By Joshua Jackson: Music Columnist
Whether it’s tragic suicides, accidental overdoses or shocking murders, life expectancy has never seemed particularly high amongst musicians. Artists often leave behind unreleased songs, unfinished ideas or albums far from completion. It’s relatively common for box sets of unreleased track and demos to hit consumers. Last year saw the release of Never Boring, a set of Freddie Mercury solo tracks, sold alongside collections of old promotional videos and a 120-page book. It’s hard to see the release as anything other than a tribute to the late Queen frontman. Yet judging these releases becomes more complex when they are released as complete albums, with aspirations to be judged as cohesive artistic statements. Rapper Pop Smoke was killed in a home invasion in early 2020, his debut album: Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon released posthumously this month. The album was largely produced after his death and is his most sonically diverse record. The obvious inability for deceased artists to have creative control over these releases forces us to consider whether they offer authentic tributes or instead, are just attempts to cash in on an artist’s memory.
The death of an artist affects how we appreciate music in a profound way. This impact is made clear by albums released briefly before the death of the musicians who made them. Purple Mountains eponymous debut last year, the final musical project of Silver Jews frontman David Berman, was filled with sardonic musings on loneliness and misanthropy. Song titles such as ‘All My Happiness is Gone’ were on release darkly comic meditations on depression, however Berman’s suicide five weeks later added a much darker tone to the record. David Bowie’s Blackstar is similarly coloured by Bowie’s knowledge during production of his impending death. Lyrics such as ‘Look up here I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen’ began to show a man tackling his own legacy when Bowie lost his, then publicly unknown, battle with cancer two days later. These records serve as examples of how listening to music after an artist’s death colours our perception of it, the circumstances of those deaths forever altering the music.
The need for musical diversity on Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon is made clear by the nature of Pop Smoke’s death. Pop Smoke was an artist in an early stage of his career, with only two mixtapes behind him before his death. The release contends with a sense of unexplored, or lost, potential. It has diversions away from the drill sound that defined his first two releases. The melodic and mainstream trap style song Got It On Me or smoother RnB cuts such as Something Special show the directions Pop Smoke’s career could have taken. This record feels genuine when considering the heartfelt efforts that went into its production. Rap veteran 50 Cent took personal responsibility for the album as executive producer.
There is a distinctive sense of thoughtfulness throughout the release. The album seems similar in this way to last year’s posthumous Leonard Cohen album: Thanks for the Dreams. Compiled by Cohen’s son, the album bases itself in the themes of farewell Cohen himself introduced in his last living release: You Want it Darker. Thanks for the Dreams was a sincere goodbye, fitting with the direction Cohen’s work was taking before his death.
But this same thoughtfulness fails to appear on more commercially minded posthumous releases. Controversial pioneer of the ‘soundcloud rap’ genre: XXXTentacion, was killed in an apparent robbery in 2018. Two albums: as well an array of singles have since come from the late rapper. His posthumous releases carry with them a distinct unfinished quality. Short runtimes make many tracks seem barely more than demos. XXXTentacion posthumously collaborated with another deceased rapper: Lil Peep in the Billboard Chart topping single Falling Down. The song seems made up of a left over Lil Peep hook spliced with a hastily recorded XXXTentacion verse. The two had never met. The song barely totals three minutes, with the mid section dedicated to a phone recording of a then incarcerated XXXTentacion, expressing his regret about never meeting Lil Peep. The song has little to offer musically, it’s generic imagery of wanting to ‘watch the rain as it’s falling down’ is a superficial nod to the melancholia that characterised both artists’ music. Combining this with the apparent reservations Lil Peep had about collaborating with XXXTentacion when alive, and the track seems nothing more than an attempt to appeal to the fanbases of two recently deceased artists for maximum commercial success.
Attempting to construct a complete release from what artists leave behind is a difficult task. It’s one that succeeds most when the record itself acknowledges this challenge. Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon embraces it’s sonic diversity, showing the many musical avenues Pop Smoke could have explored. Less thoughtful posthumous releases fail to realise how death impacts the way listeners understand a record, instead producing generic imitations of an artist’s previous work. They fail to acknowledge the capacity for artists to move forward with each release, they ignore their potential and dwell on what has already been. This shallow obsession with imitation means many posthumous releases offer nothing artiscally, and begin to seem more financially than musically motivated. In constructing a posthumous release it is important to understand that a tribute is not just a way to remember what an artist had already done, but also how we mourn the music they never got to make, and that we never got to hear.