“It’s hard to get right”: how posthumous rap albums became big business

The late Juice WRLD's 'Legends Never Die' made history, the latest in a long line of records from artists gone too young. Why are these releases so successful? Zoya Raza-Sheikh investigates

Last month Jarad Higgins – aka acclaimed rapper Juice WRLD – achieved a feat previously accomplished only by Drake and The Beatles: five of his songs, taken from the same album, were in top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time. This is despite the fact that Higgins died tragically in December at the age of 21.

Higgins, who suffered a fatal overdose in December 2019, had released two successful emo-rap albums before his death, 2018’s raw ‘Goodbye & Good Riddance’ and 2019’s BillBoard 200 Number One smash ‘Death Race For Love’, a record that NME predicted in a four-star review would be “the moment that solidifies his status as one of rap’s most exciting new stars.” Yet it was ‘Legends Never Die’, released this July, that broke those records.

Compiled and curated from material that Higgins had left behind, the 22-track album featured voguish Gen-Z stars such as fellow Chicago rapper Polo G and New South Wales, Australia’s The Kid Laroi, who in a recent NME interview described Higgins as “a close friend of mine and a mentor”.

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And, odd though it may seem, the commercial success of ‘Legends Never Died’ is by no means an anomaly for rappers in the contemporary charts. New York drill artist Pop Smoke, who was brutally murdered at the age of 20 last February, debuted at Number One spot on the Billboard 200 with the posthumous ‘Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon’. In 2018, there was ‘Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt.II’, the second record from Arizona’s Lil Peep, who died from a drug overdose in November 2017; and two commercial hit albums have been released under Florida rapper XXXTentacion’s name since his death in June 2018 – the same number he released in life.

Posthumous rap albums are not new – Juice WRLD’s most recent album was the biggest record of its kind debut since Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Life After Death’ and 2Pac‘s ‘R U Still Down’, bit released in 1997 – but it’s the sheer volume of these releases that’s staggering.

Pittsburgh’s Mac Miller died in 2018, just a month after the release of his fifth album ‘Swimming’, which has come to be considered a classic of emotional rap; ‘Circles’, a careful and considered posthumous record, followed this January. Speak to fans of these young men and their words make the artists sound immortal. 25-year-old Ria Elciario, from Toronto, came across Mac Miller’s music in 2010 with the release of the ‘K.I.D.S’ mixtape. For her, ‘Circles’, was an opportunity to say goodbye.

“I listened to ‘Swimming’ over and over again the week Mac passed away,” she tells NME. “I thought it was his best work yet. I was really sad when I heard the news. At the end, he made beautiful music that was true to who he was.”

When it came to the announcement of the posthumous record, Ria admits she had her reservations: “I’ve always been sceptical about posthumous albums, but since Mac was already working on ‘Circles’ and his family announced it, I was more open to the idea. There was something about hearing his voice again that made it sound enchanting. Nowadays, I listen to his music for inspiration.”

This is a common thread for young music fans drawn to the music of each of these rappers, who all shared emotional lyrics about mental health, drug use, poverty or hardship. 23-year-old Brittany Jordan, from Baltimore, has been a longtime fan of Mac Miller and Juice WRLD.

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“I felt understood by their music,” she says. “I felt like we were coming from the same place. I feel that others who listened to these artists could get the same feeling of comfort when going through difficult times, like I did.”

Juice WRLD, Lil Peep, XXXTenacion’s online presences captivated a unique audience; they made it big on Soundcloud, releasing music directly to their young fans, circumventing the gatekeepers of the music industry.

Joshua Good, 18, from Nottingham, felt a connection with the artists’ emotional sensitivities: “Lil Peep and Juice WRLD still help me when I’m feeling low. Mental health still has a lot of stigma around it, more so men’s mental health, so having male artists talk about depression helped me realise having down days is normal.”

Lil Peep
Lil Peep. CREDIT: Edward Berthelot /Getty Images

combining the emotional honesty of mid-noughties emo with contemporary rap sounds, these rappers crafted an inventive, untamed sound. While they drew legions of fans, though, they were not without their critics.

Upon arresting rapper New Jersey Devil for heroin distribution in 2018, DEA Special Agent in Charge James J. Hunt remarked that “this investigation led us into the underbelly of emo rap and its glorification of opioid use”. Last year, music producer DJ Fu told Dazed: “In the 1980s and 1990s it was attractive to be the entrepreneurial dope dealer, but now it’s cooler for rappers to be the actual drug addicts… You were looked at as crazy and completely discredited if you were addicted to drugs, but now it’s cool to be barred out. It’s glorified.”

Yet the topics tackled in this music are very real; every one one these young men befell a fate linked to addiction, mental health issues or the damaging poverty from which they emerged. Musicologist and host of music podcast Switched On Pop Nate Sloan notes that  he sees hip-hop being dismissed for its themes of violence and drug use when in fact it can serve as a real-life mechanism for listeners.

“This music is actually creating a space for people who are dealing with violence and addiction,” he says, adding that this can be a balm in particular for oppressed music fans of colour. “Intoxication doesn’t need to just be seen as an escape, but actually a way of dealing with the oppression of being a racial minority in the United States. There’s a way that music, hip-hop, is devalued culturally. It doesn’t have the same cultural cachet like classical music.”

“I felt understood by Juice WRLD and Mac Miller’s music” – 23-year-old rap fan Brittany Jordan

This raises a tricky question: given the real pain their work is rooted in, are late rappers being exploited by posthumous releases? It’s a suggestion that’s often raised, not least when The New York Times asked the question around the release of Lil Peep’s ‘Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2’. Chase McMullen, editor in chief of online music publication Beats Per Minute and longtime fan of Mac Miller, tells NME: “It’s a thorny issue because it’s a chance for the artist to find some more love and, perhaps, your last chance to have a bit more work to treasure as a fan.”

NME reached out to the production teams who worked on Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, Lil Peep and Mac Miller’s posthumous records, who were unavailable to comment at the time of writing. With regard to the finished product, McMullen notes that “a true posthumous album, constructed after the artist’s death, is a very hard thing to get right.”

Taz Taylor is 27-year-old Floridian who records music as Internet Money with fellow producer Nick Mira. Their debut album, ‘B4 The Storm’, which will be released later this month, features a collaboration with Juice WRLD entitled ‘Blastoff’. Taylor was working on the song the day before the rapper died. He tells NME that it was important the song paid tribute to Higgins and represented his talent: ‘Blastoff’ really means something to me – Juice’s verse is crazy in it. When he [was] on a record, he [didn’t] stop. I just wanted to make it about Juice.”

Yet not every cultural conversation around a deceased artists is as tasteful; The Kid Laroi is often compared to Juice WRLD, of which he recently told NME: “They need to leave his legacy alone and let him be because he is one of the greatest of all time and I’m nowhere there yet.”

Chase McMullen argues that the likes of Mac Miller, Juice WRLD and Lil Peep “really reached people” because “there’s such a feeling of hopelessness pervading our global youth culture, and the combination of drugged-out escapism and absolute despair that a lot of these artists [has an appeal].”

This, of course, was before global lockdown, which has only exacerbated the difficulties faced by young people, even before Covid-19 changed the way we live. Thanks to the internet, accessibility to drugs has never been easier. According to a report from The Guardian, the UK accounts for 22% of all global online trades of Xanax pills. Data shared with the publication spotlighted a growing relationship between young people and the anxiety-easing drugs.

Musicians, in particular, are at risk from the root causes of this: last year the Swedish music platform Record Union surveyed 1,500 musicians and found that 73 per cent had experienced mental health issues.

“This music creates a space for people dealing with violence and addiction” – musicologist Nate Sloan

McMullen shares his own experience of finding some sense of solace in Mac Miller’s ‘Swimming’: “popping the occasional Xanax and watching large amounts of Steven Universe was the one thing I could stomach around the time that was released. Trying to keep it together – that’s how I felt at the time. ‘Swimming’ was on loop all day, every day, basically.”

He isn’t alone in this. As Nate Sloan puts it: “These artists all occupy a world of hip-hop steeped in the aesthetic of inebriation which offers a safe space to deal with their own psychological issues.” In channelling their own experience into music, they offer a sense of catharsis to fans who can meet them in the middle and find a moment of recognition.

24-year-old Avleen Sehmi, from London, sought this deeper connection with Mac Miller’s music: “Mac got me through tough times. Seeing his success and the development of his mental health helped me through mine, especially with using drugs. It really hurt me to hear I can’t continue a journey with him even if he didn’t know me. Losing an artist and their future music makes fans feel all the feelings you would have if a friend had died.”

As fans are confronted with the emotional strain of an artist passing, it’s natural for them to gravitate towards their discography and trawl through their favourite tracks, EPs and albums. The chances are that the first thing you’ll want to do is listen to their music online and, to some extent, it is a means of digital mourning.

Mac Miller
Mac Miller. CREDIT: Christian Weber

why are we seeing so many posthumous rap albums? Partly, perhaps, because the young artists who made them are at risk due to the aforementioned difficulties faced by their generations – the easier access to drugs, the soaring mental health statistics – as are their fans, who then lean on posthumous records as an outlet for grief, and to continue to make sense of their own lives. In addition to this, it’s perhaps never been easier for record labels to access an artist’s digital archive and compile a posthumous record.

As we start to pay more attention to the issues explored in these records, we can only hope that the music industry acknowledges the way in which it is profiting from posthumous releases and in turn attempt to address the topics of mental health, drug use and addiction that impact its artists.

As Nate Sloan says: “It would be really powerful if a label, a streaming platform or some other institution within the music industry actually reckoned with the perception of exploitation by saying there is something unseemly about the fact that we are continuing to rake in profits on the back of someone.

“There could be a way to offset that by creating a foundation around mental health or addiction to actually channel, in some real material way, the gains from these artists towards causes that would have some real consequence.”

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