How AI Brought Biggie Back From the Dead
Timbaland's use of AI to regenerate the late rapper's voice raises questions about the use of AI vocal rendering technology for deceased artists.
What if we had the power to bring back the dead? As far as recordings are concerned, we might be getting pretty close.
The viral success of the so-called “Fake Drake” track “Heart on My Sleeve,” which apparently employed artificial intelligence technology to create realistic renderings of vocals from Drake and The Weeknd without their knowledge, has raised the possibility that perhaps any voice can now be imitated by AI, even artists who died decades ago.
Last week, producer Timbaland did just that. “I always wanted to work with B.I.G., and I never got a chance to. Until today…” he said in an Instagram Reel, pressing play on an unreleased song clip that sounds like Notorious B.I.G., rapping on top of a Timbaland beat, despite the fact that the rapper was murdered in a drive-by shooting 25 years prior. (A representative for Timbaland did not respond to Billboard’s request for comment. A representative for Notorious B.I.G.’s estate declined to comment.)
But this is not the first time a deceased star’s voice has been resurrected with AI. The HYBE-owned AI voice synthesis company Supertone recreated the voice of late South Korean folk artist Kim Kwang-seok last year, and in November, Tencent’s Lingyin Engine made headlines for developing “synthetic voices in memory of legendary artists,” like Teresa Teng and Anita Mui. To see more even examples of this technology applied to late American singers, take a few minutes on TikTok, searching phrases like “Kurt Cobain AI cover” or “XXXTentacion AI voice.”
Some artists — like Grimes and Holly Herndon — have embraced the idea of this vocal recreation technology, finding innovative ways to grant fans access to their voices while maintaining some control through their own AI models, but other artists are showing signs that they will resist this, fearing that the technology could lead to confusion over which songs they actually recorded. There is also fear that fans will put words into artists’ mouths, making them voice phrases and opinions that they would never say IRL. Even Grimes admitted on Twitter there is the possibility that people will use her voice to say “rly rly toxic lyrics” or “nazi stuff” – and said she’d take those songs down.
In the case of artists like The Notorious B.I.G. or Kurt Cobain, who both passed away when the internet was still something you had to dial-up, it’s impossible to know where they might stand on this next-gen technology. Still, their voices are being resurrected through AI, and it seems these vocals are getting more realistic by the day.
It calls to mind the uncanny valley nature of the Tupac hologram which debuted at Coachella in 2012, or even the proliferation of posthumous albums in more recent years, which are especially common to see from artists who passed away suddenly at a young age, like Juice WRLD, Lil Peep and Mac Miller.
Tyler, the Creator has voiced what many others have felt about the posthumous album trend. At an April 26 concert in Los Angeles, he noted that he’s written it into his will that he does not want any unreleased music put out after his death. “That’s f-cking gross,” he said. “Like, half-ass ideas and some random feature on it…like no.” It remains unclear if Tyler’s dying wishes would be honored when that time comes, however. Labels often own every song recorded during the term of their contract with an artist, so there is financial incentive for labels to release those unheard records.
Some who look at this optimistically liken the ability to render an artists’ voice onto a cover or original track as an emerging, novel form of fan engagement, similar to remixing, sampling or even writing fan fiction. Similar to where this new technology seems to be headed, remixes and samples also both started as unsanctioned creations. Those reworkings were often less about making songs that would go toe-to-toe with the original artists’ catalog on the Billboard charts than it was about creativity and playfulness. Of course, there were plenty of legal issues that came along with the emergence of both remixing and sampling.
The legality of bringing artists’ voices back from the grave specifically is also still somewhat unclear. A celebrity’s voice may be covered by “right of publicity” laws which can protect them from having their voices commercially exploited without authorization. However, publicity rights post-mortem can be limited. “There’s no federal rights of publicity statute, just a hodgepodge of different state laws,” says Josh Love, partner at Reed Smith. He explains that depending on where the artist was domiciled at the time of their death, their estate may not possess any rights of publicity, but in states like California, there can be strong protection after death.
Another potential safeguard is the Lanham Act — which prohibits the use of any symbol or device that is likely to deceive consumers about the association, sponsorship, or approval of goods and services — though it may be less of a potent argument post-mortem. But most cases in which rights of publicity or the Lanham Act were used to protect a musician’s voice — like Tom Waits v. Frito Lay and Bette Midler v. Ford — were clear examples of voices being appropriated for commercial use. Creative works, like songs, are much more likely to be deemed a protected form of free speech.
Some believe this could be a particularly interesting new path for reviving older catalogs, especially when the artist is not alive to take part in any more promotion, for the estates and rights holders who control the artists’ likeness. As Zach Katz, president and COO of FaZe Clan and former president of BMG US, put it in a recent press release for voice mapping service Covers.ai: “AI will open a new, great opportunity for more legacy artists and catalogs to have their ‘Kate Bush’ or “Fleetwood Mac’ moment,” he said. “We are living in a remix culture and the whole fan-music movement is overdue to arrive in the industry.”
Though Covers.ai, created by start-up MAYK, was only just released to the public May 10, the company announced that it already amassed over 100,000 sign ups for the service leading up to its launch, proving that there is a strong appetite for this technology. With Covers.ai, users can upload original songs and map someone else’s voice on top of it, and the company says it is working to partner with the music business to license and pay for these voices. Its co-founder and CEO, Stefan Heinrich, says this idea is especially popular so far with Gen Z and Gen Alpha, “the product we’re building here is really made for the next generation, the one coming up.”
Between Supertone, Lingyin Engine, Covers.ai and others competitors like Uberduck coming into the marketplace, it seems the popularization of these AI voice synthesizers is inevitable (albeit legally uncertain) but playing with dead artists’ voices adds another layer of moral complexity to the discussion: is this more akin to paying respects or grave robbing?