For years it was one of the most noticeable and enigmatic absences in music: most of the catalog of Aaliyah, the pioneering R&B singer of the 1990s and early 2000s, was missing from digital services – and provided the work of one of the most influential pop stars of the past few decades largely invisible and robbed they of a fair inheritance. The singer, whose full name was Aaliyah Haughton, died in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22.
But on Thursday came the surprise announcement that their music would soon hit streaming platforms, starting with their second album “One in a Million” (1996) on August 20th.
Fans, including Cardi B, partied online. But the return of Aaliyah’s music remains difficult as a battle continues between her estate and the music impresario who signed her as a teenager and maintains control of most of her catalog. Here is an overview of their long periods of unavailability on the services that dominate music consumption today.
What music is coming out now?
Blackground Records, founded by producer Barry Hankerson – Aaliyah’s uncle – said it will republish 17 albums from its catalog on streaming services as well as CD and vinyl over the next two months. They comprise the majority of Aaliyah’s production – her studio albums “One in a Million” and “Aaliyah”, along with the “Romeo Must Die” soundtrack and two posthumous collections – as well as albums by Timbaland, Toni Braxton, JoJo and Tank.
The releases, made through a distribution agreement with the independent music company Empire, will introduce a new generation to Aaliyah’s work. In the 1990s she stood out as a powerful voice in the emerging hip-hop sound: an upright young woman – she was just 15 when she released her first album “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” (1994) – the like a street smart angel sang over some of the most innovative backing tracks of the time.
“Where most divas insist on being at the center of the song,” wrote Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times in a 2001 tribute, “she knew how to disappear into the music, to adapt her voice to the bass line – it was sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other. “
Who is Barry Hankerson?
Hankerson is an elusive, powerful, and divisive personality in the music business. Once married to Gladys Knight, he later discovered and administered R. Kelly. He built Blackground into one of the most successful black music companies of his time, but came into conflict with artists. Braxton, JoJo and others have sued the label, with Braxton accusing Hankerson of “fraud, deception and double-dealing,” according to a 2016 article on Complex music site entitled “The Inexplicable Online Absence of Aaliyah’s Best Music.”
In 1991, Hankerson introduced his 12-year-old niece, Kelly, who was twice her age. Kelly, then an aspiring singer, songwriter, and producer, became the primary force shaping Aaliyah’s early career, writing and producing much of her material, and making Aaliyah a part of his entourage.
It was later revealed that Kelly had secretly married Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15 and he was 27 as a co-worker to obtain fake ID for Aaliyah stating her age at 18. Their marriage was annulled.
After Hankerson moved distribution of Blackground releases from the Jive label to Atlantic in the mid-1990s, Aaliyah began working with two young Virginia songwriter-producers: Timbaland and Missy Elliott. Their first collaboration, “One in a Million” (1996), went double platinum and produced the hit singles “If Your Girl Only Knew” and “The One I Gave My Heart To”.
What happened to Aaliyah’s music?
When Aaliyah died, she seemed well on the way to a great career. But as the music business evolved in the digital age and Blackground’s production waned, their music largely disappeared.
Aside from the album “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” which remained part of the Jive catalog through Sony Music, and a handful of other tracks, most of Aaliyah’s songs were not available for streaming. Used CDs and LPs from your labor market at sensational prices.
Their influence has remained, although sometimes it is more imaginary than real. Last month, singer Normani released a song with Cardi B, “Wild Side,” which contained what many fans thought was a sample of an Aaliyah drum break. (Billboard said it didn’t, even though Hankerson said it would still have its blessings.) And interest in her story was piqued by the 2019 documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, which went in depth dealt with their relationship.
Although the streaming catalog has almost reached the long-predicted degree of completion of the Heavenly Jukebox, there are a few other notable absences. De La Soul’s early work, including his classic 1989 debut “3 Feet High and Rising,” is not online, apparently due to sample deletion issues. (The new owners of this music have pledged to make it available, although no specific plans have been announced.)
Why is the music becoming available now?
What exactly led to the current release of Aaliyah’s music is unclear.
According to a new article on Billboard, Hankerson began looking for a new deal for her music about a year ago after Aaliyah’s estate made a cryptic announcement that “communication between the estate and” various record labels “has finally started to put online. “More updates will follow,” it said.
But the estate does not control Aaliyah’s recordings; Hankerson does this through his possession of the Blackground label. For months, fans have been following more mysterious statements from the estate, including one in January, around Aaliyah’s 42nd birthday, that “these matters are not under our control”.
When Blackground announced its re-release plans, the property responded with another confusing statement, saying that for 20 years it has endured “shadowy deception associated with unauthorized projects aimed at tarnishing,” but at the same time with “forgiveness” and desire to move expresses.
A more straightforward explanation of what was going on behind the scenes came from an estate attorney, Paul V. LiCalsi, who said, “For nearly 20 years, Blackground has failed to regularly account to the estate in accordance with its record of contracts . In addition, the estate was only made aware of the forthcoming publication of the catalog after the deal had been concluded and the planning had been completed. “
Quoting a Blackground representative in response, Billboard said the property “will receive whatever it is due” and that a license fee was paid earlier this year.
For fans, the behind-the-scenes battle may be less important than the music that finally becomes available online.
“Baby Girl is coming to Spotify,” the service announced on Twitter with a picture of Aaliyah. “We have waited a long time for this.”