Being a dead rap artist isn’t much fun. Whether The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, or J Dilla, death has never seemed to do much to alleviate the constant pressure on artists to muster up new recordings to satisfy the bulging posthumous rap retail market. (In the hip-hop world, possessing a heart that no longer beats is no excuse for failing to produce music.) This week sees the latest addition to the ghostly sub-genre, with the release of Definitive Jux associate Camu Tao’s debut solo album. But while that project, King Of Hearts, is a fittingly respectful one, pieced together from unfinished recordings by his friend and label boss El-P, most other notable up-from-the-grave albums are less honorable in intention and execution. Here’s a rundown of the ten most prominent.
The Notorious B.I.G.
For such a gigantic personality, Biggie’s back catalogue is thankfully svelte—which means most posthumous pillaging has come from Jay-Z ‘homaging’ chunks of the big man’s lyrics in his own songs and P Diddy calling every rapper he works with the ‘new’ Big. But despite his final album, Life After Death, technically seeing a release after he was murdered in 1997, the suits up at Atlantic Records still managed cobble together a couple of cold-hearted cash-ins. Born Again was first up in 1999, which sticks to the proven rubbish formula of fusing unreleased vocal recordings with contemporary-but-uninspiring production and guest raps from anyone they thought might score them a radio hit (Snoop Dogg, Nas, Lil’ Kim, and perennial go-to-guy for dead rapper projects Eminem). Then they repeated the trick in 2005 with Duets: The Final Chapter, this time drafting fellow ghost musician alumni Tupac and Bob Marley to the proceedings. The outcome of adding Bob’s vocals to BIG’s verse from “Suicidal Thoughts”—complete with the declaration, “I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ abortion”—is haunting, but only in a completely tasteless way.
The deceased Detroit producer can lay claim to the ultimate revisionist rap career. During his living days, Dilla was a mildly-acclaimed underground producer well on his way to securing a cult following and having a few famous friends to invite to dinner parties (?uestlove, Common, Q-Tip). But after passing away, he began to be hailed as a genius, and has cultivated a posthumous cottage industry that draws jealous glances from even Tupac’s estate. Whether shilling ridiculously-sloganned t-shirts (“J Dilla Changed My Life”), inspiring Dilla-only club nights, or hawking tape cassette versions of projects previously only available overseas (Ruff Draft), it seems there’s nothing the producer can’t do, even in death. His most audacious move is Donuts, which lumped together 31 short, unfinished instrumental productions. Released a few days prior to his passing, fevered fans romanticized it as a revelatory peek into Dilla’s raw creative process, though at times it dips into something closer to the type of muzak you’d expect to find playing in a hip-hop wine bar.
An unwitting newcomer to the world of hip-hop could be excused for thinking Tupac is simply the genre’s most prolific presently recording artist, such is the nonstop, free-flowing nature of his post-death gravy train. Aided by a period of intense writing and recording that took place after he decided to give up his previous pursuits of being accused of sodomy and going to jail, ‘Pac’s post-death catalogue boasts a whopping eight albums – and that’s not taking in the mass of shoddy compilations, mash-ups and mixtapes bearing his name. The Rose That Grew From Concrete, which sees Q-Tip, Mos Def, and Reverend Run recording ‘Pac’s original poetry, is the corniest of a bad bunch, but Tupac Resurrection takes the title as the lamest, being a turgid mix of Eminem production, ‘Pac acapellas, and 50 Cent getting all respectful by using the platform as an excuse to chide his one-time midget enemy Ja Rule.
A protege of Bronx icon Fat Joe, medically-obese rapper Big Pun’s hyper, rapidfire flow was a marvel to behold: His tricksy verse on “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98)” is lauded as a hip-hop quotable to this day. After suffering from a fatal heart attack in February of 2000, Yeeeeah Baby, his second (already completed) album was released two months later. But the greatest hits set Endangered Species is the contentious one: royalties slated to be paid to Pun’s widow, Liza Rios, were allegedly withheld by Fat Joe- a move which led to Rios unceremoniously auctioning off Pun’s Terror Squad medallion.
Houston’s DJ Screw pioneered screw music, where popular rap songs are slowed down into a deliberately languid and psychedelic-hued new form. Then Screw passed away, reputedly from overdosing on a concoction of prescription cough syrup laced with alcohol. His recorded legacy lives on in the countless screw tapes he produced, but 2001 saw the release of The Legacy, an official tribute of sorts that collated a bunch of screwed takes on songs by Lil Keke, Z-Ro, Slim Thug and Lil Flip, massaged together by the hands of DJ D. For marketing considerations, it was billed as a DJ Screw release.
If New York City has Biggie and Los Angeles has Tupac, then San Francisco’s Bay Area possesses their own dead rap talisman in Mac Dre. A pioneer of the hyphy sound that became all the rage for a brief moment during 2006, he was a prolific and inspirational local rap figure, releasing music from 1989 until his death by gunshot in 2004. In tribute, the Bay Area’s biggest names joined forces forDre Day: July 5th 1970, a project titled after Dre’s date of birth. In a more gristly move, some wags decided they wanted to add the ultimate rap memento to their home-office and stole Mac Dre’s gravestone from Mountain View Cemetery. At the time of this writing, it’s yet to appear on eBay.
Lamont ‘Big L’ Coleman is Harlem royalty. L first ran around with a pre-fame Cam’ron and Mase as part of Children Of The Corn, and then joined the heavyweight D.I.T.C clique; his punchline-based raps and wickedly uncouth sense of humor endeared him to a mid-’90s hip-hop crowd. Shot and killed in Harlem in 1999 while recording his second album, The Big Picture, the project was cobbled together for release a year later. In a rare show of good taste and sound judgment, the record featured guests you imagine L was actually a fan of (Kool G Rap, Fat Joe, Big Daddy Kane), and producers that fit his sound, including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Lord Finesse. It also contained “Ebonics,” L’s street-slang dictionary masterpiece. (See also: Gang Starr’s “Full Clip,” which has become hip-hop’s official Big L tribute anthem.)
Pimp C’s contribution to hip-hop’s lyrical vaults can pretty much be summed up in one phrase—”It’s Pimp C, bitch!”—but what he lacked in finesse on the mic, he made up for in production talent. In tandem with Bun B, they recorded a series of widely overlooked albums as UGK, until the world started to take notice of hip-hop from Texas in the mid-2000s and decided they were really quite good after all. When Pimp passed away in 2007, found in an L.A. hotel room having ingested an accidental overdose of codeine and promethazine, Bun took up the mantle of finishing off the album they’d started together. Released in 2009, UGK 4 Life is a natural continuation of the UGK formula, though the addition of Akon on the project is taking gallows humor a little too far.
The high-strung rapping third of sassy r&b group TLC, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes passed away in a car accident in 2002. So far her only posthumous release is 2009’s Eye Legacy, another project that suffers from meshing her unreleased vocal recordings with random guest raps from Chamillionaire, Missy Elliot, and Atlanta rapper-turned-Celebrity Fit Club-contestant Bone Crusher. Fans of the moribund rap release scene were distraught to find out that neither Tupac nor Eminem appeared on the project.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Beyond-the-grave Ol’ Dirty Bastard projects make more sense than most. Even in his prime, the Wu-Tang Clan’s most unhinged wasn’t exactly an advocate of professional studio ethics, so piecing together an album from bits and pieces and random vocal recordings really wasn’t that much of a stretch. Released via the Damon Dash Music Group, A Son Unique included a cover of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with Macy Gray. As the two struggle to hit a correct note between them, it sounds like rap karaoke going down in an empty dive bar. Beautiful.