From her image, to her music, Aaliyah was the perfect pop star. Her style was distinct with jet black hair that hid one of her eyes, combined with a tomboy attitude that effortlessly oozed sex appeal. Boys everywhere fell for her, and girls everywhere wanted to be her. Although Aaliyah did not have the best voice in music, the emotion with which she sang, and production and lyrics from R.Kelly, Timbaland and Missy Elliott, created an impeccable formula for classic R&B.
From being signed when she was 12, she released her first album in 1994, with 2 more to follow, the latter being released just one month before her untimely death. On August 25th 2001 as Aaliyah completed filming the video for her single ‘Rock The Boat’, she boarded a 10 seat, twin-engine Cessna 402B heading for Opa-Locka, Florida. Less than a minute after the plane had taken off, it crashed just hundreds of feet away from the runway, killing Aaliyah and 8 others. A disaster for popular R&B music, it is easy to see the influence that she has had on music, and it is likely that things would be a lot different if she was still alive today.
I remember being mesmerised by Aaliyah’s singles when they were released. At the time, I loved ‘More Than A Woman’ on my copy of Now That’s What I Call Music! 51, for it’s bluesy guitar riff and Aaliyah’s smooth vocals. As I’ve grown up I have gone back and bought her albums, and re-listened to this track, and of course realised that she is singing about making love to someone, which, at the age of 10 I was too naive to understand. But that’s the amazing thing about her music, that even if you aren’t listening to the lyrics, her voice, the instrumentation and the production combine to make beautiful, timeless R&B melodies. ‘Rock The Boat’ is my favourite Aaliyah song as oceanic synths bind with tropical percussion and guitars, and Aaliyah’s irresistibly seductive voice pleads “I need you to use yourself / like you never ever used it before / to explore my body / until you reach the shore”. Despite being tarnished by the thought that it was recorded on the day she died, the video is also incredibly provocative as she flirtatiously dances on a boat. Although similar to music and videos by acts such as TLC, Aaliyah was more graceful in how she performed resulting in a much more intimate musical experience.
Despite it being 11 years since her death, her music is as refreshing now as it was when it was first released. Her debut Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number included tracks ‘No One Knows How To Love Me Quite Like You Do’ and ballads like Isley Brother’s cover ‘At Your Best’ on which she sang about a deep and mature love far beyond her years. On later albums she carried this on with tracks such as ‘4 Page Letter’ and ‘One In A Million’ where she sophisticatedly laments over love and loss.
You don’t need to just take my word on how great Aaliyah was though. Many of today’s artists have been influenced by her too. Ciara mimicked her style and choreography with ‘Goodies’, and since her death, she’s also featured on tracks alongside Rick Ross, The Weeknd, Missy Elliott, J Cole and Ne-Yo through the use of unreleased material and samples. However, she has also affected more unlikely artists such as Gossip and The xx, as they have paid their respect to Aaliyah by covering her songs. Another surprising fan comes in the form of James Blake as he processed some of her lyrics for one of his first hits ‘CMYK’, with it’s sparse production that mimicked Timbaland’s style on later Aaliyah tracks.
Arguably, the star to be most influenced by Aaliyah is the Canadian rapper, Drake. Not only did he sample Aaliyah on a track, ‘Unforgettable’, on his debut album, but he has 2 Aaliyah related tattoos and cites her as his greatest musical influence, even above stars such as Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. In a Soul Culture interview on what would have been Aaliyah’s 32nd birthday in 2011, Drake spoke about the singer saying “she always conveyed these amazing emotions but never got too sappy, she always kept it G.”
She had achieved so much by the age of 22, it’s hard to think about what else she could have achieved. Would music still be the same? Some say she shaped the game for female R&B artists such as Rihanna and Alicia Keys, and I agree. ‘Enough Said’ is a track that recently surfaced featuring Aaliyah and Drake, and Drake has also announced that he is working on an album using unreleased Aaliyah vocals which he wishes to unveil before the end of the year. Perhaps this means that Aaliyah’s legacy will live on, with new music from the ‘Princess of R&B’, 11 years after her tragic death.
RIP Aaliyah Dana Haughton 16th January 1979 – 25th August 2001