Aaliyah’s Posthumous Album is One of the Internet’s Most Debated Topics

The artist paved the way for H.E.R., SZA, and more — but why aren’t they on ‘Unstoppable’?

The internet has long been upset with the way Aaliyah’s musical legacy has been handled since her untimely death in 2001. News of a posthumous album on the way from the late singer was met with immediate fervor online as people were upset — not too much with the idea of the album — more so with the musical acts billed to be on the album. Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson, who is also in control of her master recordings said on the Geno Jones Show on YouTube that Chris Brown, Drake, The Weeknd, Ne-Yo, Future, and Snoop Dogg are all slated to appear on the posthumous project.

The rollout for the album is already off to a rocky start with the release of the first single, “Poison,” with the Dawn FM pop star, The Weeknd. Lyrically, the song works but the bulk of the criticism comes from the mixing of Aaliyah’s vocals, rendering her almost unrecognizable. Meanwhile, The Weeknd sounds like himself, but if the focus is only going to be making sure the features sound presentable, then it for sure isn’t worth making the album.

Hankerson was Aaliyah’s manager from the start of her career and co-founded the record label, Blackground Records, the label which also housed rapper-producer Timbaland and Magoo, and Aaliyah’s background singer, Tank. Aaliyah’s uncle has a negative reputation within the music industry with lawsuits from artists like JoJo and Toni Braxton, as well as one of his ex-girlfriends. The revival of his notorious record label was unnerving to fans as they saw it as a chance for him to make money for himself and the company by any means necessary — even if that means releasing a rushed, jumbled mess of a posthumous album with an all-male featured lineup.

Fast forward to the advent of the music streaming age, where Aaliyah’s music was nowhere to be found (except for a short period of time on iTunes in 2013 before it was taken down). It wasn’t until August 2021 when Blackground Records 2.0 announced that the late R&B legend’s music along with a slew of her labelmates’ would finally be available on streaming platforms after reaching a partnership deal with EMPIRE. According to Forbes, since Aaliyah “didn’t write her own music, her estate doesn’t apparently stand to profit from the streaming release.”

In addition, the long-rumored posthumous album from the “Princess of R&B” was set to be released this month. The moment Hankerson announced that he was once again attempting to release the posthumous album, I had the same reactions as everyone else online: disappointment and confusion. Especially with an all-male featured artists list — many of whom do not have a great reputation with women. 

Online critics of the album, along with myself, argued that female talent is abundant within the hip-hop and R&B space, who are inspired by Aaliyah, but none of them are featured artists on the upcoming LP. One of the only hopes one can have as a critic is that the album makes a statement about who Aaliyah was as an artists and it’s hard to see that happening with no female support. He still has yet to respond to the abundant criticism, but maybe, just maybe, there’s time to course-correct before he’d have to do so.

It wasn’t long before Aaliyah fans expressed their distaste for such a male-heavy album. “Imagine having the [opportunity] to create a new Aaliyah album with an entire generation of women that were directly influenced (Ciara, Teyana [Taylor], Tinashe, Normani, Jhené [Aiko], [Chlöe x Halle], H.E.R., Sevyn [Streeter], etc.),” one fan tweeted. “But instead we get Snoop Dogg, Ne-Yo, Future, [Chris Brown], [and] a weird Weeknd song…yikes.”

If Hankerson was struggling to figure out which female artists he could have asked to be a part of the project, we thought it’d be of interest to include just a couple of more options that reflect Aaliyah’s impact on R&B and women-led artistry within the genre. A wonderful array of voices have permeated the music scene, including SZA, Amber Mark, Joyce Wrice, Syd, Mereba, and more, who have diversified the aesthetic of Baby Girl from style of dress to a song's substance. 

With so many more incredible women who could’ve provided a connective tissue on Aaliyah’s project, we could’ve experienced a more actualized tribute to the artist considered ahead of her time and provided something special to elevate her signature style.

This sonic offering, although contentious, has been long coming and was close to being released in 2012 when Drake — a long-time fan who has previously sampled her music for his song “Unforgettable” on his 2010 album Thank Me Later — announced he and Noah “40” Shebib would be releasing a posthumous collaborative album with Aaliyah’s unreleased demos and recordings. He only ever “unofficially” released one of the tracks, “Enough Said” on SoundCloud, and in 2014, they decided to no longer continue working on the project. Shebib spoke to Vibe about the backlash the project was receiving and the moment he knew it was time to let go.

“The world reacted to Drake’s involvement so negatively, I just wanted nothing to do with it,” he told the magazine. “I was naïve to the politics surrounding Aaliyah’s legacy and a bit ignorant to Timbaland’s relationship and everybody else involved and how they’d feel.” He continued, “We released [“Enough Said”], but I was seven songs deep. [Aaliyah’s] mother saying “I don’t want this out” was enough for me. I walked away very quickly.”

Years went on and the back-and-forths seemingly never involved Hankerson and Aaliyah's estate charting a course on how to link her unreleased work to the new sounds of R&B. The arguments didn't affect the EMPIRE deal, yet with plans finalized to release Aaliyah's music without decisions from the estate, it is another missed opportunity to satiate fans who have loved her since she burst onto the scene and the legions of new listeners who are eager to play never-before-heard sounds featuring their favorite singers of today. Based on Hankerson’s actions as a label executive, the numerous lawsuits he’s received from his artists, and the constant negative statements directed towards him from his relative’s estate, it’s clear that the only legacy and image he’s concerned with preserving is his own.

“Protecting Aaliyah’s legacy is, and will always be our focus,” her estate — run by her mother, Diana Haughton and her brother, Rashad Haughton — wrote in a statement posted to social media. “For 20 years we have battled behind the scenes, enduring shadowy tactics of deception with unauthorized projects targeted to tarnish.” They continued to write that they want to “preempt the inevitable attacks on our character by all the individuals who have emerged from the shadows to leech off of Aaliyah’s life’s work” and focus on “creative projects that embody Aaliyah’s true essence.”

Being that Aaliyah’s estate won’t make a profit from the streaming release, it’s understood that the person benefiting the most is Hankerson. If he was truly concerned with the way Aaliyah is remembered, he could course-correct by not rushing to put the posthumous album out and take notes from the way producers put together Mac Miller’s Circles following his untimely death in 2018. Or, a double-album effort that showcases two different sides to an artist like Alicia Keys recently did with her latest LP, KEYS.

However, it seems like Hankerson is charging on, as he's already told Billboard he hasn't been in contact with his niece's estate and chooses to charge ahead at full speed to bring this Frankenstein-esque project to life.

According to another concerned fan, Hankerson and company feel like they're focused on a "cash grab" and are completely ignoring the wishes of not only her estate but of the culture that only wants her presence on a new level within the hip hop and R&B landscape.

Moises Mendez II is a freelance culture writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He covers digital culture and entertainment through the lens of race, gender, and sexuality.  You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @moisesfenty.

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