I've always thought it was haunting that the cover of Aaliyah’s final project is the only time we got to see her in plain view. On her 2001 self-titled release, known as the Red Album, Aaliyah is front and center. Her face isn’t obscured by dark shades or the tufts of hair covering her eye, the signature look that made her an enigma, nor was she in the gaze of the man who first forged her sound and image while preying on her body. The cover of the Red Album is simply Aaliyah standing in the fullness of her own power and brilliance. This is a portrait of a woman who knew she had changed the game a few times before and was looking to do it again, but sadly she wouldn’t be around much longer after dropping this project to witness an impact that still remains today.
The Red Album occupies the biggest space in my heart when it comes to our dearly departed Baby Girl. It earned permanent residence in my Discman upon its release in July 2001, serving as the soundtrack for my last days of summer before entering high school. And then it was my balm after Aaliyah’s tragic death at the age of 22 just weeks after releasing her masterwork, my grief soothed by parsing the liner notes or staring at the striking, scarlet-hued portrait of Baby Girl on the cover as I took in the album's futuristic edge.
For two decades now, the only way to listen to the Red Album if you didn’t have the original pressing was from various YouTube uploads or unauthorized downloads, but that changes Friday when Aaliyah officially arrives to streaming services for the first time and goes back into print—seemingly ending the stalemate between her estate and the record label her uncle founded.
This moment coming exactly 20 years after we lost Aaliyah tragically should have been the triumphant resurrection of a generational talent that has largely lived on through out of print works, Internet bootlegs, merchandise, fan accounts and websites, and as a muse for countless artists across disparate genres and eras as the bulk of her music remained commercially unavailable. And yet the return of Aaliyah has been clouded by much of the same darkness that underscored her short life and career.
As the rerelease of Aaliyah’s most seminal works (the Red Album, 1996’s One in a Million, and the handful of soundtrack singles that boosted her to global pop star status) reignited a fanbase that had all but lost hope, jurors in a Brooklyn federal courtroom were presented with disturbing particulars about the beginning of her career and what she endured as R. Kelly’s first protégé amid his trial for racketeering and sex trafficking. And if that wasn't enough, Aaliyah's fans have also had to grapple with the possibility that this long-awaited freeing of her catalog goes against the wishes of the estate.
Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit. She discovered that sweet angelic flutter in her voice as a little girl and was blessed to have a family that believed in her ambitions enough to help her go after a singing career. When Aaliyah was 10, she appeared on Star Search and a few years later her uncle Barry Hankerson launched Blackground Records to back his niece’s burgeoning career. At the time Barry was managing R. Kelly, then a rising R&B wunderkind, and he introduced his 12-year-old niece to the singer/songwriter/producer and tasked him with creating her debut. Kelly took the groove heavy New Jack Swing that scored him hits with Public Announcement and on his own and made it the blueprint for his young protégé. R. Kelly wanted Aaliyah's music to have a “street but sweet” sound and his insistence that she be styled identical to him meant she was dressed in baggy jeans, bandanas and oversized shirts. It all worked. So well, in fact, that Aaliyah's first single "Back & Forth" bumped R. Kelly's raunchy classic "Bump n' Grind" from atop the R&B singles chart.
Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, spent 37 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 and has been the sole body of work available for later generations to discover via streaming. However, the collection of New Jack bangers and tender ballads steeped in the intensity of teenage romance is dampened by the brutal reality that they were produced by a sexual predator and that the adults in Aaliyah’s life didn’t do enough, or perhaps anything at all, to shield her from R. Kelly’s abuse. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number being the only music available meant the decision to stream Aaliyah came with an ugly complication that became impossible to ignore as R. Kelly racked up allegation after allegation of sexual violence in the years after being acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008.
We’ve only recently arrived to a place where Aaliyah is being reframed as a survivor of sexual abuse and R. Kelly is facing any substantive consequences for his actions. But it took 20-plus years and required multiple trials, a harrowing Emmy-nominated docuseries, broken NDAs, incriminating public meltdowns, dozens of witness testimony and the tireless work of activists and journalists to force people to start listening—which on its own speaks rather loudly to the ways in which violence against Black women and girls is so often handled.
We didn’t interrogate or advocate or voice our outrage the way we do now when Aaliyah made her auspicious debut. Back in 1994, when she was the precocious ingénue and he was the hot R&B heartthrob on the come up, far too many of us looked at their matching outfits and giggly interviews and opted to play into their presentation of friendship with a wink. Instead of asking what the fuck was really going on, publications treated their "relationship" as if it were puppy love. We used the slyness of her album title and the air of maturity in the music to convince ourselves that she was a consenting young woman and not a teenage girl. R. KELLY AND AALIYAH: A LOVE STORY? was printed in bold letters on the cover of one of the Black teeny bopper magazines I read religiously as a kid and those who interviewed them most often choose to pepper their questions with innuendos or flirty banter. Sure, everyone can point to Vibe printing the marriage certificate confirming the then 27-year-old made his 15-year-old protégé his bride as ground zero for their understanding of Kelly's desire for underage girls, but what’s almost never discussed is the ways in which that infamous article also plainly captured the attitudes of the adults gravitating towards Kelly's lascivious music: “[That] nigga needs more than any 15-year-old can give him,” one woman says while getting her hair done for his concert.
Aaliyah was already gone by the time we learned that their annulment came with an agreement that severed all ties, precluded them from making public statements about each other, and absolved him from any future claims related to any physical injury or emotional pain and suffering from any assault or battery he may have inflicted upon her. So even if we had never lost Baby Girl, she was legally bound to silence about what happened during her years with R. Kelly. How she felt about that chapter in her life or what level of consent her teenage mind may have believed existed or what her healing may have looked like in the years after we'll never know, nor can we know if she would have ever disclosed anything to the public or spoke out when he inevitably faced more charges.
What we do know is R. Kelly was allowed to go on and become the undisputed King of R&B, selling over a hundred million records between his own shit and the litany of superstars that kept his phone ringing despite it being common knowledge that he exploited Aaliyah and had dozens of allegations of sexual violence dating back to the early 1990s. Even though Aaliyah rebounded wonderfully with One in a Million, the album she made with Missy Elliott and Timbaland which defined an era of R&B, she still fielded questions about her association with R. Kelly as she tried to move on from it. "What is the deal with you and R. Kelly?" a reporter asks during an otherwise innocuous interview where the two had gone shopping to dish about her fashion style. "I'm not married. Robert's doing his thing, I'm doing my thing, and he's a great producer, a great artist who I do admire, and there's nothing, nothing there at at all," Aaliyah insists. That's what we did then. We joked and prodded for the tea and so Aaliyah was treated as a willful participant in a controversy and not viewed as young woman that had been groomed and abused.
One in a Million was a personal (and cultural) reset. “If Your Girl Only Knew.” “Hot Like Fire.” “4 Page Letter.” “A Girl Like You.” “The One I Gave My Heart To.” The title track! Aaliyah had dropped a classic and then hit us with “Are You That Somebody?” and took on Hollywood, becoming a leading lady in Romeo Must Die and getting even weirder in the studio with Timbaland for the film's banging anthem “Try Again” (her first monster hit). Her star was ascending higher and higher as she booked Queen of the Damned and a role in the next two Matrix films and it was during the filming of Queen of the Damned in Australia where the music for the Red Album came together. Aaliyah would film the vampire thriller during the day and head to the studio at night, floating between the rooms of producers she handpicked.
One in a Million had established Aaliyah as a shapeshifting R&B siren, with her breathy falsetto and slinky dance moves making Timbaland’s outré productions come to life in an ethereal way, but it was the Red Album that pushed her even further into left field. It rightfully gets praised for the way in which Aaliyah and her collaborators fused together R&B, funk, hip-hop, electronica, rock and Latin music and made something that sounded like it dropped from a future we’ve yet to arrive to. But the Red Album also feels like a work of resilience when you consider all Baby Girl had survived to make her greatest triumph. This was a young woman who had taken the scandalized moment of her youth and used it as fuel to create a groundbreaking album. Aaliyah was now in her twenties, in the thick of her glow up, and she wanted to show us that she was a grown ass woman standing on her own and out of the shadow of a past that hadn’t allowed her to truly be seen or cared for. That she named the album after herself, an old tradition signifying the deeply personal nature of the material, and ditched her iconic tomboy aesthetic in favor of sleeker and softer silhouettes made this all the more clear. Aaliyah was flipping the script on us and it's all over the music, which was sexier and darker and grounded in the aching vulnerability and biting skepticism that crystallizes from our early adulthood experiences.
The Red Album has aged much differently than the rest of Aaliyah's small catalog simply out of it serving as a direct portal for our grief. The album was a new breakthrough for Baby Girl and she had just started promoting it to the masses when she died. Because of the circumstances of her death the album was instantly enshrined with an untouchable sacredness, which has made its commercial unavailability particularly devastating. This is the album where we hear a woman finding her voice, and her power, so it always felt cruel that the only album that's easy for people to get their hands on is the one where Aaliyah had zero agency—and likely suffered for its creation.
There’s something painful and poignant about the fact that Aaliyah’s voice got its freedom right as R. Kelly went to trial for alleged crimes against young and underage women dating back to when he groomed Baby Girl during the making of Age Ain't Nothing but a Number (the title itself serving as a mighty indictment of his intentions). While we don't have a full accounting of what Aaliyah experienced with R. Kelly, we certainly have learned enough to realize just how deeply she was failed by all of us who opted to judge or gossip or feign ignorance just for the sake of doing business with R. Kelly—which implicates pretty much all of us in one way or another. The irony of the walls closing in on R. Kelly at the same time as Aaliyah's music becoming widely available can easily be seen as some form of restorative justice. But her fans have also been forced to reckon with the fact that the entirety of this moment—the new album pressings, the merchandise, the confirmed posthumous album—appears to go against the wishes of her mother and brother.
Aaliyah's surviving immediate family (her father, Michael, died in 2012) have worked tirelessly to protect a legacy they only have partial authority over, and it is no secret that a rift between Aaliyah's mother and her uncle Barry has been a major factor in how her music has been handled. The collapse of Barry’s Blackground Records in the years after Aaliyah died kept not only her records out of our hands, but important work from her frequent collaborator Timbaland, as well as albums from Tank, Toni Braxton, and JoJo (they've all sued Barry at some point and JoJo, who was trapped under the defunct label for years, actually re-recorded her Blackground catalog in order to recoup some of what had been lost).
So an announcement a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of Aaliyah’s passing that Barry had struck a deal to bring the Blackground catalog back into circulation—starting with One in a Million—was understandably met with excitement and concern from fans who had soured on the reclusive label exec. Though it’s rumored Barry was instrumental in exposing his former client’s crimes, the fact that he continued working with Kelly for years after the illegal wedding hasn't been forgotten by her fans and the ongoing division between Blackground and Aaliyah's estate, entities that only communicate via lawyers despite being ran by relatives, adds to the weariness felt by those who want to support her music.
Now given the fact that Blackground owns Aaliyah’s masters and she didn’t write or produce any of her work, her estate actually has no say in what happens with her publishing, leaving it up to fans to decide whether or not they want to engage Aaliyah's music without knowing exactly where things landed on the business end between Blackground and the estate. Those of us who held on to our original pressings or uploaded them to our computers have the luxury of accessing Aaliyah without any ethical implications, but that's not everyone's experience. Aaliyah came and went before we reached the digital streaming age (the first iPod didn’t even land until months after she died), so there are generations of passionate fans who have discovered her online or through the artists she has inspired and have been unable to engage much of her actual work with the ease that streaming allows. Plus not every new Aaliyah fan has the means, or interest for that matter, to part with the cash required to secure an old pressing of One in a Million or the Red Album from secondhand sellers.
Since Aaliyah was just really hitting her stride, and was juggling music with a growing film career, there wasn’t a stock of vaulted music to posthumously release while the dispute between her label and the estate has meant even something like anniversary reissues was a no go. And whatever vaulted Aaliyah records were left behind, we have barely seen for myriad reasons—which may not be the worst thing considering how ghoulish and cash grabby those projects can appear as evidenced by our collective response to a shelved Drake-led project and the one Barry just announced. Ultimately, however, any ethical dilemma people may have felt didn't outweigh the collective excitement over Aaliyah's return: One in a Million reentered the Billboard 200 at No. 10, a new high for the album, and the deep reverence of the Red Album will likely result in a surge in sales and streams when it releases.
Twenty years to the day Aaliyah left us, I headed to a dance party that was being hosted in her honor. I mostly came to spot the varying interpretations of Baby Girl I imagined would pass through. Of course there were ladies paying direct homage with hair swept over their left eye. And yes, plenty of fans came rocking shades and bandanas, and a few nailed her iconic Tommy Hilfiger fit. But mostly I saw Aaliyah's face, plastered on dozens of chests by way of the many T-shirts her estate has licensed over the years. Buying tees and various branded merchandise has really been the only way fans could feel tangibly close to Aaliyah with something fresh (and estate approved) while her music stayed locked up. On one man’s chest Aaliyah seduces in the jungle; on another she’s lowering those signature shades with a wink; and on another she's a painted as a mural, doves fluttering above her head like a halo.
Being surrounded by fans whose love of Aaliyah has had to contend with family division and the ugliness that colored her debut made me consider the ways in which my own grief for Baby Girl has shifted over time. I never lost any of the joy I felt whenever I’d play the music I have preserved across several hard drives, but I’ve felt a deep frustration as her work stayed locked up. Not circulating Aaliyah’s music for so long has allowed her to morph into a mythical figure whose aesthetic and vibe is more celebrated than her actual catalog. Without being able to access all of her music, especially the album she died promoting, Aaliyah has remained suspended between a world that remembers what it was like when she walked amongst us and one that knows her style is omnipresent but haven't been unable to engage her music in a particular way. So much of Aaliyah's narrative in life was about survival and in death it has become about ownership and this fight amongst family on how to manage her legacy—and stuck in the middle are the fans that so badly want to honor and celebrate her any way they can, while respecting the wishes of her estate.
As DJ RoseGawd blended Aaliyah’s music with the litany of artists who have sampled her or been inspired by her cool, I watched bodies grind and slither on the dance floor exactly the way Baby Girl had in the videos that transfixed me as a pre-teen. It took me right back to the time when Aaliyah first arrived and introduced herself as the homegirl we didn't know we needed. She was a fly Black girl from Detroit that made us rock back and forth and proved to be one in a million and we'll never not grieve what could have been. Baby Girl left us far too soon, but at least her voice is finally free.