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The Inexplicable Online Absence Of Aaliyah’s Best Music

The digital discography of the late R&B legend is unavailable and incomplete. Only her uncle, mysterious music industry exec Barry Hankerson, knows why.

It has been 15 years since Aaliyah died in a plane crash, ending a life and career that were only beginning to realize their full potential. The three albums she released while alive influenced some of today’s most significant artists—Drake, Beyoncé, the Weeknd, and many more. But you won’t find most of her music online. In fact, Aaliyah’s most popular, most important works—the albums One in a Million and Aaliyah, and late-career singles like “Are You That Somebody?”—aren’t available for streaming or sale on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, or any other online music service.

Digital voids like these can result from legal battles over uncleared samples (as with De La Soul), or from musicians holding out for better royalty terms (the Beatles, until recently). Other times they’re the result of ideological stands against the devaluation of artistic output (Joanna Newsom), or cranky nitpicking about audio quality (Neil Young). But Aaliyah’s internet absence is different—there’s no logic to it. It’s not an artistic statement or a play for more money, and there’s no dedicated Aaliyah-only streaming service in the works.

Instead, there’s a single, stubborn man, sitting on a catalog that includes almost all of her most famous work, as well as albums from Timbaland and Toni Braxton, and a trove of unreleased original material that’s never before been heard. The situation puts her entire musical legacy at risk of fading from memory. Year by year, streaming accounts for a greater portion of an artist’s visibility and reverence among the next generation of listeners. And he refuses to budge.