“Baby Girl, better known as Aaliyah…”
A (very) young Aaliyah (circa late 80s/early 90s)
It’s hard to fathom the though of 11 years going by since Aaliyah Dana Haughton passed away in a plane crash on August 25th 2001. Many of us were just beginning life as hers was ending. Age aside, as she would’ve wanted it, her music still seems to resonate heavy with music fans all over. When an artist dies—especially in hip-hop culture—it seems like they’re automatically thrown into legendary status. Their music is thrown on a pedestal so high, it becomes practically untouchable. However, when it comes to Aaliyah, has her legend been immortalized past the point of exaggeration or is it really accurate to deem her the undisputed Queen Of Urban Pop?
Aaliyah (1994), shot by Lebedinski
From jump, Aaliyah could be considered an original on the music scene. Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number—her 1994 multi-platinum debut—saw the then-15 year old adolescent prodigy of R. Kelly making her humble beginnings. Not since Tevin Campbell had we seen someone so young singing so maturely, and a first for a young female artist. With her success, doors opened for both Brandy & Monica—her most notable peers at the time—to grace the mic and make music for the Clueless crowd. Last year, Brandy opened up to Billboard about Aaliyah’s influence when the two were just getting started, stating, “I was so excited to meet [Aaliyah] because she was the first girl on the scene. She came out before Monica and I did—she was our inspiration. At the time, record companies did not believe in kid acts and it was just inspiring to see someone that was winning, and winning being themselves.”
By the time it came around to recording her sophomore follow-up, One In A Million, Aaliyah had just rebounded from a possible career-ending scandal. When news broke that she & Kellz had allegedly eloped in a Cook County wedding chapel, all ties between the two were severed—both business-wise and personally. Once referred to as her “best friend in the whole wide world” (as Babygirl referred to Kelly on BET’s Video Soul back in 1994), R. Kelly never saw Aaliyah again—at least to our knowledge.
Burgeoning producers Timbaland & Missy Elliott came on board in 1996 to helm the One In A Million project, coming together to create an album that still stands as one of the most forward-thinking and influential R&B/Hip-Hop Soul records of the 90s—and arguably of all time. The musical synergy they created opened doors for all parties involved. Timbaland went on to be one of the most sought after producers in music, crafting hits for the likes of Jay-Z and Nas. Missy’s pen-game was so ill, it reached Pop divas Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. The "Superfriends" were a team to be reckoned with, and that musical power started with Aaliyah.
Clockwise: Eminem, Timbaland, Aaliyah (centered), and Missy Elliott (circa late 90s/early 00s)
As the years went on, so did Baby Girl’s star power. At 19, she became the youngest African American female artist to ever perform at the Oscars during their 1998 ceremony—and soon was crowned the first artist in history to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 based solely off radio spins with her 2000 hit, “Try Again.”
Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled album, and unfortunately last, saw her once again reinventing herself. Need proof? The chick came out with one snake around her neck, and the other shredded around her waist, in the “We Need A Resolution” video. From that moment on, including the posthumous-released “More Than A Woman” and “Rock The Boat” videos, we saw a fresh, creative side to Aaliyah that left us anticipating more. Sadly, we never got a chance to see her fulfill that ingenuity.
Aaliyah, "We Need A Resolution" music video (2001), shot by Paul Hunter
Currently, with the 2012 release of her haunting, Drake-assisted single “Enough Said,” that age-old music question pops its head up once again: Would Aaliyah really be hot in this generation? Would there simply be too much competition for the 90s vet to stay relevant in an era where R&B is replaced by S&M and leotards are the norm compared to her baggy steez? Simply look at her influence on today’s artists to answer that.
Pop’s current chick-in-charge, Rihanna, has name-dropped Aaliyah's 1998 smash, “Are You That Somebody?", a few times in the past as one of her favorite songs/videos of all time. Solange Knowles, Keri Hilson, Ne-Yo, Ciara, The-Dream, Cassie, Tank, Keyshia Cole, Omarion—er, we mean “Maybach O”—and a swarm of others in R&B’s new class have talked extensively about Aaliyah’s influence on their own careers. Rappers like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Azealia Banks, ASAP Ferg and Dom Kennedy are just a few that have sampled her voice on wax. Her music even crosses “over the pond” into unlikely boundaries, with alternative/rock bands like The xx and Gossip covering her songs to fit their emo sound. And honestly, do we really need to mention Drizzy to make our point clear?
Simply put, at the very time of her death, Aaliyah had a blooming acting career (if Queen Of the Damned didn’t prove it, The Matrix sequels and Sparkle would’ve solidified her niche for diverse roles), a month-old hit album, and a team consisting of choreography, well-marketed publicity, innovative production, and genuine friendships that truly had her best interest at heart. To us, she was Hip-Hop's Sade, and had both the talent and résumé to be the Janet Jackson of her generation. Whether or not she would’ve accomplished these feats is arguable, but the reaction to her passing—paired with the constant praise she receives from fans and the industry alike—speaks for itself.
Would she be rocking to boat—and the airwaves—in 2012? It’s too early to judge off the success of “Enough Said,” as it’s only been officially released to radio for four days now. However, based on the reaction to the song since it hit the Internet, the digital conversation it’s evoked, and the overall revival of Aaliyah’s brand, the answer is pretty obvious.
Aaliyah (2000), shot by Hype Williams for VIBE's Seventh Anniversary Juice Issue
—Keenan Higgins (@HIGzILLMATIC)