13 Years Later: Aaliyah & Her Lasting Impact

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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.

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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.

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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.*

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