released yet. The first being an Aaliyah posthumous effort (which will now never be), while the other, Michael Jackson’s second posthumous project, ‘Xscape,’ arrives May 20. MJ passed away in 2009, but by 2010 ‘Michael’ was released and met with multi-platinum success due to its global reach. ‘Xscape’ is an eight-track project led by producer Timbaland. Jackson’s vocals are digitally fit into the work, yet showcased as the main attraction. Songs like the Justin Timberlake-assisted ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ and ‘Chicago’ sound like material he would have crafted if he were still alive, but the issue is he’s not. Early reviews of the album describe it as clever, but eyebrows are firmly raised with regard to the purpose of the project — it doesn’t signify a special marker in the singer’s career. The suspicion is understated though, since it’s become strangely taboo to discuss the King of Pop in recent years (yet his siblings and children have become fair game).

Listen to Michael Jackson’s ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ Feat. Justin Timberlake

In the case of Aaliyah, the project was initially in the hands of Drake and producer Noah “40″ Shebib. The Toronto rapper is a known Aaliyah fan (right down to his scary Baby Girl tattoo). He was rumored to be working on this project for years, even releasing the track ‘Enough Said’ as a teaser. The backlash was pretty intense. For one, the question on everyone’s mind: “Why isn’t Timbaland producing an Aaliyah project?”

Then there was Drake’s historically iffy position in the game as a “respectable” figure being a topic of discussion. His ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ track horrified most Wu heads (even constituents of the 36 Chambers) and his bigging up of Houston and Pimp C was another point of contention. Perhaps Drake’s intentions with the Aaliyah project were pure: a dedication to the memory of a woman he had plans to marry (in his head) had she lived on. After a steady stream of hate, Drake and 40 opted to cancel the project, as they didn’t want the release to be draped in negativity. But the argument is one that can and should echo in each mixing studio while piecing together every posthumous release: the why’s, the how’s, the who’s. Why did it have to take Drake for us to question the integrity of a posthumous album?

It should come as no surprise that musicians become merely creative property once they pass away. Their bodies become holograms, their voices become audio files, with to high-quality bit rates and wedged into mixes with artists that they may never have wanted to sit in a studio with and collaborate on a record in the first place. As fans, we yearn for those final moments with our favorite artists. Most of the time, we never meet the singers and rappers we favor in real life (and if we do it’s maybe once or twice). They’ve lived on our iPods and YouTube before and after their passing, so in some twisted way, the more “releases” we get from them, the less reality hits that the person has actually died. It’s a warped way of perpetuating a fan base, and even worse, a legacy. As technology continues to become more and more sophisticated, the world will continue to resurrect the dearly departed in the interest of creative commerce.

While Drake has been permanently banned from the spearheading of the Aaliyah posthumous movement, perhaps we should take his YOLO mantra to heart and allow artists to really only live once, since anything further is beyond their control.

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