Aaliyah: ‘Her sound is the R&B blueprint’

She died in a plane crash 20 years ago – but her records still sound like the future. As they finally hit streaming services, fans and acquaintances explore Aaliyah’s enduring appeal

Twenty years ago this month, the R&B superstar Aaliyah died at 22 after the badly overloaded plane she and her entourage were travelling in crashed taking off from the Bahamas, where she had been filming the video to her song Rock the Boat.

From the almost shockingly sparse Are You That Somebody? to the addictive robo-funk of If Your Girl Only Knew, Aaliyah’s relentlessly future-focused records were as radical as pop gets. As much as she was admired by critics and other musicians at the time – and everyone from George Michael to DMX Krew tipped the hat to her startling 2000 single Try Again – Aaliyah’s slim three-album catalogue continues to insinuate its way through pop. Normani’s recently released Wild Side takes production inspiration from Aaliyah’s 1996 single One in a Million. Mahalia and Ella Mai paid homage to her tomboy style in their video for What You Did in 2019, and rising Detroit rapper Kash Doll has called Aaliyah her idol. Frank Ocean payed oblique homage by, like Aaliyah, covering the Isley Brothers’ 1976 song (At Your Best) You Are Love. Ciara has cited her as an influence, while Tinashe has credited her with bringing a “chill vibe” to R&B.

Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who were then an unknown production and songwriting duo, kickstarted their own careers with their work on Aaliyah’s platinum-selling second album One in a Million. Artists as diverse as Beth Ditto, Ty Dolla $ign, Rihanna and Jessie Ware are fans, and she’s set to earn new ones, too – her long unavailable albums are finally arriving on streaming services in the coming weeks.

‘Aaliyah was doing R&B which was still smooth and sexy, but against these really alternative beats.’ Photograph: Albert Watson

What is it about Aaliyah that’s ensured such a lasting legacy when her career was cut so cruelly short? Singer Nao cites an original sound that has formed the fabric of her own musical style. “Back in the 90s, people weren’t really doing R&B across progressive beats,” she says. “It was quite smooth and sexy, like Boyz II Men and Usher. Aaliyah was doing R&B which was still smooth and sexy, but against these really alternative beats. She was also singing in a way that was understated, she wasn’t riffing or doing loads of vocal runs.”

Katy B has been a fan since school, attracted to the singer’s seeming effortlessness. “She just kind of glides on the song,” she says. “You hear all these stories of her being in the studio in pitch black because she was really shy, but it doesn’t sound like that.” For R&B artist Kara Marni, it was the lyrics in Aaliyah’s songs that struck a chord. “When I was at school, the majority of people were listening to pop music which didn’t really have much messaging to it. But with Aaliyah, there were so many messages in her songs that guided me and became the soundtrack to my childhood.”

It’s been a tumultuous journey to get those songs re-released thanks to continued disputes between Aaliyah’s label, Blackground, and her estate, which isn’t supportive of the re-releases, describing them as an “unscrupulous endeavour”. This is an issue that has lasted for 20 years, according to the estate’s lawyer, Paul LiCalsi, who has blamed Blackground for “inexplicably” withholding Aaliyah’s music from the public until now. The label’s founder, Barry Hankerson, who is also the late artist’s uncle, claims his sister, Aaliyah’s mother, didn’t want the music re-released. “As a parent, I would understand if she did not want the music out. Because who wants to hear the voice of your daughter who’s gone?” he told Billboard this month. “When she said that to me, I said: ‘OK, we’re not putting it out. I don’t know when, but one day we will.’” That day seems to have come.

Born in 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, Aaliyah was just 12 when she signed a record deal with her uncle’s label. Two years later, Hankerson secured her a distribution deal with Jive Records. Former Jive A&R Jeff Sledge remembers her as “very intuitive. She was shy but when she would speak, you could tell she was a real artist. She had her ideas of what she wanted to do and say – she wasn’t a puppet.” It was at Jive where she met the then 26-year-old R Kelly, who had just released his solo debut, 12 Play. The two were paired up to make her debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, which was released in 1994 when Aaliyah was 14.

The album, which fused the New Jack Swing sound of the era with Aaliyah’s ethereal vocals, reached No 18 in the US album chart, but it was overshadowed by Aaliyah’s illegal – and secret – marriage to R Kelly a few months after it was released. While her age was stated as 18 on the marriage certificate, she was, in fact, 15. The marriage was annulled in February 1995 and Aaliyah later had the record expunged while trying to distance herself from a situation that Kathy Iandoli, author of Baby Girl, a new biography of the singer, describes as abusive.

Aayliah backstage at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1995.
Aaliyah backstage at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1995. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Baby Girl (the title is taken from a nickname given to Aaliyah by her father and used by Timbaland and Missy Elliott) details instances that now seem like grooming, from the suggestive lyrics Kelly gave Aaliyah to sing, to the “inappropriate dynamic” between them noted by those who worked closely with them. At the time, however, few seemed to care. Iandoli writes: “There was a bigger debate about whether or not there was something wrong with her eye beneath her dark glasses than there was over whether it’s proper to call an unrelated grown man your ‘best friend in the whole wide world’.” (Aaliyah used to cover her left eye on the advice of her mother, who believed it added to her mystique.)

Iandoli says she was keen to detail the manipulation that Aaliyah experienced at the hands of Kelly, who is set to start the first phase of his trial for sex trafficking on Monday following allegations of abuse that stretch back more than two decades. “She wasn’t dating and married to R Kelly, she was abused, as a child.” Asked whether there were any concerns within Jive when Kelly and Aaliyah got married and beforehand, Sledge says that it was “a very tough time for everybody”.

After Aaliyah distanced herself from Kelly, big-name producers became reluctant to work with her, although that was ultimately a serendipitous twist that led her to Timbaland and Elliott. The resulting album, One in a Million, established the trio as a formidable creative force. “That sound is still the blueprint for all of R&B and pop music today,” says Iandoli. It was also the first time Aaliyah, then 17, felt as if she was in the driving seat creatively. “Before I went into the studio to do this album, I knew I wanted to show my colours,” she told MTV at the time of its release. “I was very confident in my convictions and what I wanted this time around.”

After an admired acting role in action thriller Romeo Must Die alongside Jet Li, Aayliah’s final, eponymous album was another step forward. The singles Try Again, We Need a Resolution and More Than a Woman (a posthumous UK No 1) are arguably Timbaland’s greatest productions, and the lyrics from Stephen “Static Major” Garrett are fraught psychodramas of love and lust (“Morning massages with new bones in your closet” runs one gothic line from More Than a Woman).

Throughout, Aaliyah refines her subtle vocal style into a masterclass of quietly burning emotion; released less than two months before her death, the album went Top 5 in the US and UK. A 2019 retrospective Pitchfork review notes: “In reviews and profiles from the time, Aaliyah is praised for eschewing the ‘candy-coated’ sound and style of the charts; actually, she was simply pre-empting the trend many of her peers would eventually try on.”

Aayliah ... One in a Million.
Aaliyah ... One in a Million. Photograph: PR

They also tried on her fashion style, based around crop tops and loose-fitting trousers. Derek Lee, who worked as her stylist from the mid-90s until her death, drew inspiration from the diverse fashion he saw on the Lower East Side of New York. “There was this big punk rock aesthetic, then you would have the Latinos and the black kids. I would grab inspiration which resulted in this half masculine, half feminine, half punk, half hip-hop look.” But the biggest selling point, he says, was Aaliyah’s natural swagger. “That’s the best thing she ever wore.”

Nao was inspired by Aaliyah’s refusal to present herself in a way that was overtly sexual. “There was a part of Aaliyah that made me feel comfortable in rolling out in my denim trousers or in an oversized jumper and knowing that my music can be enough.” That attitude came from Aaliyah herself, says Lee. “She was never chasing all these other girls who were trying to be sexy. She was a young girl when I met her and she wanted to be that young girl.”

Behind the black shades, poker-straight hair, exposed midriff and baggy trousers was a visionary artist who had barely got started when she was cut down in an utterly avoidable accident (fear about missing an appointment in Miami resulted in the fatal risk of travelling on a plane 320kg and one person over its limit; the pilot had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his bloodstream). “Icons like Beyoncé looked up to her,” BBC 1Xtra DJ Yasmin Evans says. “You see her influence in SZA, Syd, Solange and Drake.” Ultimately, “Aaliyah was an artiste.”

One in a Million is released 20 August; the Romeo Must Die soundtrack is released 3 September; Aaliyah is released 10 September; the compilations I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah are released 8 October, all via Blackground. Baby Girl by Kathy Iandoli is published 17 August by Atria Books.

• This article was updated on 16 August with a correction: “baby girl” was a nickname given to Aaliyah by her father.


Rhian Jones

The GuardianTramp

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