When R&B singer Aaliyah perished in a 2001 Bahamas plane crash at the age of 22, it was a tragedy: The world lost an artist who’d monumentally shifted the soundscape of American music, and had the potential to achieve even more. Cited as an influence by everyone from Beyoncé to the experimental rock group Yeasayer, Aaliyah remains a modern-day icon, a generational talent whose musical footprint stretches across genres, her lasting image still invoked by young pop stars who weren’t even alive when she was. The tragic details of her too-short life—her brief, underage marriage to mentor-producer R. Kelly; the fraudulent pilot’s drug use during that fatal plane crash; her death occurring not even two months after her third album’s release—could never overshadow her impact on the culture.
This only makes it all the crueler, then, that you can’t access her best solo music through digital outlets, and haven’t been able to do so for years. 1996’s One in a Million and 2001’s Aaliyah have never been legally available to buy digitally or stream from platforms like iTunes and Spotify. Even more disheartening, the only Aaliyah album that’s easy to buy or stream is her 1994 debut, which was primarily written and produced by R. Kelly and horrifically titled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. And after an overdue reckoning with Kelly’s decadeslong manipulation and abuse of underage girls—including Aaliyah—commenced in 2019, many distraught Aaliyah fans have forced themselves to not press play on Age, lest Kelly earn any of those royalties.
All of this is why it was huge news when a website, AaliyahIsComing.com, popped up Wednesday, set up by her old label, Blackground. The next day, Spotify confirmed on Twitter what listeners hoped the phrase meant: that her post-Kelly music would be coming to streaming. However, as Blackground gradually detailed the planned rerelease of her catalogue, Aaliyah’s estate released multiple statements, calling this an “unscrupulous endeavor to release Aaliyah’s music without any transparency or full accounting to the estate” and accusing Blackground of “a gross lack of transparency.”
Thus, even as music fans herald the long-awaited digital release of Aaliyah’s most lauded work, there are still several questions. Is the streaming deal actually happening, or will this effort flail like so many previous ones have? How come Aaliyah’s estate doesn’t approve of it? Why is the label only releasing Aaliyah music along with the rest of its catalogue now, two decades after she died? And does R. Kelly stand to see any more money from all this? We’ve broken it all down the best we can.
So, why haven’t we been able to buy or stream Aaliyah’s music online, anyway?
Here, we have to start with how Aaliyah became a recording artist in the first place.
In the early 1990s, Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson, was an entertainment industry insider who had been previously married to Gladys Knight and just found a measure of success managing a then-unknown Chicago singer named Robert Kelly. When Kelly was enjoying his first taste of fame with 1992’s Born Into the 90’s—which was executive produced by Hankerson—the teenage Aaliyah was an aspiring child star, having appeared on Star Search and sang live with Knight onstage. Hankerson decided to manage his talented niece as well, and after unsuccessfully shopping her around to various labels, he decided to launch and sign her to his own, Blackground Enterprises; Kelly was already signed to Jive Records, which operated under the parent music company Zomba, which was partially owned by BMG at the time. (Pardon the name-dropping, but all this will be important later.) That connection allowed Hankerson to work out a distribution deal with Jive—which, in turn, had an international distribution process with BMG—for his label.
By that point, Hankerson had already introduced Aaliyah to R. Kelly, who subsequently became her mentor and took on lead songwriting and producing duties for her debut. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number (it still feels gross just typing that title) was released in 1994 and became a massive success, establishing Aaliyah on the scene—and, in parallel, boosting Kelly’s own musical acumen. But around this time, a bombshell December 1994 Vibe cover story reported by Danyel Smith revealed that Kelly had secretly married Aaliyah in Illinois—by showcasing a marriage certificate filled out with fake ages—and perhaps even impregnated her. Aaliyah’s family, horrified by the news, annulled the marriage, and Hankerson made sure Aaliyah and Kelly never worked together again—although Hankerson would keep executive producing Kelly’s albums up through 1998’s R.
It’s remarkable that, back then, even these revelations couldn’t take down Kelly or get his manager to stop working with him. But at this point, that horrendous saga is known all too well.
It’s good that Aaliyah left Kelly, but did that mean she also separated herself from Kelly’s label, Jive?
Yes. Barry Hankerson’s Blackground struck a new distribution deal with Atlantic Records in 1996, which allowed him full control of Aaliyah’s masters as well as those of several other artists he would sign. It’s worth noting here that Blackground operated with a Hankerson-run music publishing company known as Black Fountain Music, although because R. Kelly had been the primary writer on Age and was fully signed under Jive, the rights to Age stayed with that label.
In lieu of Kelly, Hankerson roped in an up-and-coming songwriting-and-production duo, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, to craft the songs for Aaliyah’s sophomore release, One in a Million. Released the same year as the Atlantic switch, Million would go platinum and cement Aaliyah’s stature in the pop world while also kickstarting Elliott’s and Timbo’s careers (the latter would sign to Blackground shortly after). In the following years, Aaliyah would release various singles, contribute to film soundtracks, and work with many other popular ’90s artists. (Since some of those soundtrack and album features were not owned by Aaliyah’s label, they’ve occasionally been available to stream and purchase digitally, provided you dig a bit.) That all led up to July 2001’s Aaliyah, which was also a big seller for Blackground.
And six weeks later, the plane crash happened.
Sadly, yes. Afterward, the only releases of Aaliyah’s music from Blackground were the compilations I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah.
Does her untimely death have anything to do with the digital dearth of her discography?
Also yes. As How Music Got Free author Stephen Witt reported for Complex in 2016, Aaliyah’s demise sent Hankerson into deep grief: He “made no public statements about her death” and “never really recovered.” Blackground would continue to release music in the early 2000s, with a roster of stars like Static Major and then–12-year-old singer JoJo. But Hankerson soon went into seclusion, and not only did Blackground stop releasing music, but it didn’t participate in music’s digital transition at all: no mp3s for the iTunes market, no deals for streaming, and the CDs were allowed to lapse out of print. Various Blackground artists sued the label, and Hankerson’s legal team fought back viciously. Eventually, Hankerson sold a stake in Blackground’s publishing to Reservoir Media, one of the many companies that in recent years has been buying up historic artists’ catalogs at a fast clip.
Wait, why did Hankerson finally sell?
As Witt detailed, an ex-girlfriend of Hankerson’s successfully sued him for nearly $6 million after alleging some heinous acts on his part; Hankerson claimed the suit would bankrupt him and asked that Blackground be a debt guarantor. Although he apparently reneged on this, leading to yet another lawsuit, it’s safe to assume that his publishing exchange with Reservoir was meant to help shore up his own finances. And using his niece’s work as collateral probably didn’t hurt that price tag.
The great tragedy of Aaliyah’s life was the plethora of awful men who built her career up and then manipulated both her and her success.
At any rate, the sale to Reservoir allowed that company to make some deals with Blackground, allowing for the occasional sampling of some unreleased Aaliyah vocals. But her core music remained in limbo as Spotify, still new to American music by the time of the 2012 sale, gradually came to define the post-iTunes era. Age, under Sony, was available throughout this transition. Eventually, so were a couple other Aaliyah singles and loosies that had appeared on albums not released on Blackground, like the hit “Are You That Somebody?” from the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, which was subsequently released on various compilations.
Outside of those works, however, Aaliyah’s best was hard to come by. And then there were the unreleased vocals: As superproducer Noah “40” Shebib told Vibe in 2014, he’d been approached by Hankerson around the time of the Reservoir sale to work on a project that made use of unproduced Aaliyah tracks that Hankerson still owned; frequent Shebib collaborator and Aaliyah superfan Drake was eager to join the effort, and in 2012 they all released a single titled “Enough Said,” featuring never-before-heard Aaliyah singing as well as a new Drake verse. The track was widely decried—by fans, by Missy Elliott and Timbaland, and by Aaliyah’s immediate family, who did not approve the project—and its album was abandoned.
Ouch! So, they wanted to put out unreleased music but wouldn’t do anything about her classics?
Well, the following years saw both fakeouts and potential signs of hope for the discog. In 2013, a distribution company called Craze Digital put up One in a Million and Aaliyah for sale on iTunes, despite not having the rights for either. Both were soon taken down, but that same company would later release Ultimate Aaliyah on Apple Music and iTunes in 2017; that one was also quickly taken down. Then, in August 2020, Aaliyah’s estate announced on social media that “communication has commenced between the estate and various record labels about the status of Aaliyah’s music catalog, as well as its availability on streaming platforms in the near future.” By the end of the year, the estate claimed it had gained control of the Aaliyah YouTube account. But the authorized Aaliyah channels still only have a limited amount of her music, including videos for singles from Age and a performance of hers from Showtime at the Apollo. This is likely explained by the estate’s statement from Jan. 15 of this year, in which it wrote, “while we share your … desire to have Aaliyah’s music released, we must acknowledge that these matters are not within our control.”
However, per this statement, the estate has “control” over the singer’s “brand, legacy, and intellectual property,” which could still play into its advantage in one way: The new website for the rebooted Blackground has a currently empty filter option for “Clothing.” With the estate maintaining Aaliyah’s IP, don’t expect any new Aaliyah-brand merch to come from Blackground.
But if the music is coming out now, that must have been all Hankerson’s doing.
Basically, though there were a few contributing factors. In a profile published Thursday in Billboard, Hankerson claims that he took the estate’s August 2020 statement on Aaliyah’s catalog as a “green light” to try to get the legend’s work out. He finally figured out a deal with Empire, an independent distribution company established in 2010, for the steady release of not only Aaliyah’s catalog but that of other Blackground artists, like Toni Braxton and the rapper Magoo.
But Aaliyah’s estate isn’t thrilled about this, per its Wednesday statement.
Nope. The estate’s attorney has claimed it “was not made aware of the impending release of the catalog until after the deal was complete and plans were in place.” But Blackground not only stated that it provided the estate an advanced rollout plan and the opportunity to contribute (which the estate allegedly declined), but also that it gave the estate Aaliyah’s entitled royalties. So, that squabble isn’t likely to end.
What happens now?
Now rebranded as Blackground Records 2.0, the label will be releasing 17 albums from its catalog in chronological order over the coming months. For Aaliyah’s music specifically, this entails the rerelease of One in a Million on Aug. 20 (a very intentional date, it seems, as Aug. 25 will be the 20th anniversary of the star’s death), Aaliyah on Sept. 10, and I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah on Oct. 8.
So by Oct. 8, all of Aaliyah’s releases will be together on streaming at last.
That’s the hope! And there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping that this time—yet.
But wait: Just to be sure, will R. Kelly get anything out of this? Neither Hankerson nor Aaliyah had control of the masters for Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number, right?
The masters for Age were held by Jive until a series of label consolidations kicked off in the 2000s, culminating in Sony acquiring Jive subsequently absorbing it into the RCA label, which then took over for Jive’s remaining artists, including R. Kelly. But the specific picture has changed a bit, as Sony and RCA claimed to drop R. Kelly in 2019 while keeping his catalog. The singer also still has a $1.5 million royalty pool with Sony that has been frozen, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Between Kelly’s ongoing legal fights and current internment, it’s likely he’s not still seeing any money from his work with Aaliyah, and even if he were, all of it would be funneled toward the criminal justice system.
At any rate, Kelly will not benefit at all from the forthcoming streams and purchases of Aaliyah’s work from 1996 onward. But if nostalgic fans still ache to spin Age for the sake of completeness after all the albums arrive, it might better to think of that album as a Jive A&R described it in a 2016 Vibe interview: “like listening to an R. Kelly album, but with a little girl singing.”