There are only a few artists that can transcend genres, styles, and languages with their influence, and Aaliyah is undoubtedly one of them. From Rihanna and Monica to HAIM and Jessie Ware, Aaliyah has inspired some of the biggest names in the music industry today, whether they make indie pop or alternative R&B. Her distinguished reputation has been well–established, yet her legacy has been threatened due to tight control over her discography. After a 20–year legal battle between Aaliyah’s former label Blackground Records and her estate that is still not completely resolved, her diverse catalog is finally on its way to old and new listeners.
At a young age, Aaliyah was already heavily involved in the entertainment industry—she was born into a musical family. Her aunt, Gladys Knight, was a Grammy–winning singer known for her chart–topping hit “Midnight Train to Georgia”—and Aaliyah was expected by her uncle to follow suit. Singing in local groups and choirs turned into auditioning for national TV shows and performing with her aunt in concerts. After Aaliyah’s promising performance on the talent competition show Star Search wasn’t enough to win the show, her uncle, Barry Hankerson, decided to create his own label to jump start her career. Blackground Records was founded in 1993, and Hankerson employed R. Kelly to work with Aaliyah. These two unknown artists at the time would soon take the world by storm.
Aaliyah’s debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number was the product of her joint effort with Kelly. Even though she was still a teenager enrolled in school, that didn’t prevent the duo from treating the album as any other work from a major label. Aaliyah described the writing and producing process as “vibing off of one another” after Kelly would “write the songs” that detailed Aaliyah’s adolescent life. Critics lauded the album, praising Aaliyah for her mature tone and memorable hooks on tracks such as “At Your Best (You Are Love),” which helped the album sell over 6 million copies globally.
The pair grew so close that some accused Kelly of illegally marrying Aaliyah, who was only 15 at the time. Although Aaliyah and her family denied the allegations, rumors of the affair resurfaced during Kelly’s ongoing sex trafficking trial. According to court documents, Kelly sought out a fake ID to get a valid marriage license. As a result of the controversy, Aaliyah switched labels and collaborators for her next album. On One in a Million, Aaliyah worked mainly with Timbaland and Missy Elliot, two artists who would later become legendary figures in the music industry. Aaliyah’s sophomore album would be one of their major works that highlighted their instrumental prowess, allowing them to connect with people like Jay–Z and Brandy on the way to producer stardom.
Aaliyah continued to shine in the spotlight with Aaliyah—which would be her final album. She further refined and developed her style, seamlessly combining pop, soul, and R&B, which has defined some of the greatest hits today. Building off of the success of her previous albums, Aaliyah broke a slew of records, including the single “Try Again” that reached No. 1 on Billboard based only on airplay.
After filming a music video set in the Bahamas for “Rock The Boat,” Aaliyah passed away in a plane crash. The death came as a shock to many, especially since she was just 22 years old, and fans were saddened to see Aaliyah’s untapped potential disappear. Aaliyah became a worldwide icon for her short–lived yet impressive career, and her family wanted to preserve that legacy. Many family members did not want Aaliyah’s music to be available following her death, and after Blackground Records lost its distribution rights, Aaliyah’s discography disappeared from stores. When physical albums disappeared in favor of digital sales and streaming services, her albums became even rarer.
All of this made Blackground Records’ announcement in August that Aaliyah’s discography would be gradually uploaded to streaming services even more surprising. To fans, it was amazing news after resorting to low–quality YouTube videos or fan websites. However, Aaliyah’s estate objected, stating that they were not informed beforehand of Blackground Records’ sudden decision. To add even more fuel to the fire, Blackground Records also released the discographies of their other clientele. This includes JoJo, who re–recorded her catalog due to disputes with Blackground Records. Similar to Taylor Swift and her high–profile masters battle with her label, JoJo turned to re–recordings to regain control of her music. She also felt betrayed by Blackground Records’ decision, expressing her frustrations on Twitter since she would not gain any money from the original versions.
Releasing Aaliyah’s albums is still a promising start in celebrating the artist’s accomplishments in multiple genres. Her influence is still very much felt today, evidenced by Normani and Cardi B’s “Wild Side” which samples the title track on One in a Million. Aaliyah’s estate is still hesitant with its control of her music—Hankerson and Blackground Records say that no such sample was approved but were honored to see “young women pursuing their musical and entertainment careers”—but her music is slowly being introduced to a new generation. Regardless of the current tension, Aaliyah will forever remain an icon, establishing the R&B scene we know today and influencing the music of the future. In the upcoming weeks, the world can momentarily travel back to the 1990s to revisit Aaliyah’s dominance as the “Princess of R&B.”