Heard on Progressive Underground

Remembering Aaliyah, the Princess of R&B

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Explore five essential tracks that define the too-short career of the R&B songstress.

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Twenty years ago, on Aug. 25, 2001, Aaliyah Dana Haughton died in an airplane accident. Though only 22, Aaliyah left behind a lasting legacy that continues to influence popular music today.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit, Aaliyah started taking voice lessons when she was 2 years old. After moving to Detroit when she was 5, she was cast in a stage play of Annie, which inspired her desire to become an actress, singer and entertainer. She went on to gain mainstream recognition at the age of 10 when she appeared on the popular television show Star Search and performed in concert alongside Gladys Knight. By 12, she signed a distribution deal with Jive Records and her uncle Barry Hankerson’s Blackground Records.

Hankerson also introduced the budding songstress to R. Kelly, who became her mentor and served as lead songwriter and producer for what would be her debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” The pair were also illegally married when Aaliyah was just 15 years old, resulting in an annulment by her parents, though the pair denied allegations they were married. In the years following Aaliyah’s death, R. Kelly amassed many allegations about him regarding inappropriate sexual misconduct with underage women and his marriage to Aaliyah was used as an example of his predatory behavior. He’s currently under trial, and faces one count of racketeering and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.  It’s the first time has faced charges in connection with his marriage to Aaliyah.

Despite a tumultuous and brief life, Aaliyah left an indelible mark on music, shaping the sounds of contemporary R&B and paved the way for artists like Kehlani, Ciara, Rihanna and more.


Listen to five essential tracks that capture the impact and rise of Aaliyah.


1. Back & Forth

Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” received great reviews in critics’ circles, with many writers noting Aaliyah’s “silky vocals” and “sultry voice,” which, when blended with R. Kelly’s New Jack Swing production style, helped define R&B in the 1990s. Aaliyah became a fashion and style icon during this time, with her baggy jeans, oversized sports jerseys and eye patch that all appealed to a younger audience. She also brought the teen girl perspective back to R&B, in contrast to divas like Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton.

2. At Your Best, You Are Love

While Aaliyah exuded a girl-next-door charm with breathy vocals atop rugged and rough R&B beats, she could also give listeners that timeless and smooth R&B ballad, like on the remake of the classic Isley Brothers track “At Your Best (You Are Love).” 

3. If Your Girl Only Knew

After the marriage annulment and subsequent fallout between Aaliyah and R. Kelly, it was difficult for her to find producers for her second album. However, the team of Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who were fairly new on the scene at the time, took her in as an artist, producing for and collaborating with her as an adopted de facto family member and part of their crew, which also included Ginuwine, Magoo, Tweet and others. 

The final product of their work was the 1996 album “One In A Million,” which featured a pendulum shift in Aaliyah’s sound. Gone was the New Jack Swing aesthetic of R. Kelly’s productions, replaced by a more versatile, languid and seductive form of hip hop, R&B and jungle rhythms. 

The album was hailed as one of the most influential R&B albums of the 1990s and credited with establishing the Timbaland and Missy Elliott production family as unmistakable hip-hop forces. 

4. Try Again
Not available to stream

In 1999, Aaliyah landed her first film role in Romeo Must Die, where she starred opposite martial artist Jet Li. Aaliyah served as an executive producer of the film’s soundtrack, to which she contributed four songs. “Try Again” was the leadoff single from the soundtrack and went on to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart at No. 1 and earn her a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocalist.

5. Rock the Boat
Not available to stream

As work began on material that would go on her self-titled follow-up album, anticipation was at an all-time high for Aaliyah to take her art to the next level and dominate the industry. She never got to see her star continue to rise, as she, along with eight other passengers, were killed in a plane crash on Aug. 25, 2001, after wrapping filming of the music video for what would be the hit single “Rock the Boat.”

Aaliyah’s death would shock the industry and would be one of the greatest “what-if” scenarios in modern music. An icon in the making, Aaliyah had wide-ranging talent and magnetic appeal that filtered into other areas such as film where she was cultivating a promising career; fashion, where her laid-back sensual style served as a muse for many of the world’s top fashion designers; and her music, where she possessed one of the most unique voices of that era. 

Though it’s been 20 years since the world lost Aaliyah, the indelible mark that she made on contemporary R&B pop culture was immediate and still looms large today. She stretched the bounds of what R&B could sound like in a way that redefined the genre while helping inform sonic trends of the early 2000s. Twenty years after the release of her final studio album, the force of that impact still reverberates.

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Chris Campbell, Host, The Progressive Underground

Chris Campbell has a deep interest in curating Detroit’s rich music scene and presenting it to the world-at-large.

ccampbell@wdet.org Follow @cambeaux

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