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How Aaliyah’s music finally came to streaming services — and why the decision is controversial

Aaliyah attends the 2001 MTV Movie Awards. (Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images)
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Aaliyah’s 1996 double-platinum sophomore album, “One in a Million,” appeared on streaming platforms for the first time Friday, delighting fans who for decades have clamored for more access to the singer’s catalogue. But the journey to its debut on streaming services, which comes nearly 20 years after the singer’s death at just 22, has been fraught.

Aaliyah is celebrated as a pioneering force in R&B and pop. But much of the music that shaped that legacy — including “One in a Million” and the self-titled album she released the month before her death in a 2001 plane crash — has been conspicuously absent in the streaming era. And as a 2016 Complex article outlined, the reason has never been entirely clear; the masters for those recordings have always been in the control of Aaliyah’s uncle, entertainment lawyer-turned-music producer Barry Hankerson.

Billboard reported earlier this month that Hankerson’s label Blackground Records, signed a distribution deal with Empire, a breakout distribution company and record label, clearing the way for the singer’s last two albums and several treasured singles to be released at long last. The news followed the sudden appearance of a website that hinted at a forthcoming release.

Amid speculation, the late singer’s estate — run on behalf of her mother, Diane Haughton, and brother Rashad Haughton — issued a prickly statement calling out an “unscrupulous endeavor to release Aaliyah’s music without any transparency or full accounting to the estate.” But the statement, which also referenced “forgiveness,” appeared to indicate that the estate would not be taking legal steps to stop the release.

Here is everything you need to know about the album that is now available, what’s forthcoming and why not everyone is happy about it.

Which of Aaliyah’s albums is streaming now?

“One in a Million” is the only new album available to stream. Her final album, “Aaliyah,” which topped the Billboard 200 albums chart weeks after her death, will be released digitally and on CD in September, along with “Are You That Somebody?," the singer’s Grammy-nominated contribution to the soundtrack for the 1998 film “Dr. Dolittle.” Two posthumous compilation albums, “I Care 4 You” and “Ultimate Aaliyah,” will be released in October.

Her 1994 debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” was licensed for distribution under Jive Records and has been available to stream for years. That album established Aaliyah as a soulful and self-assured singer. But for many, its legacy is hampered by its association with R. Kelly, whom Hankerson managed at the time and recruited to collaborate with Aaliyah on her debut. Kelly is on trial in New York on racketeering charges and violations of the Mann Act, a federal law that criminalizes sex trafficking across state lines.

As reported by the New York Times, Kelly’s nine-count indictment stems from his interactions with six women and girls, including Aaliyah, whose illegal marriage to Kelly in 1994 — when she was 15 and he was 27 — first fueled speculation over the singer’s inappropriate conduct with underage girls. In 2019, federal prosecutors charged Kelly with bribing an Illinois state official to obtain false identification so that he could marry the underage singer. The union, which was referenced in the prosecution’s opening statements on Wednesday, was eventually expunged.

What to know about R. Kelly’s trial for sex trafficking and racketeering charges

What’s special about ‘One in a Million’?

By the time ″One in a Million” was released to positive reviews, Aaliyah had ceased contact with Kelly. The 1996 album paired the singer with collaborators that would help define her sound and legacy: Missy Elliott and Timbaland. The singer had further evolved when “Aaliyah” hit shelves in 2001.

The two albums represent Aaliyah coming into her own as an artist and her enduring influence in the modern pop and R&B sphere. Just weeks before “One in a Million” was released, Normani and Cardi B dropped their new single “Wild Side,” which features a “One in a Million”-esque riff. Reps for Normani clarified to TMZ that the song does not actually sample Aaliyah’s song after Hankerson told the site a sample hadn’t been cleared. Hankerson and Timbland both expressed support for “Wild Side,” with Hankerson telling TMZ he believed Aaliyah “would be very supportive of a young Black woman that chose to emulate her music and style.”

Why was Aaliyah’s music unavailable on streaming?

It’s complicated. From a logistical standpoint, it’s been more than a decade since Blackground last had a deal with a major distributor. Hankerson told Billboard that he and his sister (Aaliyah’s mother) had not been in regular contact since the singer’s death and that, at some point, Diane Haughton asked that Aaliyah’s music not be released. But an attorney for the estate told the magazine that Haughton had not made that request and that the bulk of Aaliyah’s catalogue — including completely unreleased tracks — had been “inexplicably withheld from the public by Blackground Records.”

The Empire deal also allows Blackground to release music from other artists, some of whom have leveled similar accusations at Hankerson’s label. JoJo rerecorded her first two albums in 2018 following a highly publicized court battle with Blackground over the masters for her 2004 self-titled debut and 2006 sophomore effort, “The High Road.” The deal also frees up work by Toni Braxton, Tank, Timbaland and Magoo, and Ashley Parker Angel, in addition to the soundtracks for the 2000 film “Romeo Must Die,” in which Aaliyah made her acting debut, and the 2001 DMX-Steven Seagal movie “Exit Wounds.”

Why now?

Hankerson told Billboard that he took his cue from an announcement shared from the estate’s Twitter account on the 19th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death, noting that the estate had starting communicating with “various record labels about the status of Aaliyah’s music catalogue, as well as its availability on streaming platforms in the near future.”

But in a post earlier this year, on what would have been Aaliyah’s 42nd birthday, the estate acknowledged frustration with the process: “We hear you and we see you. While we share your sentiments and desire to have Aaliyah’s music released, we must acknowledge that these matters are not within our control and, unfortunately, take time.”

Why does the estate oppose the deal?

In its most recent statement, the estate emphasized its commitment to “protecting Aaliyah’s legacy.”

“Ultimately,” the statement added, “we desire closure and a modicum of peace so we can facilitate the growth of the Aaliyah Memorial Fund and other creative projects that embody Aaliyah’s true essence, which is to inspire strength and positivity for people of all creeds, races and cultures around the world.”

The Billboard story suggests the estate had a seat at the table as Blackground sought distributors, but Hankerson and the estate shared dueling accounts of what happened next. An attorney for the estate told Billboard that the estate was not made aware of the deal until it “was complete and plans were in place.” The attorney added that “the estate has demanded that Blackground provide a full account of its past earnings, and full disclosure of the terms of its new deal to distribute Aaliyah’s long embargoed music.”

A rep for Blackground, meanwhile, told the magazine that the label had shared its “rollout plans with representatives for the estate and provided them with the opportunity to participate and provide input and the estate elected not to do so.”

What do Aaliyah’s collaborators say?

Elliott and Timbaland, undoubtedly Aaliyah’s closest collaborators, haven’t spoken publicly about Blackground’s deal with Empire or the arrival of “One in a Million” to streaming. But Billboard’s in-depth report notes that after the estate expressed that it would not support the Empire deal, “interviews with Missy Elliott and Timbaland were canceled, and the status of Timbaland’s work on the new Aaliyah recordings is currently unclear.”

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