Thirteen years after the loss of Aaliyah, side-swept bangs, ultra-dark shades, and Tommy Hilfiger menswear haven’t been the same. And neither has R&B.
As a lot of music fans know, today [August 25th] marks the anniversary of R&B singer Aaliyah’s tragic death and, ultimately, the music world’s loss of an icon and true talent. Versatility and classy-coolness flowed effortlessly out of the singer, confirming her uncontested “Princess” status in the R&B genre. From her smoothly choreographed, tastefully sexy music videos, to her silky soft alto ballad-destined voice, to her acting in Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah Haughton rocked our world from photo shoot to movie screen.
I remember hearing Aaliyah for the first time when “Try Again” blew up on the radio. It was 2000 and female R&B had died down a bit following its explosion in the mid-to-late 90s; there were also very few solo artists that had the same natural talent (and natural beauty) as she did. I was eight years old and totally mesmerized by this song, its infectious beat (thanks, Timbaland), and–of course–the pretty-meets-edgy persona perfectly embodied by Aaliyah’s whole sound…a small but mighty voice that could just take you away. This simple [but so perfect] radio hit was my gateway to eternal Aaliyah fandom and girl-crushing; I couldn’t get enough.
I think one of the most understated aspects of Aaliyah’s legacy was her image alone…her sweet and likable demeanor as a performer, an unrefined sort of beauty, even her fashion sense. In a league all her own, she sported the baggy Tommy jeans with crop tops, but could just as soon switch it up with a glitter-encrusted dress for the MTV Video Music Awards, making both looks feminine and cool. She made appearances at basketball games, adorned in jerseys and all…and with unparalleled style.
And really, that’s precisely what Aaliyah was: cool. And that’s not even talking about her talent. I remember seeing the “Are You That Somebody” music video, and awe I felt towards this girl wearing shades, silky straight hair with bangs swooped to the side, breaking it down with hip-hop moves that hadn’t even been executed in my favorite Destiny’s Child vids. Most importantly, what really stuck out to fans of Aaliyah’s performances was her consistently upheld class; she could be street-styled, edgy, boyish, and full of self-assured attitude…and it all worked, beautifully.
Aaliyah could comfortably belt a ballad like “I Miss You” or “At Your Best (You Are Love)” at the drop of a hat, communicating emotion and near-tears over a simple audio recording…and then do the same with a bass-filled, sassy hip-hop jam, such as “Hot Like Fire” or “If Your Girl Only Knew”. And then, of course, there were songs by Aaliyah that exuded a blend of these effects, like the moody and minimally-produced classic “One In A Million”. The root of Aaliyah’s appeal wasn’t just her inborn talent–but her ability to wield it in countless, sophisticated ways through music, dance, and style.
I was heartbroken when my 9-year-old self learned of Aaliyah’s death, from a plane crash in the Bahamas, and I also felt that my generation had lost a huge role model in music. Even at that young age, I knew that her type of persona was few and far between. Few women in R&B, even contemporarily, bear the grace and soft-spoken confidence epitomized by the 22-year-old Aaliyah, and undoubtedly, she was and is a persistent influence on artists from all genres. Thankfully, we still have Aaliyah-laden gems of albums, singles, music videos, and more–from the R. Kelly-implied “Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number” to the sensual “Come Over”, and everything in between.
*A new biopic based on Aaliyah’s short but sweet life, entitled “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B”, is scheduled to air on the Lifetime Channel this coming Fall.*