When the music world lost Pop Smoke in February 2020, it marked yet another blemish on the industry. Bashar Barakah Jackson, known as Pop Smoke, had a bass-heavy, baritone voice and rumbling delivery that quickly endeared him to a devoted fanbase following two breakout hits in 2019. His hard-to-replicate drill sound, magnetic persona and cult-following positioned him among rap’s most promising young artists, with any ceilings on his potential imperceivable.
At 20, Smoke had already garnered a spotlight bright enough to collaborate with established figures in the industry like Quavo, Gunna and the New York-based Fivio Foreign. But this spotlight, alongside his status as a luxurious celebrity, attracted negative attention as well. On Feb. 19, 2020, a home invasion in his Los Angeles rental ended in the murder of Jackson by five criminals even younger than he. The story served as a manifestation of the envy, greed and untimely demise all too often associated with the lives of public figures, especially rap artists.
Pop Smoke, and the unrealized potential of his artistry, was lost. What was left were the unrefined recordings of Jackson, fragments that he hoped to soon share with his audience and perform for the masses when the world finally opened up. Smoke’s team made quick work of the recordings and released his first posthumous album, “Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon,” later that summer. A whole year later, it is 2021’s most popular rap album and the fourth most consumed album overall. The album’s success, including nearly a billion equivalent U.S. sales, was a dream come true under heartbreaking circumstances.
By supporting the album, the music community came together to properly celebrate Pop Smoke and elevate his status to heights he hoped to reach in an ideal world. It proved a triumph for Jackson’s family, team, fans and the music industry as a whole. However, posthumous albums aren’t always so widely revered. In reality, they’re a highly contentious subject.
The recent prevalence of posthumous albums alludes to greater industry-wide problems regarding drug abuse and violence. The two are common subjects in rap music and musicians often succumb to the harmful lifestyles they perpetuate. Unfortunately, these subjects often derive from their upbringings, demons, affiliations and underprivileged communities, so criticizing the deceased is not only unwarranted but short-sighted. Artists’ references to these taboo subjects in life contributed to their celebrity, so blindly condemning them in death is hypocritical.
Instead, listeners can grapple with these losses in the light of the artists’ legacies and their established bodies of work. Musical catalogs, now easier than ever to access, outlive all our favorite artists. What was given to communities in life cannot be taken in death, so there’s a degree of comfort in the shared grieving and celebration of our lost favorites. If nothing more, their self-expression was capitalized on in their lifetimes and adored by the public, helping establish them as the artists they became.
But that is also why the completion and release of formerly withheld work is so controversial. The deceased was never able to see their projects through nor confirm their readiness for public consumption. Releasing music whose production grows increasingly distanced from the original artist under their stage names can prove a disservice to their reputations. For every Pop Smoke, whose passing reinforced the public’s appreciation for him and his music, there’s an artist whose projects were wrongfully unvaulted. Whether by greed, ill-intention or simply poor execution, a disappointing posthumous release can unfairly alter the public’s opinion of the deceased.
By offering a subpar product, inheritors blemish the reputation of dignified musicians and undermine their previous work. Rather than contributing to their existing catalog, the posthumous project suffers from the original creator’s lack of involvement, the misguidance of those behind it and interrupts their deserved mourning period. The focus shifts from remembrance to the underperformance of the new release. In this sense, a posthumous album not only feels unwise but inappropriate.
Additionally, a separate debate tying social performance to posthumous album releases rages on. When Pop Smoke’s second posthumous album was announced, a staggering number of reports surfaced over the album’s expected features, to many fans’ dismay. For every surprised listener elated to hear two of their favorites collaborate, another was concerned over the unorthodox pairings and indiscernible connections between the artists. This, too, proves to be something else that the artist can no longer approve of.
The album, titled “Faith,” boasts features from Kanye West, Rick Ross, Chris Brown, Pusha T, Dua Lipa, Kid Cudi, Pharrell Williams, Lil Tjay, Future, 21 Savage, Quavo, Takeoff, Swae Lee and 42 Dugg. Surely a testament to Smoke’s enduring reputation within the industry, the album’s contributions include some of the most prominent musicians of the last decade, a fact that likely would’ve made him proud.
Nevertheless, it can also be viewed as a label’s shameless attempt at exploiting the attention expected of the album. Given the incredible success of “Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon,” it is entirely plausible that labels would covet some of Smoke’s recent spotlight and ensure that their premier artists would be included on the project. It is also possible that Smoke’s management did the same to maximize appeal. To further skeptics’ points, the choices for features are questionable at best. With pop stars like Dua Lipa and titanic industry figures such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams included, any personal connections between the features and the New York drill origins that catapulted Smoke into stardom are largely intangible.
This too often proves the case for posthumous albums, as those behind them hope to capitalize on their release through industry ties and misinformed direction. It is hard to say for certain which of the collaborations Smoke would have cosigned himself or even whether this was the vision he set out for his upcoming releases. That’s ultimately the foundation of the debate over posthumous albums: the artists’ lack of agency.
Mac Miller, XXXTENTACION and Juice WRLD all enjoyed astounding levels of success before their untimely deaths related to drug abuse and violence. Similarly, each of them released largely successful posthumous albums. Mac Miller’s “Circles,” in particular, was revered for how producers constructed a soundscape befitting his emotional snippets, alternating tones and the overall optimistic exploration of sorrow.
One cannot consider the positives of posthumous albums, the potential fulfillment for fans and the realization of an artist’s unfinished work without also considering the injurious elements. An inferior release can besmirch a legacy deserving of closure and sour an artist’s image in the eyes of a public prone to recency bias and snap judgments. At the same time, a positive one can elevate a legacy to heights once inaccessible.
Posthumous albums will remain contentious, but, as inheritors, it is our responsibility to assess the intentions of a release and refrain from blaming their quality on the recently departed. In an ideal world, the artists would have been able to see their efforts through themselves. Instead, we as listeners are tasked with evaluating their legacies with the touched-upon aspects of posthumous albums in mind. Despite being released to disappointing ends at times and prone to misguidance, sharing art on behalf of an artist is just as often commendable as not. There is an undeniable catharsis in adding a familiar sound to our playlists one last time, and, maybe, that is enough to justify posthumous releases.