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Aaliyah's Catalog Has Started To Arrive On Streaming. What Took So Long?


AALIYAH: (Singing) Am I supposed to change?


Slim, sleek and cool with a curtain of hair sweeping over one eye, Aaliyah was known to her collaborators and fans as Babygirl. She was just 22 when she died in a plane crash 20 years ago this week. And at the time, her third studio album was climbing the charts. Movie studios were knocking at her door. She had only begun to show what she was capable of.


AALIYAH: (Singing) We need a resolution. We have so much confusion.

CORNISH: But listening to her music in a post-CD era has been difficult, with fans only being able to access her debut album, "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number," helmed by disgraced singer and producer R. Kelly. He's now standing trial on sexual assault and racketeering charges. A dispute between Aaliyah's mother, who protects the late singer's estate, and her uncle, who ran the label that held Aaliyah's back catalog, kept her other works off of streaming until now. "One In A Million" is finally available on streaming this month. NPR's Sidney Madden is here to talk more about why this step for Aaliyah's music is making waves.

Sidney, welcome back.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Aaliyah had such an impact - visual, in terms of the look she presented to the public, which was very sleek and mature and the long, straight hair, but also in the style of music. What was her sound?

MADDEN: Yeah. I mean, you put it perfectly, Audie. Everything about Aaliyah was so quaffed and perfect and also a bit elusive. You're talking about that sleek black hair, those abs, those dance moves. She was a triple threat, and she always seemed to have something else up her sleeve. And two decades after her release, so many fans are going to get to hear the beginnings of that metamorphosis on the album "One In A Million," which just hit streaming services on August 20.

In terms of her discography, she had a short career, but it was so impactful with three albums. And this second album from her, "One In A Million," that was the album where she first teamed up with Timbaland and Missy Elliott for the first time. And it was the one where she flipped the switch on showing a lot of fans that she had the potential for superstardom in her midst.

CORNISH: Is there a track from that album that stands out to you?

MADDEN: I mean, the problem is there's so many great tracks. "4 Page Letter" is a absolute classic. I will fully admit that someone made me a mixtape with that song on there.


AALIYAH: (Singing) I'm sending him a four-page letter, and I enclosed it with a kiss.

MADDEN: But I think we got to go with the album's namesake, "One In A Million," just because you can hear the control of her runs and melodies.


AALIYAH: (Singing) Yeah.

MADDEN: It was her really harnessing and heralding the aura of, like, quiet storm bravado for a new generation.


AALIYAH: (Singing) Baby, you don't know what you do to me. Between me and you, I feel a chemistry. I won't let no one come and take your place 'cause the love you give, it can't be replaced. See, no one else...

CORNISH: You called her a triple threat. She, of course, was an actress as well. She was in the movie "Romeo Must Die." By August 2001, at the age of 22, she had died in an airplane accident in the Bahamas. And since that time, it has been very difficult to hear any of her music on streaming with the exception of her debut album, "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number," which was produced by R. Kelly. He's now standing trial on charges related to sexual abuse. Can you talk about his relationship with Aaliyah, how that complicated her legacy?

MADDEN: Yeah. As you said, R. Kelly, who was a stalwart in the R&B world for so long, he's currently on trial for charges ranging from sexual exploitation of a minor to kidnapping and human trafficking. And Aaliyah's name has actually been brought up in these proceedings, with prosecutors arguing that R. Kelly had a fake ID made for Aaliyah when she was just 14 years old, changing her age to appear older so that he could obtain a marriage license to marry her. So what I personally love is this is a reintroduction of Aaliyah's work for a new generation of fans that does not tie her musical legacy to one specific point in her life when her artistry was really controlled by one man, an allegedly predatory man at that.

CORNISH: Let's talk more about her legacy. Who are the modern artists who looked up to her or who we can kind of hear elements of her style in their work?

MADDEN: There's so many people who are carrying on her legacy, and that's why these old classic albums that are coming to streaming still sound so current, because it's a style that's been replicated so much over the last couple decades. Of course, someone I have to reference is Drake. Drake has a tattoo portrait of Aaliyah on his back. He's sampled her music so many times. And even in 2012, he dropped an exclusive collaboration with Aaliyah featuring unreleased vocals of hers that Blackground Records provided him.


DRAKE: What's up?

AALIYAH: (Singing) I can tell you something, but you tell me, do you want to talk about - talk about. You say you got a lot on your mind, sit down, let's talk about - talk about.

MADDEN: If you turn on the radio, you can hear it in The Weekend's sound, Tinashe, Jhene Aiko, Frank Ocean. And most recently, the pop star Normani dropped her latest track, "Wild Side," which features a drum interpolation of "One In A Million" coasting all throughout the music.


NORMANI: (Singing) Take me for a ride, boy. Show me your wild side, boy. Know it's been a while, boy. I want to get wild. I want to drive you crazy.

CORNISH: So what's the music that we'll be able to hear on streaming in the coming weeks and months?

MADDEN: The music we're going to get to hear in the coming months includes not only "One In A Million," which is out now, but her self-titled 2001 album, "Aaliyah." That's coming out on September 10. And then we have two posthumous compilations dropping on October 8. So you can be sure to hear Aaliyah, her whole body of work, coasting all throughout the fall. And I'm predicting it might make a lot of year-end lists.

CORNISH: That's NPR Music's Sidney Madden.

Thanks for your time.

MADDEN: Thank you.



AALIYAH: (Singing) If your girl only knew that you was trying to get with me. What would she... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.