On what would be Aaliyah's 41st birthday, we look at how she impacted R&B through the 1990s and beyond.
Til this day, Timbaland and Aaliyah are responsible for one of my favorite sounds in the history of mankind. The instrumental break during “Are You That Somebody” is one of, if not the best beat breakdown of all-time - followed closely thereafter by the one in Dr. Dre’s “Next Episode.” Timbaland and Aaliyah were lightning in a bottle. The rarest kind. Put sticky notes of their discography in a hat and pick one at random, they’re all a DJ’s cheat code - proven to get people on the dancefloor even if the most witless of disc jockeys is at the turntable’s helm. The era’s most influential producer and most influential R&B artist were a match made in heaven and along with Missy Elliott, they were innovators of modern R&B sound. All three possessed incredible creative frequency. Missy told Amazon Music in an interview: “I guess my mind is far out there. I don’t never really say I’m going to aim for something that is different, it’s just that’s the way I think.” With their far-out thinking, together, this trio helped usher R&B into the mainstream peeling back against tradition and delivering a treasure chest gigantic hits.
Aaliyah & Missy Elliott at the 12th Annual Soul Train Music Awards, 1998 - Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty Images
Aaliyah’s story is a thing of pop culture folklore. In a short but remarkable existence, with the help of R. Kelly, Timbaland and Elliott, she created an unforgettable legacy. At the unripened age of 15-years old, this phoenix scored the first top-10 hits of her career with the songs "Back & Forth" and "At Your Best (You Are Love)" from her debut album Age Aint Nothing but a Number, which was soon certified Platinum. Immediately the prodigy had an impact on the mainstream. At this time the norm was R&B groups like SWV along with Xscape. Aaliyah was the first teen solo act of the 90s to transcend. She precursors other acts to follow like Brandy and Monica. It’s unbelievable in hindsight that she didn’t gain substantial critical attention until just before her passing.
Songs like “Are You That Somebody” and “One In A Million,” were true game-changers and defined an entire era of R&B. It was the sound ushered in by Timbaland, Aaliyah and Missy Elliott. A futuristic and innovative score with stylistic eccentricity, that was emulated by droves of producers and vocalists to come thereafter. The trio’s iconic springy baselines with electrifying synthesizers refined and reinvented the sound of 1990s urban music. Not only was the production before it’s time, so was Aaliyah’s voice. Artists for years after her death would try to duplicate her crisp mid-range delivery and delicate falsetto - not to mention the depth of soulfulness she occasionally tapped into. She went against the grain. Before she broke through R&B singers were all about power (i.e. Mariah Carey). Her subtlety and nuanced approach became popular and trendsetting. Look no further than Ciara for an example of how this peculiarity influenced a generation.
As their resumes would suggest, both Missy and Timbaland have an uncanny ear for beautiful musical deviation - neither is afraid of flirting with the boundary’s brink, pressing their heels right to the cliff’s edge. The duo with a brine history brought the best out of each other. Elliott spoke more on their relationship and her creative process later in the same Amazon Music interview, saying: “When I play something, he’ll most definitely be like ‘no, you should do it like this’ and that’s always been us. And he’ll play something and he’ll go through sounds and I’ll be like ‘oh that’s crazy’ or I’ll be like ‘that’s super wack.’ And vice versa. And you know I think we trust each other because we’ve been knowing each other since high school.”
The singer's star continued to ascend with the release of her third album, self-titled Aaliyah, which went certified double Platinum in the United States. These three albums are an emblem to her prestige and the impact of those works can still be felt today. Ty Dolla $ign told Billboard: "Aaliyah is one of my favorite artists, and One In A Million is one of my favorite albums ever. I can't wait until there is another artist who is remotely close to the type of artist Aaliyah was, because I don't think we've seen it yet."
Canadian rapper/singer Drake said in an interview with Soul Culture, "Aaliyah has had probably the most impact on my career because when I made the choice to start singing ... I needed someone to reference ... I just found comfort in all of Aaliyah's music." Drake used Aaliyah’s vocals on his single “Enough Said.” Her voice also appears on Chris Brown’s “Don’t Think They Know.” However, these posthumous collaborations came at the chagrin of Timbaland. The superproducer told the LA Times: "People always say, ‘I’m going to do a song with Aaliyah.’ It will never work,” he said. “Chris Brown got a record, it won’t work. Drake can go do a record with Aaliyah, it ain’t gonna work. ’Cause Aaliyah music only work with its soulmate, which is me." Timbaland even admitted he fell in love with Aaliyah while they were working together.
Aaliyah in NYC, 1995 - KMazur/WireImage/Getty Images
Timbaland has had a hand in aiding the careers of several prominent artists. He’s mentored the likes of Nelly Furtado and Tweet, gained credits on works for Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, and even Coldplay. But, arguably, nothing he’s done can quite compare to the groundbreaking records he created with Aaliyah. Along with her own insanely successful solo career, Missy found major success behind the scenes as well, working with Eve, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, and Keisha Cole among many other artists she and her childhood friend co-produced together.
We would love nothing more than to hear new Aaliyah records. But unlike in today’s musical ecosystem, Aaliyah was sparing with the release of music. In fact, she only recorded three albums in her lifetime. As a result of disputes between her estate and her former record label, Blackground Entertainment and Reservoir Media Management her final two albums are not available on streaming platforms which is an absolute shame. Her estate has considered the idea of repackaging her demos but there is yet to be any progress on that front.
Aaliyah’s legacy is defined by her originality. From the baggy clothes and oversized jerseys to the iconic crop tops to her choreography or vocals: she was always a step ahead. In a time where we maybe see a lack of bold imagination, it’s refreshing to reflect on her time with us and the impact it had on music. As a quote from her website reads: “I stay true to myself and my style, and I am always pushing myself to be aware of that and be original."