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.