“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised because I know that hiphop is very big [in Australia],” says Steven Victor, senior vice president of A&R at Universal Music Group, CEO of the record’s label Victor Victor Worldwide and the record executive that guided Pop Smoke’s short-lived career.
“It’s bittersweet because I know that Pop wanted his music to travel globally and he had plans on doing a world tour, to go to Australia in early 2021, when your festivals happen.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that the album sounds like what I know he wanted it to sound like, and it achieved what he wanted it to achieve – that is, for the world to hear it.”
Nine tracks from the album, including the Gold-certified Dior, also entered ARIA’s Top 100 Singles chart, while the rapper’s February mixtape Meet The Woo 2, initially released a week before his death, also bounded up the album chart to a new high of #24.
It echoes the posthumous chart success of other late artists in recent months, such as rappers Juice Wrld, XXXTentacion and Lil Peep.
Almost two years since his murder at 20 led it to become the 12th-highest-selling album in Australia in 2018, XXXTentacion’s ? remains cemented on the ARIA Top 50 albums chart (#27), alongside Juice Wrld’s debut Goodbye & Good Riddance (#46).
Juice Wrld, the popular rapper who died at 21 following a drug overdose last December, is again expected to top this weekend’s ARIA chart with the release of his first posthumous album Legends Never Die, which includes a guest spot from rising Sydney star The Kid Laroi.
Dr Catherine Strong, a senior lecturer in the Music Industry program at RMIT University, says the success of such posthumous releases is driven by a sense of loss.
“People are reacting to the idea that an artist they’ve loved is gone, and that they won’t have access to their work anymore. There’s a sense that this might be it, that here’s this last thing we can listen to from this artist before they’re essentially gone forever.”
With a young artist like Pop Smoke – and the other rappers who’ve redefined “the 27 club” by several years – there’s an added sense of tragedy that draws people’s attention to a release.
“With an up-and-coming artist, there’s the feeling of being gone too soon: ‘We haven’t had a chance yet to see what they could do for us, they could’ve been so big,'” says Strong. “There’s that need to dive into the material, to grasp for any sort of evidence of what they could’ve been if they’d lived longer.”
While the “death bump” has become a gross colloquialism for the surge in interest (and sales) an artist achieves following their death, Strong says record labels and artists’ estates risk a fine line in rushing out posthumous albums.
“The fundamental question people are always thinking about is, ‘Is this for real?’. Is it a cynical cash-grab or finding a way to make an artist’s work available to people in a way the artist might have approved of?” says Strong.
Far from a discomfiting morbidity, Strong – who previously edited a book titled Death and the Rock Star, on the ways people process the deaths of musicians – says posthumous releases can also help listeners through a grieving process.
“For some fans, losing an artist can feel like losing a family member. And even for those creating the albums, friends and family members of the artist, doing something like this can feel like a way of sorting through their emotions as well.”
Victor says the idea of releasing Pop Smoke’s work posthumously was barely on his radar until the rapper’s mentor of sorts, hiphop icon 50 Cent, insisted on taking the reins on the project.
“I wasn’t thinking about it. I was more just saddened about what had happened, and just dealing with that,” says Victor.
“After speaking with 50, it was him that said, ‘Obviously you’re sad but you can’t let the negativity of everything slow down what Pop was doing because that would be unfair to his fans and his family and to all the work he had put in.’ After that conversation I was like, OK let’s get to it and finish the album. Pop was already 80 per cent done with the album [when he died].
“The main thing is, it’s him,” Victor adds. “His ability to articulate his emotions and thoughts to sound and music, not everyone can do that. He was a unique person and a unique artist.”
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age