Aaliyah: 10 years later, impact holds without posthumous releases
Ten years after the untimely death of Aaliyah, her imprint hasn’t waned -- despite resting on a small back catalog that never had a chance to develop.
The "street but sweet" brand of R&B she crafted, with the help of R. Kelly and strengthened by longtime collaborators/friends Missy Elliott and Timbaland, both defined and reinvented the sound of ’90s urban music. Her slinky dance moves, breathy falsetto, tomboyish silhouettes and innovative beats that flirted with a number of genres quickly awarded her the moniker the “Princess of R&B.”
When the singer born Aaliyah Dana Haughton died in a plane crash in the Bahamas 10 years ago Thursday, all fans were left with was a brief discography. Aaliyah purists have waited for additional music to surface; with the exception of a handful of tracks, there's been nothing.
The singer’s death at age 22 came as she was having a breakout year that included her critically acclaimed eponymous third, and final, album and a budding film career. She had wrapped filming the video to the project’s second single, “Rock the Boat,” when she and eight others perished.
After her death, executives at her label, Blackground Records, told The Times that she had “recorded enough material for at least one more album.” Outside of “I Care 4 U,” a posthumous greatest-hits package featuring six previously unreleased songs, additional archived works are still untouched.
And the question of whether or not any will surface has yet to be answered.
“It’s weird and frustrating,” said a former Virgin Records employee who was working closely with the singer at the time of her death. Virgin was Blackground’s previous distributor before moving to Interscope Records.
“I don’t think we’ll ever hear anything,” said the employee, who requested anonymity for legal reasons, “and I hate to say that. But I don’t even know if we will because there was so much internal beef between family, producer and label. Timbaland at the time was trying to get released from the label … so it’s hard to know who owns everything, because [he] obviously did [a lot] of her music.”
Whatever strife the rapper-producer had with the label has been resolved, as he is still signed to Blackground through Interscope. He was unavailable for comment on this story, but pays tribute to his friend in a BET special, “Aaliyah: One In A Million,” set to be broadcast Thursday night.
“I’ve gotta thank her. Because she heard the specialness in us,” he said, recalling the singer taking a chance on himself and Elliott after hearing a demo. "The first day, after about an hour ... It felt like, man, this is somebody from my family. It wasn't unnatural ... it was God-sent."
The premature death of any entertainer brings curiosity over unreleased work, as complicated as releasing it can become.
At the time of her death, Aaliyah also had been working on her big-screen aspirations. She had shot a vampire flick, "Queen of the Damned"; after her death, her brother lent his voice to unfinished dialogue. She had also finished some scenes for a sequel to "The Matrix" (her part was later recast), was tapped for "Honey" (Jessica Alba assumed the role) and was attached to star in an updated remake of the ’70s musical "Sparkle" (her version of one of the film’s ballads leaked; earlier this year, it was announced that the remake is back in development).
You Know I Got Soul, a music blog covering R&B, has gathered producers from the singer’s final album for an oral history of the recording process and a discussion on the existence of unreleased work.
“We cut all type of songs for her during that time,” said producer Stephen “Bud’da” Anderson. “Along with the joints I cut with Static [Major], which might have been six or seven, I probably cut 15 or so other joints, trying to lock down as much as I could with different writers.”
Producer Rapture Stewart added, “It was an idea for a while to maybe take some of the songs she had a hook on and maybe add a rapper to it. We played with that idea for a little while around the time of working on the album after she passed, but it never panned out.”
Unfortunately, Major, who co-wrote some of her biggest hits, including “Are You That Somebody?” and the No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single “Try Again,” died in 2008.
Complicating matters are legalities, according to the former employee, that possibly exist between the singer’s immediate family and Blackground -- which was founded by her uncle Barry Hankerson and is run by her cousin Jomo Hankerson. Attempts to contact the label were unsuccessful.
A spokesperson for Aaliyah's family didn’t return requests for comment, but did issue a statement in June on the singer’s official website: "The Haughton Family appreciates sentiment and outpouring of adoration for our beloved Aaliyah at this time. However, due to various legalities, we cannot support, endorse nor consent to any tributes or events taking place."
Aaliyah might not have left behind the wealth of music that other fallen artists have, but what she did leave was enough for those who remember her.
“She bought individuality and a unique thing that nobody else had,” said Brandy. “Her music was so forward, and before its time. You looked toward Aaliyah to do something new and fresh, that would just blow your mind. I miss her hard-knocking beats, with that pretty falsetto … and the lyrics were raw.”
In an interview earlier this year with Pop & Hiss, Elliott said, “the pain of her not being here” affects those close to her every day.
“I don’t wait until five years or 10 years to elaborate. I’m constantly talking about her,” Elliott said. “I still watch her videos and listen to her music. She’s a major part in our lives and in music.”
With a life and career cut so short, its easy to wonder where she’d be if she were still alive today, especially as her influence is easily seen in single-named divas such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ciara and Ashanti.
“She went out and she was on the top, there was nobody bigger than her. Aaliyah was in that place,” the associate said. “People have such an awesome, incredible catalog to listen to and videos to watch. Of course, we want more. But we won’t get to see new videos of her. All it’ll be is a memory of a sound from back then.”
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photos: Promotional photos of Aaliyah courtesy of her official website.