As the song goes, video killed the radio star, but it appears nothing ever actually kills the artist. Or at least, nothing truly buries the debris left in their back catalog. In an age where relatively inexpensive digital remastering can work unprecedented magic, record companies can package even substanceless half-recordings into posthumous releases. If the past few decades have proven anything, it’s that an untimely death offers no closure for mainstream artists and their unreleased material. Few to none escape this fate — from industry legends such as Jimi Hendrix to tragically late Soundcloud alumni such as Lil Peep. While this can be worthy of immense anticipation for a loyal fan, it can also be a nightmare. After all, whose version of Jimi Hendrix are you getting? With someone behind the boards who is not Hendrix, and who in all likelihood has never met Hendrix, you essentially have a reinterpretation of the man’s original art.
Is this the future that Prince, a noted perfectionist who was famously protective of his music, would’ve wanted? Sure, there are posthumous projects that come together rather smoothly. Many were practically finished by the time their maker passed on. I don’t think anyone would argue that Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged” recording deserved to sit on a shelf. However, it would be hard to say the same about Prince’s “Originals,” a collection of his demos released in 2019. It would be impossible to say about records such as “Skins” from XXXTentacion. Albums are a medium that inherently wants cohesiveness. They call for artistic vision to tie together 40 minutes of otherwise only adjunctly-related recording. A post-mortem compilation often fails that from the jump.
It isn’t worth it to impede ourselves with philosophical conversations about ethicality. Nonetheless, it would be hard to argue that the record labels properly release these albums under the name of an artist who had no hands-on input or direction. The artist did not publish these albums; these albums feature the artist. That distinction makes or breaks the message of a record. Amy Winehouse’s management burned her remaining demos upon hearing of her death. If XXXTentacion could see what was being put out under his name to this day, I can’t help but wonder if he would’ve desired a similar fate for his lost tapes.
Because sometimes these recordings are terrible. Lil Peep’s label has ransacked his archives for anything substantial enough to release, and it shows in the quality of his post-death records. Lil Peep did not mean some of these for release, and others weren’t anywhere close to being finished. With unfinished tracks and a single take to build from, one could hardly call the process by which a label synthesizes and spits out these projects an “artistic process.” That in itself is unfortunate. To someone who loved his music and who was invested in his artistry, this can be cruel and disappointing. Alternatively, take something like Prince’s “Piano and a Microphone 1983” released in 2018. Sure, these are stunning performances — this is Prince, after all — but these are, at their core, nothing more than home recordings. We’re talking about a man whose demos were leagues above the quality of other musicians’ studio recordings. It’s doubtful that this is the kind of output he wanted to release.
These albums aren’t meaningful. They’re impotent. These are not works of art written and recorded for us by an artist. These are, more often than not, an attempt to make money off of the deceased, and for that alone they’re soulless. XXXTentacion has more albums released after his death than from when he was alive. By this point, his artistic footprint is muddled because who knows what he wanted to leave behind or what he didn’t? Labels would do well to have a careful hand in mixing and releasing these zombified compilations. Sometimes, a dead man should be left to rest.