"Until the End of Time," the latest posthumous album from Tupac Shakur, is a dramatic departure from much of the slain rapper's most popular work during his lifetime. The songs accentuate Shakur's tender side over his tough one, with odes to his unborn children and to thugs who cry.
But there's another dramatic departure in this double album that's less publicized: Many of the songs, including several that aren't credited as such, amount to remixes. Producers have taken snippets of Tupac's raw demos, sometimes little more than a phrase or two, and stretched them into complete songs by overdubbing them with layers of additional instrumentation, new hooks and, occasionally, smooth rhythm-and-blues choruses.
The result is uplifting, but it's a far cry from the brash vibrancy of Shakur's earlier work. Would Shakur have approved? Many music critics doubt it. Fans, however, don't seem to care: The album debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts.
"Until the End of Time" is the latest example of a growing and at times disquieting trend in popular music: the reworking of recording artists' material, including songs that they'd never finished or possibly never intended for release, after they die.
At their best, these releases provide invaluable insight into an artist's creative process and personality, while introducing legions of younger fans to seminal musicians of the past. At their worst, the releases risk sullying or distorting an artist's legacy. Either way, they raise questions about authenticity, particularly as technological developments make tinkering with sound ubiquitous.
"There is the potential with these recordings for misleading the public," says Richard A. Peterson, a sociology professor at Nashville's Vanderbilt University who specializes in pop music. "In some cases it amounts to misappropriation or, at the least, dubious appropriation."
As the trend becomes more common, Peterson predicts, a key issue in an album's release may well be, "Who do you see on the album cover and how fine does the print have to be?"
Sometimes altruism prompts the release of a dead artist's work. But more often, the driving force is the almighty dollar. Because older artists continue to outsell most of their younger counterparts, posthumous releases allow the music industry to keep recycling and repackaging tried-and-true acts.
An increasingly popular form of posthumous release is the duet, in which a living artist overdubs himself or herself onto one or more of a dead icon's most famous recordings. Kenny G did this two years ago with a "virtual duet" in which he added his easy-listening saxophone riffs to a Louis Armstrong recording of "What a Wonderful World." Similarly, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and other contemporary stars last year were overdubbed onto the voice of late reggae great Bob Marley for an album of his reworked hits titled "Bob Marley: Chant Down Babylon." Record companies kill two birds with one stone with such releases, luring two generations of listeners with a single album or song.
In other cases, most recently involving unfinished songs by folk hero Woody Guthrie and country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, producers and songwriters compose melodies and arrangements for lyrics that the original artist had written but never scored.
Appropriation Is Part of Popular Music
Recorded music can be manipulated with amazing ease. Since the '60s, multitrack recording techniques have allowed studio wizards to extensively tweak sound; by the mid-'70s, producers and engineers were routinely assembling songs from numerous takes, picking a guitar solo from one, a keyboard riff from another and vocals from a third. The rise of digital technology has made such manipulation even easier.
Popular music has always been about appropriation; any folk song performed today has undergone numerous permutations as it passes through generations and cultures. Hip-hop has taken this tradition to new heights with sampling, a process in which an artist uses a preexisting, and often extremely popular, recorded song as the backbone to a completely different sound.
In many cases, fans don't seem to care if the music they hear live, much less recorded, is the real McCoy. How many listeners at Britney Spears concerts are worrying about how much of what they're hearing is Britney and how much is prerecorded backing vocal tracks? But when fans do care, and when the artist is dead and can't pipe up his or her objections, sound manipulation often makes it close to impossible to know the context of a given recording.
Take, for example, a duet between the rappers Big L and Shakur that appeared on the former's "The Big Picture" album last year. Not only were both Big L and Shakur dead at the time of the release, but the song was assembled from two separate freestyle sessions, one with Big L and one with Shakur, during which neither rapper had any idea that he'd be sonically paired with the other. The title of the song? "Deadly Combination."