In the song “Sun Come Down” on Chance the Rapper’s new album The Big Day, the Chicago artist makes a series of requests for his legacy after he’s gone. He asks that listeners who want to use his likeness “please approve it through my wife,” and that any Chance the Rapper biopics not focus on his death. He also makes a rather specific request regarding technology: “Please don’t make no holograms, don’t wanna do it twice.”
The ethics of using holograms to resurrect deceased musicians has been a slow-simmering topic of debate for a while now. In 2012, the technology made a big splash when the company AV Concepts made it possible for Snoop Dogg to rap alongside Tupac, who had died 15 years prior, at Coachella. The company created an animation based on old footage of the late rapper and used an angled piece of glass to produce a projection that looked three-dimensional to the audience, which is similar to, but not quite the same as, a true hologram. Jason Lipshutz, who was then an editor at Billboard, described the sense of unease around the stunt. “But watching a visual re-creation of the rapper traipse around the stage in choreographed movements felt incorrect, as if trying to capture the energy that Tupac exhibited in his life and rhymes was a fool’s errand,” he wrote. “The hologram made me uncomfortable because Pac’s life was special, and that unique flame has been extinguished.”
Two years later, a hologram of Michael Jackson moonwalked across the stage at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, five years after his death. “The song title to which his pixilated image appeared, ‘Slave to the Rhythm,’ is apt,” wrote dance critic Sarah Kaufman in the Washington Post. “ ‘Slave to those who can’t stop draining him for profits’ would be even better.” The performance sparked a patent infringement lawsuit against Pulse Evolution, the company that produced the hologram, from another company that claimed to have invented the technology in the first place. The conflict was settled in 2016.
The issue came up again in 2018, when rumors leading up to Super Bowl LII indicated that Justin Timberlake wanted a hologram of Prince to perform beside him. The news created an uproar partly because Prince had expressed his loathing for reanimating pop stars prior to his death. In a 2008 interview with Guitar World, when asked whether he’d take the chance to jam alongside a deceased musician with the magic of digital editing, Prince said, “That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age.” However, it turns out that the rumors were likely untrue, and Timberlake ended up singing a duet with a footage of Prince projected onto a huge sheet in the stadium.
Some musicians, though, appear to have no problems with using holograms of themselves, at least when they’re alive. Singer Janelle Monáe and rapper M.I.A. used holograms in 2014 so that they could perform together from different cities. And in 2015, rapper Chief Keef tried to use holograms to perform in Chicago without actually having to go there, because he had several outstanding warrants in the state and local authorities generally considered his presence to be a public safety risk. Police in fact stormed the concerts where Keef’s hologram was set to perform and pulled the plug.
It is a bit morbid that Chance, now 26, is thinking about how his likeness could be posthumously reconstructed, but it’s also practical. As the tech improves—and becomes common enough that we find it less eerie—musicians will have to think through whether they want to keep on touring after their own deaths. Chance likely won’t be the only one who doesn’t wanna do it twice.