Composed while on his tour bus in Tucson, Arizona, Gustav Elijah Åhr, better known as emo-rap trailblazer Lil Peep, took to Instagram to inform the world that “when I die, you’ll love me.” As we’d soon learn, this grim prophecy would be the last we’d hear from him before he’d succumb to an accidental overdose. Posted days after his 21st birthday, Peep’s final dispatch would not only foreshadow the explosion in popularity that’d follow his death, but it would morbidly set the tone for how hip-hop would approach an era stalked by tragedy.
Since Peep’s untimely departure in November 2017, hip-hop has entered a period of sustained bereavement. Encompassing the violent deaths of XXXTentacion, Nipsey Hussle, and budding drill icon Pop Smoke to the substance-related passings of Mac Miller and Juice WRLD, the aftermath of each loss is both consistent and cynically formulaic. First, you have the influx of tributes that depict a suddenly undeniable talent. Afterwards, there’s the exponential sales boom. After years of toil, Nipsey’s collected works experienced a mammoth surge of 2776 percent after his death, while Lil Peep’s Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1 modestly entered the Billboard charts in the week following his departure. By the time that its sequel emerged, Peep’s ephemeral punk-rap hybrid debuted at number four.
At the time of this writing, two of the five top-selling albums of 2020 are occupied by rappers whose lights were prematurely dimmed. In Juice WRLD’s case, Legends Never Die’s 497,000 album equivalent units account for the second highest-selling release of the year so far, dwarfing Lil Uzi Vert and Post Malone’s figures with an ease that’d have been inconceivable beforehand. Unveiled a week prior, Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon soared to number one and surpassed the sales of Meet the Woo 2, his final project, by over 200,000 units. When you expand to the top 10, Mac Miller’s Circles brings hip-hop’s apparitional representation in the top albums to three.
Based on the clear demand, you’d be forgiven for viewing the concept of the album as eulogy for the avaricious cash-in that it definitely can be. After all, Tupac Shakur’s discography now features more entries that were cobbled together from archived material than records he actually signed off on. Relieved of the ability to finetune their work, Juice WRLD’s posthumous success likely ensures that his 2000-strong trove of unreleased tracks will be plundered for decades.
In Pop Smoke’s case, manager Steven Victor felt that compiling the album allowed aimless grief to be channelled into something productive. “50 [Cent] was like, ‘You can’t be depressed and stop the legacy that he was building’”, he told Ebro. “It would almost be like everything happened in vain if you don’t put the album out.”
Disjointed as their creations can be, the motivations that govern an album such as Pop’s posthumous debut register on a human level. However, this prolonged state of mourning has paved the way for some exasperating home truths about the nature of hip-hop stardom to surface.
For starters, the contrast in how Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke were treated before and after their deaths points to a fundamental issue with how audiences engage with young artists as they acclimate to their newfound fame. Namely, that leading with empathy or compassion isn’t prioritized until it’s too late.
During their curtailed careers, both artists were popular, but they certainly weren’t the universally beloved figures that they’ve since been reappraised as. More specifically, neither man was exempt from dealing with the more malignant sides of life within the public eye. As a result, the hastiness to elevate them to the status of hip-hop martyrs negates the fact that they were subject to all of the same scrutiny that has plagued artists such as Eminem, Logic, and Chance the Rapper in recent years.
In the week prior to his death, Pop Smoke’s presence in the news cycle didn’t fixate on the impact of his guttural, hard-edged material, but a series of inopportune images. Shared alongside a hostile DM exchange with the photographer and supplemented by memes that portrayed the 20-year-old rapper as an alien, the mass mockery resulted in one of Pop’s final public dispatches being used to dispel the issue. After his murder, that image ceased to be widely circulated in favor of widespread canonization.
Venturing back in time to the month that preceded his death, hip-hop media and fans eagerly stoked the flames surrounding Pop Smoke and his simmering beef with fellow NYC drill rappers Casanova and Smoove L. With each figure rumored to have affiliations with rival gangs, it was a situation that hip-hop should’ve rushed to diffuse rather than gawk at as though it were trivial gossip. Yet when Pop died in a hail of gunfire, the articles and tweets about him “taking shots” receded to make way for opportunistic holograms and T-shirts that implored everyone to “Stop the Violence.”
In the case of Chicago’s Juice WRLD, his final months weren’t without paradoxically thoughtless treatment from audiences either. Initially aired on Lyrical Lemonade, the video for Juice’s final, NBA Youngboy-assisted single “Bandit” was sullied by an undercurrent of juvenile taunting from his so-called fanbase. Shared in October 2019, its YouTube comment section (as well as Juice-related subreddits) were quickly besieged by dispiriting remarks about Juice’s weight gain. As fellow viewers pointed out, these like-accumulating jibes have since been edited into spurious tributes in the months following his death. Heralded as a positive force within hip-hop, what makes these remarks all the more unconscionable is their proximity to Juice’s announcement that he was attempting to quit codeine. In both public proclamations to his girlfriend and other tweets, Juice pledged to “leave that shit alone 4 good.”
In the coming months, he’d appear notably heavier, and canceled several shows on short notice. But somehow, his intention to banish lean addiction seemed to exist in a vacuum and didn’t serve as grounds for him to be given any leeway from the unyielding nature of hip-hop celebrity.
Although their lives and deaths were markedly different, the relentless dissection and sensationalism that these two young artists endured stands at odds with the myth-making that’s now taking shape. Where an emphasis was formerly placed on their appearance, or whether they were sufficiently living up to the lifestyles that anchored their lyricism, their posthumous sales and the air of sanctity that’s now encased these late rappers suggests that, in death, the idea of their “legacies” is more closely safeguarded than the person ever was. And, more dishearteningly, they’ve grown more profitable now that they no longer have final say over their output.
Armed with culturally-induced respect and a seemingly unlimited rolodex of collaborators, the second (and arguably most indefensible) hypocrisy that these premature deaths bring about is the ruse that these records only serve to fulfill the artists’ vision. In certain cases, they’re willing to disregard any personal or professional philosophy that they upheld.
In typically macabre fashion, the posthumous catalogue of Lil Peep provided a clear-cut insight into discarding the person in favor of profitability. Speaking at the launch of Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, Liza Womack, Lil Peep’s mother, characterized the restraint that’s required when tampering with a late artist’s catalogue. “Listen to him”, she decreed. “Don’t chop it up and put features on it unless it’s somehow clear to you that that’s O.K. with him. Honor the young talent by honoring the work.”
Stirring as her words are, her pleas came as an indirect response to “Falling Down,” a Makonnen-helmed offering which aligned the openly bisexual leader of the GothBoiClique with XXXTentacion — another late rapper whom, in case you’d forgotten, delighted in revealing that he attempted to kill his gay cellmate in jail and was accused of domestic abuse. Within hours of this track surfacing, GothBoiClique’s Fish Narc implored anyone “who had an ounce of respect for who Peep was” to disown it.
“[Peep] explicitly rejected XXX for his abuse of women, spent time and money getting XXX’s songs removed from his Spotify playlists, and wouldn’t have co-signed that song. Don’t listen to it,” he declared via Instagram. “This shit is people trying to make money off him.”
Robbed of their right to refusal, one of the most distasteful aspects of hip-hop’s new posthumous paradigm is that labels are free to craft their approximation of an artist’s sound. And as Peep’s situation attests, the duty of care that those at the helm feel towards preserving artistic or personal principles can vary.
Although there were no clear ethical quandaries, Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die overused guest appearances to maximize mainstream appeal. Boasting performances from high-profile names including Halsey, Young Thug, The Weeknd, EDM stalwart Marshmello, and The Kid Laroi, among others, the 22-track album contains seven features in total — Goodbye & Good Riddance and Death Race for Love, Juice’s studio albums that he oversaw in his lifetime, contained just six between them.
Unsurprisingly, Pop Smoke’s posthumous project also doubled down on the guest spots. Comprised of an initial 19 tracks before the deluxe edition brought that tally to 34, there are only eight on which his exhumed spirit gets to stand alone. In the opinion of The Joe Budden Podcast’s Rory Farrell, there are suspect inclusions — in particular, the appearance of Diddy’s son on “Diana.” “I don’t think King Combs would’ve been on there. I don’t even think that record would’ve been on the album, period, had Pop been here. He would’ve scrapped it.”
As opposed to placing the onus on quality or chemistry, the superfluous features on both Juice and Pop’s albums — not to mention the likelihood that this won’t even be their final outings — capture the hypocrisy of the idea that these records are made with the singular purpose of paying homage to unrealised potential. Transparent as this may be in some cases, there’s simply no reason for the labels to change their tact when their decision is underpinned by data.
Published in the wake of Juice and Pop’s consecutive rises to number one, a graph from The Economist shows the harrowingly steep incline between the posthumous and ante-mortem projects of Pop, Juice, Miller, Peep, and XXXTentaction. In every instance, the first week sales of the former drastically outweighed those of records released when they were alive. Once endlessly debated over but suddenly treated with divinity, these numbers, harrowing as they are, confirm that modern hip-hop artists are more valuable to their labels dead than they are alive.
As long as those trends continue, we – the consumer – empower those in charge of the vaults to export anything that vaguely resembles what the artist would’ve crafted to the tune of hundreds of thousands of units. Faced with a grim prognosis that hip-hop’s fandom helped build, this scenario shouldn’t be met with complete despair, but employed as a teachable moment. From now on, as opposed to shamefacedly laying them by a graveside or allowing the peak of an artist’s earning power to arrive when they’re gone, hip-hop should strive to give artists their flowers while they’re still able to bask in them.