Actually, We Don’t Need A New Aaliyah Album

Photo: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect.
In 2021, word broke that music fans would finally be able to listen to Aaliyah's full discography on various streaming platforms. The release of the late singer's music by her uncle and former label head Barry Hankerson was a controversial move, as it wasn't in line with the wishes of her estate, but the latest development related to Aaliyah's work is even more divisive: a new album composed of unreleased songs jam-packed with...questionable features. 
When Aaliyah died in a tragic plane crash in 2001, the world mourned the loss of the young artist who had majorly influenced R&B within the span of her 12-year career. Following her death, Aaliyah's legacy quickly became tied up in legal drama as her family fought with Hankerson over the rights to her music, and that ongoing battle made it nearly impossible to access her catalogue for years. Last August, however, Hankerson announced that Blackground Records 2.0 was partnering with music distribution Empire to share all of five of her studio albums and the star-studded accompanying soundtrack to Romeo Must Die
Months later, we've learned that even more Aaliyah music is headed our way (even though we didn't necessarily ask for it). Blackground Records 2.0 plans to release Unstoppable, a posthumous LP composed entirely of recorded songs that never saw the light of day. To make Unstoppable even more appealing to Aaliyah fans new and old, Hankerson also recruited a number of popular R&B and rap artists to supply features for the project; Drake, Snoop Dogg, Ne-Yo, Future, and Chris Brown have been named as some of its collaborators.
News of another addition to Aaliyah's lauded body of work has been received with mixed reactions, mostly ranging from sadness to genuine disgust. On one end, the hole that Aaliyah's death left in music and pop culture has never been filled; to this day, artists are still doing their damndest to recreate her sound, aesthetic, and overall vibe to varying degrees of success. (There is and will only ever be one Aaliyah.) So yeah, more original music from the late legend could prove to be beneficial for a culture still missing her so deeply. However, there are far more cons to Unstoppable than there are pros, starting with the fact that the release of the project likely was not approved by the Haughton estate. For years, Aaliyah's family has been trying to reach an agreement with Hankerson and Blackground Records 2.0 about what to do with her music, and that conflict has yet to be resolved. After initially learning that the label was putting her full catalogue on streaming platforms, the estate shared a public statement hinting that the move was an attempt to "leech off of Aaliyah's life's work."
Just as troubling as the sketchy circumstances of the LP's inception are its announced features. As previously stated, much of modern R&B has been directly influenced and informed by Aaliyah. All it takes is one look at the discographies of women like Ciara, Tinashe, Normani, Sevyn Streeter, and so many others to see Aaliyah’s inspiration, evidenced by feather-soft vocals often accompanied by futuristic visuals and powerful choreography. These clear disciples of the singer still actively work in the industry, so why then would the minds behind Unstoppable choose to only load the LP with men in music — especially when so many of these men have been mired in significant controversies of their own? Making the list of features even more disturbing is the fact that a number of them have documented cases of being abusive towards women, a harrowing coincidence since it is common knowledge that Aaliyah herself was abused by R.Kelly as a teenager. 
With all of these issues connected to another Aaliyah project, it would seem that the LP is more trouble than it's worth. But in an industry in which musicians are more often regarded as capital than actual people, it's also not surprising that Blackground Records 2.0 is still going ahead with the new release. Aaliyah is only the most recent artist to be exploited this way after her death. After he died from cardiac arrest in 2009, Michael Jackson's likeness was recreated for the 2010 video game Michael Jackson: The Experience, and Sony also dropped two posthumous albums of unreleased songs in his name. The legacy of the late Whitney Houston experienced a similar "zombification," as her estate signed a contract allowing Harrah's to create a hologram of the singer for a six-month Las Vegas residency. And a Tupac hologram famously appeared during Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's 2012 Coachella set, a four-minute performance that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
No matter how culturally "groundbreaking" they're purported to be, these endeavours, much like the Unstoppable LP, are ultimately money grabs — last-ditch attempts to milk every last drop from people who have already contributed so much to the culture. These artists were taken away from us far too soon, but the work that they were able to give us while they were alive was important and more than enough to uphold their legacy long after their passing. Would Aaliyah have wanted the songs in her vault to ever be shared with the public? We'll never know. Will the collaborations sound good? Maybe. What's for certain is that this project doesn't feel good for a number of reasons. There is a right way to pay homage to people like Aaliyah, and unfortunately, I don’t think this is it. 

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