Last weekend, Pop Smoke’s mother Audrey Jackson accepted five Billboard Music Awards, including Top New Artist and Top Rap Album, on her late son’s behalf. “Thank you to the fans for honoring the life and spirit of my son, so much that he continues to manifest as if he were still here in the flesh,” she said. It was the type of sweep that the charismatic Brooklyn rapper should’ve been able to accept for himself following the success of last year’s Meet the Woo 2 and his posthumous debut album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon. Yet, as Pop Smoke’s spirit was conjured in the presence of his mother and brother Obasi Jackson, the moment only heightened the gravity of his absence. In an industry where “the show must go on,” there is no such thing as rest—even in death.
That unsettling feeling of celebrating an artist who is dead isn’t unique to Pop Smoke’s life or his wins at the Billboard Music Awards, but is an abysmal reality of the posthumous release industrial complex. This week, DMX’s estate released “Hood Blues,” featuring Griselda rappers Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher, and Westside Gunn, ahead of the late rapper’s new album, Exodus, out today. Exodus was announced earlier this month and its tracklist includes a long list of features from veteran rappers with whom DMX had relationships like The Lox, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Nas, and Snoop Dogg. Ahead of Exodus, Swizz Beatz revealed that following the DMX and Snoop Dogg Verzuz, he and DMX worked in Snoop’s studio together for the first time in 13 years. In an interview with Angie Martinez, Swizz shared his thoughts on DMX’s final album. “I wouldn’t even call it an album,” he said. “I would definitely call it a masterpiece… It’s a well deserved masterpiece.” Still, although DMX and Swizz Beatz have a well-documented history working together, not every posthumous collaboration feels like it matches the integrity of the artist’s previous work.
Maroon 5 is a band that seems like they’ll work with just about any rapper, and most of their collaborations just don’t make much sense. Ahead of Jordi, their new album slated for a June 11 release, the Adam Levine-fronted band shared the tracklist, which was unsurprisingly rapper-heavy, including artists like Megan Thee Stallion (“Beautiful Mistakes”) and Anuel AA. Sprinkled in throughout the tracklist is a more interesting pair, Juice WRLD and Nipsey Hussle, which is enough to make me wonder if they’d be featured on Jordi if they were still alive. Juice WRLD and Nipsey Hussle’s success after their death (Juice scored the highest-selling posthumous debut, and Nipsey won two Grammys posthumously) has been extremely lucrative. It’s hard to determine where their library of unreleased music should land, but their rousing work almost definitely doesn’t belong on a Maroon 5 album. Still, the question of posthumous ownership extends beyond music releases, too.
Earlier this month, a dispute over two Mac Miller biographies, one which was authorized by his estate and another which was not, only adds to how messy posthumous releases can be when the artists aren’t here to have a final say. The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller, written by Donna-Claire Chesman, has the blessing of Miller’s estate, while Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller, written by Paul Cantor, has been met with controversy. Chesman’s book is an homage to his discography with accounts from his inner circle, while Cantor’s uses Pittsburgh to tell Miller’s life story with interviews with childhood friends and collaborators. “We have been consistently disappointed by the author and publisher’s decision to pursue this book given their full understanding of our discomfort with the circumstances of which it was authored, but using Malcolm’s birthdate as a marketing tool is exploitative and incredibly disappointing,” his estate shared in a statement on Instagram. When an artist who meant the world to their fans dies, we all grieve—not just their families. How then, do you measure who is fit to honor their lives?
I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish old age on artists who dedicated their lives to give us something to relate to. When it comes to Black artists who used music as a vehicle to take them around their blocks and all the blocks they never dreamt they’d see, I wish them rest in another life. Grief looks different for everyone, but the constant churn of recent posthumous releases feel more like an opportunity to capitalize on a moment. “The ideal scenario is when a posthumous album becomes a creative salve, closing the wounds created by the artist’s loss,” wrote Sheldon Pearce for The New Yorker. None of this feels like it's meant to soothe, but instead feels like resting in peace is something we say to fill the silence.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.