The young talent was a force in the '90s and a bit of the 2000s. But would she be as big now if she was still with us?
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
Tomorrow marks the 11th anniversary of the grim day when Aaliyah was killed in an airplane crash at the age of 22. The "Princess of R&B” had been in the Bahamas filming a music video for "Rock the Boat," a single from her self-titled third album. On August 25, 2001, she and seven others died in an overloaded Cessna propeller plane that took a nosedive shortly after takeoff, sending her family, fans, and music industry associates—including frequent collaborators Missy Elliott, Timbaland, R.Kelly and fiancee Damon Dash—into a tailspin of shock and grief.
Her old peers, R&B stars Brandy, Monica, and Faith Evans, have all come down to earth. All are still active singers, but none are the force they once were. Who’s to say the trajectory of Aaliyah’s career would have been any different?
A star since she was a child, Aaliyah Dana Haughton always possessed a certain mystique. Describing her style as "street but sweet." she came out just as the New Jack Swing era was coming to an end sporting baggy hooded sweatshirts, leather pants and vests, skullys, and dark glasses—only exposing her abs. But that was enough to keep us wanting more.
More so than her vocal talent, which was solid but not incredible, what set Aaliyah apart was the alluring air about her, as seen on her overtly sexual debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, released when she was just 15 in 1994. Her sultry voice, coached and produced by R. Kelly, pushed her debut single, the party-starter “Back & Forth,” all the way to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. On the album’s title track, she sang about how she was ready to do grown up things most teens only dream of. Talk of an annulled marriage to Kells only added to the intrigue surrounding the young R&B starlet.
Her mysterious appeal grew with sophomore effort, One in Million. With writing and production by Missy Elliott and Timbaland (who were fast becoming stars in their own right), Aaliyah’s mellow bangers—“Hot Like Fire,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” and the title track—were all smashes. Soundtrack cuts “Are You That Somebody” and “Try Again” soon followed, along with the smooth, yet futuristic self-titled third album furthered her lore. And then—as with Tupac or Biggie, dying in the prime of one’s career tends to help create a legend.
Aaliyah’s music continues to touch many. Drake has been outspoken about his admiration for her, even going as far as to address a letter to the dear departed singer. “Not only was I one of your biggest fans but I was truly in love with you,” he wrote. “I loved the way you carried yourself, the way you dressed, the confidence with which you addressed passion and relationships in your music. I said to myself that even if we never met, I wanted a woman in my life just like you.”
But in the time since she’s passed, Aaliyah’s legacy has, inevitably, waned a bit. With time, new stars have claimed her space in the R&B realm, and people are forgetful. But earlier this month, the artist—who would be 33 if she were alive—was back with a new song, or at least one we’ve never heard before.
Drake and his production partner, Noah “40” Shebib, collaborated on “Enough Said.” the first single from an as-yet-untitled album of Aaliyah songs culled from a trove of unreleased vocal demos. On the airy track, Aaliyah urges her man—personified by Drake—to open up.
“You say you got a lot on your mind,” she sings in the lithe tone that made her a star. “Let’s sit down and talk about it.” Drake falls in halfway through to vent about enemies, “bitches” who “act iffy,” and all sorts of other matters he prefers to keeps to himself.
Hearing Aaliyah’s new song played alongside current talents like and Rihanna and Beyoncé on urban radio is quite a jarring experience. She’s like a ghost competing against a new class of girls who hadn't yet become superstars when she was alive. More often than not, “new” records made by glossing up old vocals are a recipe for audio disaster. But ”Enough Said” isn’t half bad. (Although Timbaland probably doesn’t like the fact that he wasn’t consulted on the project at first). Whether or not a whole new album of updated Aaliyah tracks ever sees the light of day, it’s impossible not to wonder what might have happened if Aaliyah never got on that plane 11 years ago.
Would she be as big of a star now as she was in 2001? Probably not. Her old peers, R&B stars Brandy, Monica, and Faith Evans, have all come down to earth. All are still active singers, but none are the force they once were. Only premium talents stay hot for decades, a special few. Most runs end, slowly but surely. Who’s to say the trajectory of Aaliyah’s career would have been any different?
Aaliyah’s untimely death brings the passing of ’50s actor James Dean to mind. He died in a car crash after playing lead in only three movies (most notably Rebel Without a Cause). She was bona fide star with each of her three albums going platinum and a budding career as an actress. She starred in the martial arts action flick Romeo Must Die with Jet Li, then played a vampire in Queen of the Damned before passing. Both died at high points, cheated of the chance to see whether they would excel, maintain, or fizzle. All we can really do is speculate.
The question is would these females have as much room as they have to operate if Baby Girl was still here? My answer is ‘No.’ -Tank
Topically, her music wasn’t groundbreaking. Her most beloved tracks (“Are You That Somebody,” “4 Page Letter,” “More Than a Woman”) circled familiar subjects: young love—getting it, losing it, maintaining it. Was there something about the way she tackled these familiar themes—or was it more about the stellar talents she surrounded herself with? With Timbaland on the boards and Elliott and Static Major penning her songs, couldn’t another singer have made them hit records, too?
There’s no denying that her music recalls a golden era of some of the best hip-hop-soul the young genre had to offer. But a solid listen to most of Aaliyah’s hit singles—and she had many—reveals that she had a soft, appealing voice but not astonishing. She was not as capable of hitting highs and lows as burgeoning stars like Alicia Keys or Beyoncé.
Even Ciara, whose vocals nearly equal Aaliyah’s, would have been a formidable competitor thanks to her stellar dancing ability. When it came to choreography Aaliyah was sexy, sensuous—but not awe-inspiring. “I think it's hard for Aaliyah to be duplicated, because she had her own lane,” Missy Elliott told MTV. “Ciara is an R&B singer who loves to dance, and Aaliyah was that same kinda artist. We knew when she dropped a record, we couldn't wait for the video. I think Aaliyah has influenced artists like a Ciara.”
Ciara was not the only artist to study Aaliyah’s template—from her chic tomboyish style (Keri Hilson) and sex appeal to her ability to make the most of a middling voice (Rihanna).
R&B singer Tank, who worked with Aaliyah and was featured on “Come Over,” a track from her posthumous 2002 album, I Care 4 U, believes Aaliyah created a path for today’s R&B singers.
“She combined sexy, classy, cool, singing, dancing, and acting,” he says. “Aaliyah made it possible to do all these things at the highest level. She's still what women in this industry aspire to be: a total threat. She was leading the charge at that point for urban and pop females. The question is would these females have as much room as they have to operate if baby girl was still here? My answer is ‘No.’”
Maybe so. But we’ll never really know. And maybe that's for the best.