Thanks in part to the introduction of her work to streaming services, a once-forgotten artist is reborn.
Written by Avery Heeringa, Columbia College Chicago
Have you ever heard the songs “Are You That Somebody,” “At Your Best (You Are Love)” or “Rock The Boat”? What about the name Aaliyah? Do any of these things ring a bell?
If they don’t, you’re not alone. Many young people who have grown up with the development of music platforms like iTunes, Apple Music and Spotify have missed out on the joy of Aaliyah’s music. All of her catalog except for her first album has previously been unavailable on digital music services. That is, until this last year, when it was added to music libraries 20 years after her passing.
Since Aaliyah Haughton began her musical career in 1994, she’s become known as “the princess of R&B.” Aaliyah (known professionally by just her first name) was only 15 years old when she released her debut single, “Back & Forth,” off her debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.” Not only was Aaliyah a gifted singer, but she was widely known for her dancing in her music videos and was interested in pursuing acting. Aaliyah truly broke out as a star on her 1996 album, “One in a Million.” The album spawned several singles, all of which have become some of Aaliyah’s most recognizable in her discography. For the next five years, she’d star in the film “Romeo Must Die,” become the youngest person to perform at the Academy Awards at just 19 years old and began work on her third studio album. Her self-titled album, “Aaliyah,” was released in July 2001, and lives on as the best representation of her as an artist.
Aaliyah’s death came as a shock to the public. Her plane crashed on a flight back from The Bahamas after filming the music video for what would become her final single, “Rock The Boat.” Her passing came slightly over a month after her self-titled album was released, devastating fans and the R&B community. Friends and collaborators like Usher, Missy Elliot and Timbaland all honored her publicly in their own way and continue to keep her memory alive. Aaliyah remains frozen in time at 22 years old, with so much more life left to live.
While it’s important to acknowledge her passing, it’s more important to focus on what she accomplished in her short time on Earth.
In particular, her self-titled magnum opus “Aaliyah” warrants further discussion. While “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” and “One in a Million” were rooted in the popular style of mid-1990s R&B and created a space for her in popular music, 2001’s “Aaliyah” cemented her position as R&B royalty. The album’s opening track, “We Need A Resolution” featuring collaborator and friend Timbaland, blends a modern R&B sound with hip-hop and offers up a more sophisticated Aaliyah, one coming into adulthood.
“Try Again” is perhaps the most widely known Aaliyah song and video. Closing out her self-titled project, the song also appears on the soundtrack for her film “Romeo Must Die.” Her style in the “Try Again” music video is her most iconic and most often recreated, including once by Kim Kardashian in 2017. “Rock The Boat” remains one of Aaliyah’s most beloved songs, not only for its breezy and effortless vocals, but also for its associations with the end of Aaliyah’s career. Many fans still get chills while watching Aaliyah float up toward a bright ray of light — or heaven — at the end of the music video.
Not only was Aaliyah adored for her music, but she had an undeniable cool factor. No matter the situation, she always maintained a calm and grounded aura that never sacrificed enthusiasm or energy. Many would say that Aaliyah possessed an often sought-after “it” factor: indescribably cool and in a league of her own. Aaliyah was not some young girl doing whatever her label or peers were telling her to do: She knew what she wanted to do and believed in herself. In a February 2001 interview, Aaliyah opened up about her approach to success, saying, “I’m competing with Aaliyah with everything I do. Whether it’s music, whether it’s acting, I’m competing with myself to be the best.” Her unabashed confidence and determination to push herself to be the best earned her the title of “The Princess of R&B.”
However, if Aaliyah was so influential, why hasn’t her music been more widely available in the time since she passed?
The answer is not quite as simple as many would hope. Since the creation of services like Apple Music and Spotify, the only music from Aaliyah available to stream was her debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.” While her debut album still contains a good body of work, fans were eager for the opportunity to listen to her standout records, “One in a Million” and “Aaliyah.” “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” was released under Jive Records, while her other studio albums were released under Blackground Records — founded by Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle. Fans never received a reason as to why the rest of her music catalog wasn’t on streaming services.
Thankfully, things changed in the summer of 2021. On Aug. 5, 2021, a new Instagram account for Blackground Records 2.0 shared a post announcing a rollout of Aaliyah’s complete musical catalog to all digital streaming platforms. “One in a Million” and “Aaliyah” became available to stream on Aug. 20 and Sept. 10, respectively. Two posthumous compilation albums, “I Care 4 U” and “Ultimate Aaliyah,” were also added on Oct. 8. Not only has Aaliyah’s music become available to stream but all of her music videos have been uploaded to YouTube, and physical copies of CDs, vinyl records and cassette tapes have slowly been made available. For newer fans like myself, unpackaging a vinyl copy of “Aaliyah” feels a part of something bigger. Street posters were spotted around the city of Chicago, along with digital billboards in Times Square, to promote these “re-releases.” With Aaliyah as an artist and a person becoming more accessible than ever, it feels like she is getting the recognition she’s always deserved.
It’s hard to picture where Aaliyah would be today — at 43 years old — if she had not passed in 2001. She had so much left to achieve. Had she lived on, there is no doubt she’d share the status of her peers like Janet Jackson and Beyoncé. That’s perhaps what is most heartbreaking about her death — that she had so much more to achieve and endless potential that could have taken her to unimaginable heights. She was interested in pursuing acting, and was cast to star in “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions.” As Amelia Sutliff wrote for “Vinyl Me, Please,” “It’s natural to mourn what would have been, had she not left us so early. But, take a look at her tidal waves of impact and their various ripples, too massive and wide-reaching to truly comprehend.” Now that her music is more accessible than ever, it marks the potential for a cultural reawakening, the possibility for a new generation of music consumers to appreciate her musical contributions and all that Aaliyah represents.