We Hear Dead People: Our Favorite Posthumous Hip-Hop Albums. Ever
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because like Dylan said, “Death is not the end.”
By Joshua Eferighe
Album releases after an artist’s death are nothing new. Selena’s flawless Dreaming of You in 1995 more than lived up to the four albums she released before being shot and killed at age 23. Ditto the killings of Tupac and Biggie in ’96 and ’97, respectively, which gave us the classics The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory and Life After Death. And that’s before counting N.W.A.’s Eazy-E, who died from HIV complications in ’95, and New York’s Big L, who was gunned down in ’99. They both gave us greatness right before giving up the ghost.
Amid another recent cluster of deaths, The Economist uncovered something curious. Albums by hip-hop artists Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Mac Miller, Pop Smoke and Juice WRLD — all bona fide talents who died in the past two years — are not only doing well but are actually performing better in their first release week than those works released while the artists were alive. In fact, they’re all the biggest albums of the year.
“I don’t think any true fan of an artist’s work would feel anything other than some kind of bittersweet happiness if this artist’s work gains more exposure after death,” says George Howard, a streaming industry expert and professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music. While it’s obviously unfortunate when artists achieve greater success after death than when they were alive, that success is still something to be celebrated, Howard says.
On that note, let’s take a look at the celebrations of their lives via the windows of their souls.
5) Lil Peep // Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 (2018)
When Lil Peep, otherwise known as Gustav Åhr, died in 2017 at the tender age of 21, everyone in hip-hop was shaken. His talent was undeniable, as evidenced in what would have been his sophomore album, and his struggles with depression and anxiety are reflected in the frequently intertwined themes of death and drug addiction in his songs. When it was revealed that Lil Peep died from an overdose of fentanyl and Xanax, it was tragic, but not surprising.
Defense of Ranking: While Lil Peep’s voice was beautiful and his songwriting beyond his years, I am a sucker for rap bars. Maybe it’s my fault for going in with the wrong intentions. Still a solid project, though.
4) XXXTentacion // Skins (2018)
XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy, was on one of those trajectories that transcend both generations and peers. Although dogged by controversy and legal difficulties, he gained a cult following as an “emo rapper,” capturing the imaginations of the outcast and depressed with a new alternative rap style. X was murdered on June 18, 2018, just months after his sophomore album was released. Skins, also released in 2018, became both X’s first posthumous album and his second No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making him, at the time, only the second solo artist to have a posthumous No. 1 hit (the first was the Notorious B.I.G., with Life After Death, in 1997).
Defense of ranking: Skins takes after its predecessors in delivering technically sound, proficient rapping, soulful R&B-influenced singing and edgy belting. There’s even a surprise Kanye West and Travis Barker feature.
3) Pop Smoke // Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon (2020)
Coming almost six months after his death, Pop Smoke’s debut project, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, is as bittersweet as they come. The Brooklyn native, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, was generating a noteworthy buzz shortly before several men broke into the Los Angeles home where he was staying and shot him to death, according to recent arrest reports, in February. His team got together to finish the album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — one of the biggest debuts this year. In fact, Pop Smoke is just the fourth hip-hop musician to chart a No. 1 album posthumously.
Defense of ranking: The album is fun, different and a fresh ride of a new sound that would have been great to witness unfolding completely.
2) Mac Miller // Circles (2020)
Everyone was in shock when Mac Miller died in September 2018 of a drug overdose. It felt like he had finally figured it out musically, having already achieved chart success and millions of records sold. When his family announced earlier this year that Circles had been recorded concurrently with Swimming, it was almost as if an angel came back to revisit us as a gift. It was the closure Miller’s fans needed.
Defense of ranking: Malcolm James McCormick is one of my all-time favorite artists. He was a gifted musician with a great ear. This album has a bit more singing than I would have liked, but it’s still great.
1) Juice WRLD // Legends Never Die (2020)
Jarad Anthony Higgins, known professionally as Juice Wrld, was already beloved by the industry during his short stint in music. His first offering, Goodbye & Good Riddance (2018), was a mega hit, with his top-performing song “Lucid Dreams” going No. 1 on the Billboard charts. So when he died in December 2019, at age 21, after a seizure from an accidental overdose of oxycodone and codeine, it crushed people everywhere. Legends Never Die is a celebration of his life and genius.
Defense of Ranking: It’s the curation for me. From the interviews smartly plugged in throughout to the production, this was the perfect send-off.