After years of being one of the streaming era’s biggest holdouts, Aaliyah’s full catalog will hit services beginning later this month. Billboard reported that Blackground Records, the oft-criticized label that holds most of the late performer’s masters, struck a deal with distribution company Empire, which will see Aaliyah’s Blackground music head to platforms like Spotify and Apple Music for the first time ever, and once again be available to purchase as well. Aaliyah’s second album, One in a Million, will become available on August 20, followed by the soundtrack to her film Romeo Must Die on September 3, her self-titled third album on September 10, and two compilations on October 8. (Aaliyah’s first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, is already on streaming, since its masters are owned by Jive Records.)
Blackground founder Barry Hankerson, also Aaliyah’s uncle, told the magazine he began planning the return to streaming after a statement from Aaliyah’s estate on August 25, 2020 — the 19th anniversary of her death — said “communication has commenced between the estate and various record labels” over the availability of the singer’s catalog. Yet in a new August 5 statement, the estate blamed Blackground Records for the way Aaliyah’s music “has been inexplicably withheld from the public,” adding that the estate “has been met with contention and a gross lack of transparency” in efforts to release Aaliyah’s music. “For almost 20 years, Blackground has failed to account to the estate with any regularity in accordance with her recording contracts,” estate attorney Paul LiCasa said. “In addition, the estate was not made aware of the impending release of the catalog until after the deal was complete and plans were in place.”
Responding to the call to account for the earnings, a Blackground representative claimed to Billboard that the label “has shared our 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.” Further, Blackground said it recently paid royalties to the estate earlier in 2021. Previously, on August 4, the estate said it hoped for “forgiveness” with the label, which it declined to name in a statement. While dismissing an “unscrupulous endeavor to release Aaliyah’s music without any transparency or full accounting,” the estate added, “Ultimately, we desire closure and a modicum of peace.” Billboard additionally reported the estate has no plans to fight the release of Aaliyah’s music in court.
Blackground’s new partnership with Empire is also set to bring albums by Timbaland & Magoo, Tank, Toni Braxton, and JoJo to streaming. That move received criticism from JoJo, who previously re-recorded her two Blackground Records albums after they were removed from streaming. “Who would’ve thought …,” she tweeted after the news emerged. In another tweet replying to a fan, she explained, “never telling you what to do, but just so you know - a stream of the re-recorded 2018 version supports me and helps me continue to do what I love. streaming the original unfortunately does not.”
Questions still remain when it comes to Aaliyah’s vault of unreleased music, too. Billboard reported that Hankerson has been working on a posthumous album, and he said former Blackground artists Timbaland and Tank have been involved alongside Drake, Future, Snoop Dogg, Ne-Yo, and Chris Brown. However, the magazine then added that since the Aaliyah estate began to take issue with Hankerson and Blackground’s new Empire deal, “the status of Timbaland’s work on the new Aaliyah recordings is currently unclear.” An interview with the rapper-producer for the feature was canceled, per the magazine, along with one with Missy Elliott, who previously wrote for Aaliyah alongside Timbaland. Yet Hankerson told Billboard working on Aaliyah’s music “has been really nice,” while adding, “The only part that has been a little distasteful has been so many people being angry with me because the music didn’t come out when they wanted it.”