After Aaliyah's tragic death in 2001, her estate -- run by Aaliyah LLC on behalf of her mother, Diane, her brother, Rashad, and her former manager, Barry Hankerson -- became embroiled in what would become a decades-long battle over the singer's discography. On Thursday, that battle was thrust back into the spotlight when Hankerson's rebooted record label, Blackground Records 2.0, announced a partnership with the music distribution company Empire to release the brand's entire catalog of beloved titles -- which includes Aaliyah's music. The rollout will also feature albums from artists like Toni Braxton, Timbaland & Magoo, Tank and more.
A statement from Empire explains that the partnership stems from Blackground's "commitment to introduce Aaliyah and Blackground's legacy to a new audience, re-engage longtime fans, and educate new fans about Aaliyah and Blackground's undeniable impact on culture, fashion, visual art, music and more."
"It has been a long time since the fans could enjoy Aaliyah and other artists on our catalog, and there has been a lot of changes in the music business since we took the music off the market," Hankerson, who is also the singer's uncle, told Billboard of the partnership. "We wanted to be sure to be with the right people, the right executives, and to give ourselves the right time to do the different things. So when you add all that up, it was a couple of years before we could even really consider putting the music out."
All of Aaliyah's catalog will be released in a rollout beginning Aug. 20 and continue to October, giving the public access to her self-titled final album as well as One in a Million and the compilation albums I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah.
On Wednesday, Aaliyah's estate posted a message speaking out against "unauthorized projects" connected to the late singer and actress on Instagram, asking for "a modicum of peace" as they work on her Memorial Fund and other projects that "embody Aaliyah's true essence."
"Protecting Aaliyah’s legacy is, and will always be, our focus. For 20 years we have battled behind the scenes, enduring shadowy tactics of deception with unauthorized projects targeted to tarnish," they wrote on Aug. 4. "We have always been confused as to why there is such a tenacity in causing more pain alongside what we already have to cope with for the rest of our lives. Now, in this 20th year, this unscrupulous endeavor to release Aaliyah's music without any transparency or full accounting to the estate compels our hearts to express a word - forgiveness."
The note continues; "Although we will continue to defend ourselves and her legacy lawfully and justly, we want to preempt the inevitable attacks on our character by all the individuals who have emerged from the shadows to leech off of Aaliyah's life's work. Ultimately, 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."
Since Blackground owns the masters to Aaliyah's recordings, her estate has no stake in the songs' publishing copyrights. According to Billboard, when the estate released a statement in August 2020 that it was speaking to labels about distributing her music, Hankerson took it as a green light. The estate reportedly reached out to Blackground to help find a distributor but allegedly wasn't informed of the Empire deal until it was already final.
But even without the estate's approval, the rollout will move forward. And although the Haughtons' disapproval -- as well as the other controversies surrounding the princess of R&B's legacy -- loom over these releases like a dark cloud, the choice is ultimately up to the fans to decide how they want to honor Aaliyah's memory.
The first release, Aaliyah's One in a Million, will be available to stream on all major digital streaming platforms beginning Aug. 20.