I had a date the other night (hold your applause, please, I know it’s been a while). Things were going pretty well as we did that awkward dance of two strangers getting to know each other over the course of cocktails and shared interests. We really started cooking with gas when talk turned to music. He brought up the new Tinashe album, which I had yet to hear, so we went back to my place and started listening to Songs for You (one word: bops) and playing its accompanying videos.
From her melodies to her style to her looks to her dancing, Tinashe has always inspired comparisons to Aaliyah, the ’90s R&B songstress whose life was tragically taken in a plane crash in 2001. She was only 22, with a career that ran not even a decade but included three studio albums and a handful of memorable soundtrack appearances. Her influence looms large in today’s musical landscape.
Once my date revealed that he was a big fan of Aaliyah, I realized the date was actually going well. Who knew? And when he lamented the fact that he had never heard her final album—the self-titled Aaliyah, released just one month before her death—because most of the late artist’s music was not available for streaming, I saw my way in.
I’ve considered Aaliyah a minor R&B masterpiece since I bought it almost immediately after it came out—and it has been a constant in my iTunes library even through the death of that particular application—so I sought to rectify that injustice. Cut to us making out to “Rock the Boat.”
So, thanks for that, babygirl. Meanwhile, days later, the universe, seemingly listening in on our pillow talk, gifted my date with the news that Aaliyah’s entire catalog would become available for streaming on what would be her 41st birthday: January 16, 2020.
Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson, is the great liberator behind this new turn of events. Hankerson founded Blackground Records through a distribution deal with Jive Records in 1993 and signed Aaliyah when she was just 12 years old. He also served as her manager until 1995, when her dad took over, though Aaliyah remained on Blackground until her death.
Hankerson was also R. Kelly’s manager for a time, and he introduced his niece to the R&B hitmaker, who served as her mentor as well as a songwriter and producer on her debut album, the—in hindsight—terrifyingly titled Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number. Oh, and he also married her when she was just 15. Which is really one of the most fascinating and baffling elements of Aaliyah’s legacy. As of this writing, Kelly has been charged with bribing a government official to acquire Aaliyah’s fake ID for said marriage.
So much of today’s R&B bears Aaliyah’s imprint because many contemporary artists grew up listening to her and loving the way she melded aggressive hip-hop with her cool, satiny-soft vocals. She took what Janet Jackson—whom Aaliyah idolized—was doing with New Jill Swing in the late-’80s and early-’90s and brought it to a new generation just as hip-hop was crashing into the mainstream.
I mentioned Tinashe, but look at anyone in the game right now: Ciara, Teyana Taylor, The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Jhené Aiko, and the list goes on. Even Queen Bey herself, Beyoncé, references Aaliyah, most recently in her cover of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” echoing parts of “Rock the Boat”: “Swag the right, surf the left / Work the middle ’til it hurt a little.”
On the pop side, Ariana Grande, Kim Petras, and Charli XCX have adopted Aaliyah’s swag and style. Meanwhile, the late singer’s choreography, much like Ms. Jackson’s, was always so seamless and effortless, yet still so intricate. My date and I agreed that, yes, Beyoncé is amazing, but you can see the effort. The effort is part of the show with Beyoncé, whereas with Aaliyah, the slightest movement feels bigger, more important, more beautiful than it is or has a right to be.
Just look at the video for “Are You That Somebody?,” which still ranks among the best routines ever created (shout-out to Fatima Robinson, who was also responsible for the equally iconic “Try Again”).
The inherent dichotomies Aaliyah possessed are what first drew people to her—here was this lovely soprano voice coming out of this little girl dressed like a tomboy in baggy clothes, singing confidently about subject matter that belied her age. She was masculine and feminine, R&B and hip-hop, an upstart but an old soul. For better and for worse.
Whenever Aaliyah comes up, well… R. Kelly usually isn’t brought up, and fans love to speculate on what could’ve been. She was, after all, only 22. She had just branched out into films, her third studio album was her best, her future was bright. My date wondered aloud if Beyoncé would still be Beyoncé had Aaliyah been around, to which I assured him, Beyoncé would always be Beyoncé. But Aaliyah’s death definitely left a void in music that others quickly sought to fill. Remember Ashanti? She was at Oprah’s Legends Ball.
But who’s to say Aaliyah wouldn’t have gone the way of other R&B girls of the ’90s who began to decline at the beginning of the new millennium, ostensibly to make room for the rise of Bey? Brandy is still struggling to get the respect she deserves, while her “Boy Is Mine” partner Monica has all but fallen off the radar. The summer of ’98, however, belonged to those three ladies: Brandy and Monica with their aforementioned hit, the biggest-selling song of the year, and Aaliyah with “Are You That Somebody?”—generally considered a high watermark of the ’90s—from the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack.
Aaliyah’s films Romeo Must Die (the soundtrack of which included “Try Again”) and Queen of the Damned were minor hits, though tepidly received by critics. She had a role in The Matrix trilogy, even completing part of The Matrix Reloaded, and was set to star in a number of other movies, including a remake of Sparkle produced by Whitney Houston. That project, starring Jordin Sparks in Aaliyah’s stead, was eventually released after Houston’s death in 2012.
Aaliyah could’ve been a major superstar, or she could’ve fizzled out. She could have been caught up in the tragedy of R. Kelly, but her death precluded her legacy from being too deeply wrapped up in his. Still, it’s useless to speculate. Like James Dean and others who died young and beautiful, we’re left with what was and what could’ve been. If anyone tries to sell us an Aaliyah hologram, however, I will draw blood.
As for my date? If you’re reading this, you left your bracelet at my place and your prayers have been answered: Aaliyah’s gonna be streaming soon.