Looking at recent posthumous rap albums: Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke

How the rappers’ deaths re-contextualize works created before their passing

Image by: Shelby Talbot
Album covers.

Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon and Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die dropped in July of this summer. Both works come after the deaths of their respective artists. 

The concept of a posthumous piece of artwork often lands in an ethical grey area. Fans and critics are left to consider whether or not the work is something that the artist ultimately would have wanted the world to see. 

In the case of music, unless specific instructions were left behind, it’s impossible to know if unreleased songs and albums are something an artist would approve of releasing after their death.

For example, in September 2018, Columbia Records released “Falling Down,” a song by Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, both of whom had passed away before the ‘collaboration.’ While some of their lyrical content and aesthetic is similar, they had never met or agreed to work on a song together while they were alive. Many argued that Lil Peep would never have collaborated with X and would have protested his reported domestic violence.

Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke’s albums have been fairly well received by critics. Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars hit number one on the Billboard album chart for the week of July 18. 

Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die has also been astronomically successful: it knocked Shoot for the Stars off the number one spot the following week. In terms of posthumous debuts, it’s second to Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death and Tupac’s R U Still Down.  

Both albums have occupied top three status on the Billboard album chart since their releases.

Despite the albums’ significant success, one can’t help but wonder if certain songs’ lyrical content would still be approved by the artists if they knew how they would pass away.  

On Dec. 8, 2019, Jarad Anthony Higgins, better known as Juice WLRD, died from a seizure caused by accidental drug overdose following a drug bust at Midway airport in Chicago. He was 21 years old.

Juice WRLD raps about his struggle with drug addiction and abuse in almost every song on Legends Never Die

Most notably, on “Wishing Well,” Juice says: 

If it wasn’t for the pills, I wouldn’t be here

But if I keep taking these pills, I won’t be here, yeah

I just told y’all my secret, yeah

It’s tearing me to pieces

I really think I need them

I stopped taking the drugs and now the drugs take me

The lyrics of “Wishing Well” also reveal that Juice was struggling with mental health issues. Juice’s girlfriend claimed that he took lean and Percocets daily to cope. 

However, on “Man of the Year,” Juice opens with: “Cheers (Oh-oh, oh-oh) / Sippin’ codeine like it’s beer (Oh-oh, oh-oh),” followed by the line “Bottle full of pills, let’s have fun” in his first verse.

Legends Never Die sends a mixed message about drug usage. Songs like “Wishing Well” express a true emotional outpour on struggling with drug addiction, while tracks including “Man of the Year” glorify the use of codeine and pills. 

Considering how Juice passed away, it’s impossible to know whether this is a message he’d approve of sending to his fans. Given the circumstances of Juice’s death, posthumously releasing an album where one of the main topics is his relationship with drug use is controversial at best.

Bashar Barakah Jackson, who was popularly known as Pop Smoke, was murdered on Feb. 19, 2020, when four masked gunmen invaded his home. He was 20 years old. 

On Shoot for the Stars, Pop Smoke raps about killing, murder, and getting back at people with physical violence on multiple songs.

On “Got it on Me,” Pop says:

‘Cause I got it on me

I got it on me

I got it on me

You can run up if you want (F—k is you talking ’bout?)

After the rapper’s tragic death at a young age, one can’t help but wonder if this is a message he’d question sending to fans. Was it right for his label to release an album that glorifies Pop’s lifestyle, one which cost him his life at age 20? 

Whether Juice WRLD or Pop Smoke would still approve of their albums’ content is something that we’ll never know for sure. But we can’t ignore the fact that, regardless of what they may have wanted, those works are now available for us to listen to. 

Perhaps being conscious of context is the best way to listen to these albums. Understanding the questionable ethics behind each release and keeping what artists might have wanted in mind is important.

While the albums sound finished, clean, and catchy, possibly the best way to nod our heads to the beats is by thinking deeply about their lyrics, reflecting on the artists’ lives, and learning.  



Album, Pop Culture

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