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AALIYAH: THE FOUNDATION

Aaliyah wasn’t having it.

It was early summer of 2001 and the 22-year-old superstar was in the midst of a tug-of-war with executives from her label home, Blackground Records. Aaliyah’s team was anxious to further the buzzy momentum of the singer’s Timbaland-produced first single, “We Need a Resolution,” from her soon-to-be-released, self-titled third album. Beginning in the mid-'90s, the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised native had garnered a reputation for delivering some of the most forward-thinking statements in R&B, and this ethereal, clarinet-propelled lover’s lament about an imploding relationship was no different. The plan was to follow up “We Need a Resolution” with another Timbaland collaboration, but Aaliyah had other ideas. 

“Aaliyah fought hard for ‘Rock the Boat,'" recalls Eric Seats of the hypnotic, sensual track he co-produced with Key Beats partner Rapture Stewart. “The powers that be were trying to be political about it. But she was like, ‘Nah, this is the song.’ Aaliyah had a vision for the project. She was passionate about what it meant to her.”

That passion was rewarded, albeit posthumously, following a 2001 plane crash that took the lives of Aaliyah and seven others as they were returning from a video shoot in the Bahamas. The Static Major-penned “Rock the Boat” became an instant radio staple, peaking at #13, launching a 26-week chart run. Shocked fans mourned the singer’s untimely death as Aaliyah topped album charts on its way to becoming her third straight multiplatinum album.  

“We were all numb,” recalls Seats of the moment Aaliyah’s passing sunk in. “On the way home from the studio, I heard her music being played back-to-back on the radio. I could barely drive because my eyes were watering. Her last album is etched in stone for me. It’s an honor and a blessing to see Aaliyah’s legacy just as present and relevant today more than 20 years later.”

On 9/10 Aaliyah’s final studio set, also known to devotees as “the red album,” was at last made available for streaming. The highly anticipated reissue succeeds the 8/20 re-release of the whispery vocalist’s 1996 futuristic soul/hip-hop opus, One in a Million, the seminal work that introduced soon-to-be super-producer Timothy "Timbaland" Mosley and a virtually unknown songwriter named Missy Elliott to public consciousness—before the latter's ascent as an iconic change agent.

The much-trumpeted digital rollout, which also includes the 9/3 re-emergence of the Romeo Must Die soundtrack (featuring multiple Aaliyah cuts) and the upcoming compilations I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah (10/8), follows a distribution pact between Blackground and EMPIRE. Overseen by veteran label head Barry Hankerson (who is also Aaliyah’s uncle), the deal had been discussed for nearly two years and was ultimately finalized last summer. Blackground owns Aaliyah’s sound recordings.   

“Obviously, Aaliyah’s music and vision were extremely important to a generation of artists and fans,” says EMPIRE SVP of Marketing Peter Kadin. “But I think the entire catalog, including Timbaland and Missy and Tank and Magoo and so many other influential artists of that era of R&B and hip-hop music, was something we couldn’t really turn away from.”

The swaggering image and voice of Aaliyah Haughton have remained frozen in time. The gifted dancer made her debut in 1994 as a hat-to-the-back teenager rocking shades and baggy jeans. Her first drop was the double-platinum Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. Despite her skyrocketing fame, however, her career was nearly capsized when it was discovered that her producer, R. Kelly, had secretly married Aaliyah when she was 15 and he was 27. (Now 54, he is on trial facing a myriad of charges, including sexually exploiting minors, sex trafficking and racketeering.)

By ’96, a newly empowered Aaliyah had returned stronger than ever, kicking off a string of genre-flipping Top 10 singles: “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “One in a Million,” “Are You That Somebody?,” “I Don’t Wanna,” “Try Again,” the aforementioned “Rock the Boat” and “Miss You.” These tracks were key to defining the post-new-jack-swing era of R&B.

“Aaliyah was the easiest person to work with,” Missy said of her dear friend in a 2011 VIBE interview. “She was a perfectionist who happened to record in the studio quickly. That was a rare thing. When Aaliyah danced in the studio when a record came on, we knew it was a hit.”

Though the world was deprived of the pleasure of what seemed a limitless career—Aaliyah also proved a charismatic actress in the films Romeo Must Die (2000) and Queen of the Damned (2002)—her presence remains; Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ciara, Jhené Aiko, Tinashe, Frank Ocean, Drake, James Blake, H.E.R. and Normani are just some of the artists who have cited her as an influence.

Yet there was still the matter of introducing Aaliyah to younger fans who were essentially denied access to her work. “Her music hasn’t been available digitally for over 20 years, which is an entire generation,” says EMPIRE Marketing Manager Sara Ahmed. “That’s my little brother, who is 21 now. So not only do we have to reintroduce Aaliyah, we have to let the younger people know that their mood boards and their favorite artists are all based on Aaliyah. She is the foundation of what we know as R&B and pop today.”

Blackground/EMPIRE’S aggressive marketing push seems to be paying off; One in a Million, which originally peaked at no. 18, recently returned to the album chart at #10. And though the relationship between Hankerson and Aaliyah’s estate has been frosty at best, Kadin maintains that the label’s goal, first and foremost, is to respect the artist’s original vision.   

“What we wanted to do was make sure we preserved her music and not change the albums from what they were,” he says. “Really leave them in their purest form. Get the original photos and try to get our hands on the original videos. The Blackground team has been really helpful in providing those assets from their archives.”

Continues Kadin: “We’ve been relaying our plans and marketing timelines and goals to the estate. They’ve opted not to participate, but we hope to get to the point where everyone can continue to elevate and share Aaliyah’s legacy.”

Needless to say, there was an abundance of untapped potential. Aaliyah’s surprising 1999 performance of “Journey to the Past,” from the animated musical Anastasia, demonstrated a still-developing talent who could have had a future on Broadway. “She would have been a superstar A-lister by now with the films she had lined up,” says Seats. “I’m sure fashion would have kicked in for her, too. Whatever Aaliyah wanted to do, she would have knocked it out.”

And though it’s tempting to get caught up in what might have been, you don't have to look far to understand why she continues to resonate. 

“I’m a Black girl,” Ahmed says. “So I think of Aaliyah, how she was a tomboy, how she never deviated from who she was. Seeing someone who was so strong in that, maintaining her grace and her honesty and integrity, it was amazing to see. Just by being who she was, she prefigured so much that came after her.”

photo credits: Albert Watson, Marc Baptiste

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