The posthumous album from the singer – who was a victim of abuse – features Chris Brown and other artists accused of abuse and misogyny, rather than the Black female artists she inspired
After nearly a decade without digital copies of her silky, futuristic sound, Aaliyah fans will no doubt be thrilled to have her back catalogue on streaming platforms. The re-release marked the 20th anniversary of her tragic death, and with it comes a new posthumous album, Unstoppable. The record comes courtesy of Blackground Records 2.0, which is a project of the late singer’s uncle Barry Hankerson.
Hankerson revealed that the new album would be released this month, and confirmed a series of guest appearances: Chris Brown, Snoop Dogg, Future, Ne-Yo and Drake, who Hankerson called “one of her biggest fans”. Late last year, a new collaboration with The Weeknd, titled “Poison”, also emerged. The mid-tempo track arrived to an overall lack of fanfare, with some stating it sounded like a “fanmade mashup”, and others arguing that Aaliyah’s vocals weren’t mixed correctly.
The new material comes at a time when other late artists are seeing a stream of posthumous work released, most recently Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke, spurring criticism of cash-grab attempts to profit off artists’ deaths. In August last year, the Estate of Aaliyah Haughton warned of ‘unauthorised projects’ ahead of the 20th anniversary of the star’s death, saying it had ‘battled behind the scenes’ against ‘shadowy tactics’. “Ultimately, we desire closure and a modicum of peace so we can facilitate the growth of the Aaliyah Memorial Fund and other creative projects that embody Aaliyah’s true essence, which is to inspire strength and positivity for people of all creeds, races, and cultures around the world,” said a statement.
Unstoppable’s list of guests has attracted widespread disapproval on social media, with fans lamenting the presence of abusers and misogynists on the record. Famously, Chris Brown violently assaulted Rihanna, who was victim-blamed after the incident, while all of the other featured artists – bar Ne-Yo – have all been tarred with accusations of misogyny and mistreatment of women.
Aaliyah was someone who both experienced abuse and advocated against it. “Never No More”, from her 2001 self-titled album, tackled the psychological distress of domestic violence: “I thought I had lost you / When you twist back my arm / Cause the man I thought I knew / Wouldn’t do me no harm”. R Kelly was recently found guilty on all charges at his trial for racketeering and sex trafficking – among those were underage sexual contact with Aaliyah, which he confessed to. This admission of guilt came nearly three decades after the pair were alleged to have been married in an illegal ceremony when Kelly was 27 and Aaliyah was 15. A former backup performer for Kelly testified that she witnessed him sexually abuse her in 1993, a year before the sham marriage.
“The body of work is pure hip hop and R&B,” Hankerson said of Unstoppable in an interview with Billboard. “I think it’s going to be big with urban and R&B stations. Some of the people that Aaliyah liked are on the album. She loved Snoop Dogg, who’s done a great record in collaboration with Future. They’re going in now to refresh their vocals. Ne-Yo gave us an excellent song; also Drake.”
Despite Hankerson’s comments, the selection of guests seems bizarre given that many of them came to prominence after Aaliyah’s death. In 2001, the year she passed, Drake was 15 and just beginning his TV career on Degrassi, while Future only started releasing mixtapes in 2010. Following anonymous YouTube uploads in 2009, The Weeknd released his debut House of Balloons mixtape in 2011. Ne-Yo broke through with “So Sick” in 2006.
Including artists who weren’t Aaliyah’s contemporaries could have been an opportunity to spotlight some of the women artists who‘ve honoured her legacy with their R&B. “Instead of featuring any of the Black female artists who were influenced by Aaliyah they featured… a bunch of predators and abusers? So disgusting considering what she went through,” one Twitter user said.
“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, Jhene Aiko, Chloe x Halle, H.E.R., Sevyn Streeter, etc – but instead we get Snoop Dogg, Neyo, Future, Chris Brown, a weird Weeknd song… yikes,” another wrote. Even in death, it looks like Aaliyah is unable to escape manipulation by male abusers.
Read Dazed’s interview with Aaliyah’s former stylist, Derek Lee, on crafting her timeless Y2K looks and her impact on fashion.