SPINNING IN THE GRACE
Posthumous record releases from The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur give rise to ethical questions
The Notorious B.I.G.’s last album was titled Life After Death (Bad Boy, 1997), but one has to wonder whether the late rap star would’ve really wanted to be reincarnated in the form of a collection of outtakes, demos, and collaborations pasted together without his consent. Would Tupac have wanted all eyes on him if it meant the release of music he may have intended to keep private? On the other hand, don’t fans fiendin’ for these late greats deserve every sonic scrap track their idols laid a verse on?
Welcome to the rap game’s latest controversy: the posthumous release. The matter is more pertinent than ever thanks to Biggie’s latest album, Born Again (Bad Boy, 1999), and the new Still I Rise (Interscope) from Tupac and the Outlawz. The issuing of unreleased material after an artist dies—and the alteration of that material in the process—isn’t just a hip hop phenomenon, though, and neither is the debate that ensues.
On the rock tip, Jimi Hendrix has “released” more albums since he passed then he did when he was alive. And according to 1979’s The Rolling Stone Record Guide, “The bulk of [Hendrix’s] remaining releases [consist of] vapid studio outtakes and concert performances of varying quality…slovenly assembled, falling deaf upon the ears of even the most ardent Hendrix idolater.”
In the literary world, the recent publication of heavily edited, unfinished novels by deceased authors Ralph Ellison and Ernest Hemingway has caused an uproar. “you care about the ‘ands’ and the ‘buts’ or you don’t and Hemingway did,” wrote Joan Didion in a scathing New Yorker essay about Hemingway’s posthumous 1999 book, True at First Light (Scribner). “You think something is in shape to be published, or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t…The systematic creation of a marketable product [results in] a discrete body of work different in kind from and, in fact, tending to obscure the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime.”
With artists of such magnitude, however, any morsel of extant work holds great value. Fans are often willing to buy any “previously unavailable” product from the stars they miss so much. Born Again debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart upon its release in December, selling 485,000 copies its first week out. Three weeks later, Still I Rise sold 408,000. According to one of Born Again’s associate executive producers, Harve “Joe Hooker” Pierre, though, Biggie’s posthumous project wasn’t all about Benjamins. “We never talked about how we’re going to make a lot of money off this album,” he says. “It’s basically just to give the fans more of his music, to help the family and the Christopher Wallace Memorial Foundation, and to keep his name living on.”
“Whenever my son’s name is mentioned, everyone sees a dollar sign,” says Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, who’s listed on the album credits alongside her daughter-in-law, Faith Evans, and Bad Boy CEO Sean “Puffy” Combs as an executive producer. “But this was a labor of love, not a money thing. I negotiated a lot of the deals with the [contributing] artists, and they understood. Method Man did the most wonderful thing. He said he didn’t want any money [for his appearance on ‘Rap Phenomenon.’] He said we should give it all to [Biggie’s son] CJ.”
Meanwhile, many musicologists argue that examining unreleased material provides insight into artistic evolution. “The early material is important for tracing Biggie’s growth as an MC,” says dream hampton, a frequent VIBE contributor and a friend of B.I.G’s. “On older songs like ‘Come On’ with Sadat X and ‘Let Me Get Down’ with Craig Mack, he rhymes more forcefully. A couple of years later, he had a more conversational flow. Puffy encouraged him to rhyme slower, because Biggie didn’t have to yell to be convincing.”
Still, even for those involved, it’s clear that such diggin’ in the crates can never completely reflect an artist’s vision. On posthumous albums such as Born Again and Tupac’s quadruple-platinum R U Still Down? (Remember Me? (Jive, 1997), new music and guest appearances were added to vocal performances recorded years ago. “The songs on Born Again are basically leftover [verses],” says Pierre. “And the original music was dated, so we had to change that and get it to fit with his lyrics.”
Pierre’s co-associate executive producer, Mark Pitts, compares the album’s production process to “building Frankenstein.” “It’s a hot album,” says Pitts, who was Biggie’s onetime manager. “[But] I couldn’t see Big doing it this way—if he was alive he wouldn’t put it out like that. The only thing that bothered me was the [guest artists] on the album. He would’ve respected them all, but he wouldn’t have worked with them all. Just because they’re hot doesn’t mean they mesh.”
Even former Biggie paramour Lil’ Kim—who performs on three Born Again tracks—doesn’t mince words on the subject. “I really didn’t agree with putting out another album” Kim told New York’s Daily News. “If Biggie were here today, he’d be at such another, advanced level. He’d be rhyming in a different way.”
Voletta Wallace admits, “If Christopher was here, this wouldn’t be the album,” but adds, “Lil’ Kim said that we were disrespecting Christopher’s memory. My response is, If I didn’t bring this out, I’d be disrespecting his memory. I’m not here to exploit my son.
Leave it to a dead man to have the last word on posthumous releases. Discussing a novel published under his contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald’s name after Fitzgerald’s death, Ernest Hemingway himself dropped the heaviest science on the subject: “I supposed the worms won’t mind.” –Matt Diehl