Recently, I lost a dear friend. The kind that made you laugh a lot. The kind that made you feel cooler than you really were when you were around them. The kind that you felt okay being yourself around.
In other words: the rare kind.
It also happens that this friend was a successful, influential, and prolific musician. And though his properly released catalog of music was expansive despite his young age when he passed, there remains a veritable library of unreleased and largely unheard recorded music. Some songs are raw, some unfinished, some with all the proverbial "i’s" dotted and "t’s" crossed that simply didn’t fit into the particular project around which they were made.
As I’ve stumbled through the thicket of emotions and memories in the aftermath of this person's short but incredible life, one of the circling thoughts I’ve come back to now and again has been: What will be done with his musical legacy in the wake of his passing? Specifically, the mountains of unreleased music he left behind.
The simplest conclusion I’ve come to is that there is no "right" answer to this question. The only person that can truly answer it has moved on from this world and can no longer take part in the discussion, so maybe there is no discussion to be had.
In that way, we’re left with only one available course of action to take. Do nothing. Let his earthly decisions as to the How, When, and What of his art and his intentions for that art to be heard, be immortalized in their place in history. A monument to an immensely creative individual that was once with us and is no longer. No amendments to the story, no potential to dilute or confuse his musical legacy as he left it.
But is that what he would have wanted?
As a teen, I became a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix. I remember going to the local record store and buying his first album, Are You Experienced, after hearing "Purple Haze" during a scene in the Robin Williams movie The Awakening. Rather quickly, this turned into a full-blown idolization of Jimi’s art and music, and I began to seek out more music by him, any and everywhere I could find it. He had only released three studio albums and two live albums in his lifetime. Since his death, there have been a total of 12 studio albums, 25 live albums, and 27 compilation albums posthumously released.
Of course, at the time of my initial infatuation with Hendrix, I was eager to discover any clues as to the unknowable future direction of his music and artistry, so my collection grew to include most of those posthumous releases.
But with time, I learned that the five projects that were released while he was alive were all I really ever needed. Those are the songs that I’ve continued to cherish over the years; the albums that I still listen to and enjoy from time to time. The many found cuts and restored performance tapes posthumously released were fun to listen to, but the argument could be made that they simply watered down a concise and potent discography released with his full intention. They surely don’t add much to his legacy as a trailblazing and majorly influential guitarist and songwriter. They just exist as extra pieces to the puzzle of what made this man so great at what he did. Not as unnecessary as the extra bits and bobs Ikea includes with every piece of furniture you buy, but not as essential as the actual parts you need to build the thing.
But then again, Jimi inhabited the world of rock 'n' roll, its patriarch the blues, with maybe a touch of funk and soul on occasion. The basic construct was guitar, bass, vocals, and drums, and the occasional organ. So is the conversation different when it involves an artist that, while centered in one genre, was capable of moving through others somewhat effortlessly? In the music technology age where soundscapes aren’t limited to physical instruments and the lines between genres are increasingly blurred, how do we measure artistic depth?
Prince wasn’t confined to any particular genre. If he endeavored to make an entire instrumental jazz album, wouldn’t that only further showcase the wide expanse of his talent? Prince was also a perfectionist, widely known to spend hours, days, and weeks on the tiny details of a song's presentation before considering it worthy of release. Clearly, no one could say for certain that such a hypothetical album would have had his blessing and approval to be released to the world. But those considerations aside, might it not still be important for his fans to hear him in a new context, deepening our admiration and keeping his legacy fresh in our minds?
My friend was a rapper by trade, but also a worldly artist and musician capable of expressing himself outside of the confines of what we consider "rap music." And indeed, he left us with much music that strayed away from his genre of choice and pointed to new directions in his sound as he continued to expand his palette as a songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist.
It could be that his legacy is best served by the world getting to hear him spread his creative wings and venture into this new and uncharted territory. Or maybe we’re best left to imagine the many great things he may have done through further examination of the projects he released while he was here.
If the choice is someday made to continue sharing this man's musical contributions with the world, we can only hope that those burdened with the task are up to the challenge. Choosing the appropriate songs, "finishing" them in a manner he might have deemed acceptable, presenting them tastefully, and ultimately making a priority of protecting his artistic legacy.
My friend passed at what had been widely considered the peak of his artistic trajectory. Is it possible to stretch that arc even higher without his presence, or is the risk of having it come back to earth too great?