Prince's Postmortem Payday Is A Sign Of The Times
An Artist's Vision And Consent Is A Small Price To Pay For a Posthumous Payday.
Posthumous albums are a sign o’ the times. Take Prince’s ‘new’ album Welcome 2 America, which initially had been scheduled for distribution during his lifetime in 2011 before being cancelled. But it was finally released in July, five years after his passing. It’s the third Prince album since his accidental overdose in 2016, but the first he’d recorded with a release, even a tour, in mind. So, releasing it now must be ethically sound, right? Hmmm…
Prince presumably shelved the album for a reason, and let’s not forget he spent the better part of the ’90s with the word slave scrawled across his cheek, disowning his stage name in protest against the money-over-creativity stance of his corporate overlords.
Some albums do receive a tacit sign-off before the artist signs off. Queen’s Made in Heaven (1995), released after Freddie Mercury’s death, is the gold standard in deathly consent, given he knew while recording his vocals that the gig was up – not that he would have necessarily loved the schmaltzy pap the album would become.
Others are posthumous by technicality. Life After Death – the most aptly named record of all time – appeared barely two weeks after the Notorious B.I.G was gunned down in 1997.
But many artists, we have to assume, would recoil from their amped-up afterlife. What might Amy Winehouse have made of Lioness: Hidden Treasures (2011), a cobbled together collection of covers and outtakes? Would famously shy Kurt Cobain have been mortified all over again when his pre-fame bedroom efforts became public property via 2015’s Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings?
So why release music by artists who are, biologically speaking, clearly past their prime? The answer, of course, rhymes with honey.
Maybe abusing an artist’s vision and consent is a small price to pay for a postmortem payday
Though they’ve been around since the gramophone era, posthumous albums were historically unlikely to hit No. 1. From the mid-1950s to early-1990s, Jim Croce, Janis Joplin and John Lennon were the only three to achieve those heights – a trend, if only a trickle. But the chart-topping success of Selena’s Dreaming of You burst the dam in 1995. The fact that she – like Lennon – had been fatally shot surfaced as a key ingredient in the secret sauce.
In the quarter of a century since, the majority of posthumous No. 1 albums have been by rappers and hip-hop artists, a shocking number of whom have been shot dead, frequently in drive-by killings – the alpha ghost being Tupac Shakur, who had finished only one of his seven posthumously released albums before his murder in 1996. Three of those reached No. 1, including the lamentable, Eminem-produced Loyal to the Game (2004), featuring duets with artists 2Pac had never met and his spectral voice being manipulated to meet the record’s needs. But maybe abusing an artist’s vision and consent is a small price to pay for a postmortem payday.
Incidentally, if not coincidentally, the last non-rapper to hit No. 1 with an afterlife album was Prince with The Very Best of Prince (2001), which re-entered the charts at the top spot following his death. As he muses from beyond the grave on Welcome 2 America: “Come on in, sit right down and fill up your pockets, yeah.”