It’s been ten years since a plane crash rocked the world and sent an entire generation into its first epic mourning of a superstar.
Aaliyah Dana Haughton captured the very essence of the 1990s and performed her way into our hearts nearly twenty years ago at the age of 14. Her earliest releases “Back & Forth”, “At Your Best” and the title track from her debut album Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number, revolutionized the sound and image of R&B.
She was largely responsible for sustaining Hip Hop Soul, a subgenre of R&B which combined Hip Hop tracks, organic lyrics and soul singing. Alongside Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, SWV and TLC, Aaliyah presented a thuggish image to her young audience, often adorning excessively baggy jeans sagging enough to see her boxers and midriff. Young Black girls idolized her dark black glasses, the swoop of hair over her eye and those rugged bandanas she hung from her back pocket like a thug.
Her attitude was sweet as watermelon, her voice sounded like the angels descended to earth for a few minutes, and her style pushed the bounds of R&B, helping urban-wear globalize.
We loved her for displaying a controversial image of Black femininity. Young Black girls all around the hood were sporting Lugz boots and black fingernail polish, bobbing their heads and snapping their fingers wildly in the air, singing “it’s Friday and I’m ready to swing, pick up my girls and hit the party scene tonight”.
We loved her instantly and completely.
As the 90s progressed, Aaliyah became our princess, creating iconic pieces of cultural art with Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Magoo and Ginuwine. Together, they formed one of the strongest collectives of Hip Hop Soul players, transforming the way artists produced records. When they dropped “Up Jumps The Boogie”, R&B and Hip Hop were given a new sound—adopting elements of drum’n’bass from the Euro-pop scene.
We loved Aaliyah for making great advances for young Black women on MTV and BET, creating epic promotions which challenged the capacity for excellence in music video production. Her videos were always chock-full of dance routines by daring choreographer Fatima Robinson, who found early fame in Michael Jackson’s short film “Remember The Time”.
Robinson was on set in the Bahamas with Aaliyah the day before that fateful August 25, when Aaliyah’s private jet went up for a moment and then plummeted down, ending her short life. While speculation about the details of the plane crash has surfaced and diminished over the last ten years, what hasn’t abandoned us is our affinity for the princess.
Aaliyah’s death forced us to recognize the potential of a young Black girl from Detroit, remembering how she reshaped the sound and look of Hip Hop and R&B. She was the shining star of the Hip Hop Generation, consistently challenging her work for grander outcomes.
The impact of her artistic excellence is seen within the artists who have emerged since she left us. Ciara, one of Aaliyah’s biggest fans, has made a career based in dance, music videos and unshakable performances. Rihanna, Keri Hilson and Ashanti have all taken cues from Aaliyah’s sound, singing softly over hardcore beats reminding us of “At Your Best”.
All the while, Beyonce has emerged as the leading hitmaker of this generation, churning out a series of highly infectious songs, just like Aaliyah did in the 90s. Beyonce represents the same ferociousness for excellence that caused Aaliyah to resonate with young urban girls—a wonderful tribute to her work ethic.
Her lasting legacy, however, is the music.
Aaliyah’s catalogue, even though it is made up of songs from three studio albums and a few sporadic soundtrack releases, is R&B and Hip Hop at it absolute finest. Grown women run to the dance floor when the DJ spins hits like “Rock The Boat” or “Try Again”. Her earth-shattering hit, “Are You That Somebody”, makes us feel nostalgic for the days when we recorded music videos on VHS tapes, playing them over and over again in search of a perfected dance routine. “One In A Million” and “If Your Girl Only Knew” takes us back to the days when we rocked Tommy Hilfiger and tried to make a party out of sitting on our parent’s car hoods.
Aaliyah forced the music industry to grow up and abandon a sense of cookie-cutter R&B artists by breaking the mold and presenting young urban America as we were—smooth, gritty and unabashedly honest.
We loved her most for that.