By Christopher Joseph
Blackground entertainment recently released an unheard of track from the late singer’s catalog to great fanfare and scrutiny. The diva who was one of the industry’s brightest stars in music, film, and fashion at the time of her untimely death in an airplane crash in 2011.
Digging up artists catalog’s is always a risk for the estate that controls their work and the labels that churn it out. Posthumous releases abound from artists such as Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, TuPac, Notorious B.I.G, Kurt Cobain, and countless others to either great fanfare or disappointment. When artists put out a release, they want their best artistic and hit driven material represented, the management usually the later. Stuff that doesn’t make the official release usually ends up on the cutting room floor in various states of production. There are reasons the artist themselves never released the work.
Artists usually put their inventory in the trust of either their management or family estate. The labels also have a contractual stake with the artists work which continues after death. With the thin line of masters, publishing, producers and other factors to consider, many times the legal woes with new estate owners can last for years about who has control. Such in case why it took years to hear any hidden recordings from Jimmy Hendrix or Bob Marley. It’s even more difficult in the case of major bands such as the Beatles who only have one surviving member left and many different hands that have controlled their huge output.
Money is usually the background factor as depending on what the artist owned or didn’t own, they are still in debt. Labels give considerable amounts of advance money for artists to finish their projects, hopefully it will be recouped with a hit release, bad albums result in artists getting dropped from labels and owing money. If an artist doesn’t own their masters or publishing, they will sink deeper in debt. Such as the case with M.C. Hammer. Whitney Houston, while an extremely exceptional singer did not write or control her music and owed her label thousands upon her death. A new greatest hits package is already slated for release and new music is coming off of her last film ‘Sparkle.’ Watch as other tinkering with her work comes years after her death.
Aaliyah is listed by Billboard as the tenth most successful female R&B artist of the past 25 years, and 27th most successful R&B artist overall. Slant magazine said Aaliyah has been credited for helping redefine R&B and hip hop in the 1990s, “Leaving an indelible imprint on the music industry as a whole.” With such a legacy to uphold deceased artists such as Aaliyah deserve their posthumous works delivered with an extra sense of care.
Surprisingly, Blackground Records her label home, seems to be fumbling with the latest posthumous release since 2005s Ultimate Aaliyah. Earlier this year Blackgrounds Jomo Hankerson, son of founder Barry Hankerson, announced the new album coming this fall. Aaliyah’s brother Rashad in a Huffington Post article claims that, “No official album [is] being released and supported by the Haughton family.”
According to Billboard, again, when Blackground announced that current chart topper Drake and producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib was executive producing Aaliyah’s new release, controversy erupted. Some criticized the fact that Drake, who has continuously expressed his love for her music, would oversee an album when he had never actually met her. Aaliyah’s brother Rashad Haughton posted an official statement on Facebook that her immediate family will not support this project, which Drake later countered by claiming that, “Everybody from her family to her old management and label” were behind the record. Billboard.biz reached out to Haughton but had not received a response as of press time. Jomo Hankerson is Aaliyah’s cousin.
The uproar is summed up in a recent Village Voice article’s disdain for the Drake assisted single ‘Enough Said’ as it circles the internet, http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2012/08/aaliyah_enough_said_drake.php
Many Aaliyah’s fan are miffed that longtime collaborators Timbaland and Missy Elliot aren’t involved with the new project. Hankerson reached out to Drake and Shebib on the strength of his work with Alicia Keys (Un-thinkable (I’m Ready) and his unique sound. With the album just in the early stages Hankerson has confirmed that Timbaland and Missy Elliot will participate in the assembling of the LP. Not clarifying if they would actually have produced songs.
Nevertheless, with no official release date for the posthumous release, the label officially debuted the single “Enough Said” by Aaliyah featuring Drake to Soundcloud early August. The cut features ghosty vocals over a slick beat with Drake dropping his signature monotone. Three hours after it was posted on August 5, the song racked up more than 100k clicks. The listens are easily in the millions now.
Again, a label has decided to ‘update and artists sound.’ As Hankerson says, “The idea was to release new music for her diehard fans, and also reintroduce her music to a new generation that doesn’t really understand how much influence she has in the music that they’re listening to today.” This seems to be the same reasoning behind other posthumous releases from Biggie, Tupac, Bob, Amy, Jimmy, Kurt.
Do we really need to update their sound for a new generation? Are we being selfish to keep prolonging an artists career for profit or to respect their legacy? Do artists really consider that works they rejected already would be retrofitted years after they passed? Drake was a mere starry eyed pubescent old when Aaliyah passed. Sure, its the ultimate fanboy reality to work with your ‘dream idol’ but she’s gone, its not the same.
Same with the others, you see the output Tupac had upon his death. Once he was released from Clinton Correctional and signed with Death Row records (Ironic in itself), he knew his fate was sealed. His tremendous output was a result of extended studio overtime producing hundreds of tracks that resulted in the series of posthumous works that came after his death. Is this the blueprint of an artist who speaks of death coming in his young life, putting his affairs in order? Or should all artists contemplate their legacies will be tampered with after their passing and should plan accordingly? An artist’s work is their legacy, Picasso, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Hitchcock, James Dean have all lived on in their respective crafts for decades, centuries, as new artists honor and interpret their work.
Michael Jackson, Elvis, and the Beatles have had tight reins in their contracts looking into the future, others seem not to consider this. Artists in control of their own destiny have sealed tight artistic control even in death, their legacy stays intact as they envisioned, not letting the weaker material surface. Tupac is now a hologram, is this respect using new technology or just plain creepy?
Upon Aaliyah’s anniversary of her death August 25th, lets all be proactive to demand respect for her legacy. We, as fans should be the ultimate guide for the controllers of her fate to respect. While I respect Drake’s eagerness to ‘bring back her sound,’ the new single ‘Enough Said’ is really, enough said, you did it. Now that new archives have been uncovered, stop tampering with them now and let other more capable artisans that cultivated her sound, understood her living and breathing emotions, continue their hard work. They are still here, pushing the boundaries of music, this is not the time to hand the ring over to newbies just because they happen to be the current hot talent.
Ultimately, the one guarantee in our lifetime is death, we all have an expiration date. Some early, some later. What all of us do with our lives will either effect another person’s life positively or negatively or you will just be a footnote in history. Living artists, keep this in mind as you go about your craft, never know who will be tinkering with it in the future. As the famous educator Horace Mann quoted, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” An artists testament is the emotive relationship you have with your fans, this is their victory and their legacy.