aaliyah one in a million
Getty Images / Kevin Winter

Teenagers listening to Drake’s latest release, Scorpion, might wonder why he chose to end the album’s A-side with an Aaliyah interpolation first recorded at the turn of the century. The truth is that Drake and countless others still remain enchanted by the mystique of Timbaland’s protégé 17 years after she died in a tragic plane crash, and it doesn’t look like anyone else will replace her as the ‘Princess of R&B’ any time soon either.

In the years that followed her death, Aaliyah’s music has continued to live on in the work of others. Aside from Drake’s undying adoration for Baby Girl, artists as diverse as Jennifer Lopez and The Weeknd have also sampled her work directly, and rappers who haven’t mentioned Aaliyah at least once in their career are truly one in a million. Frank Ocean even covered the starlet’s own cover of “At Your Best (You Are Love)” for his visual album Endless a couple of years back on what would have been Aaliyah’s 36th birthday.

Given that the impact of Aaliyah’s voice is still felt in the industry today (even more than a number of artists who are currently recording music), fans and critics alike regularly lament her loss, trying to imagine how the star’s career might have evolved were she still alive today. Now that she’s gone, it’s easy to claim that Aaliyah would have easily matched or even surpassed the success of modern contemporaries like Beyoncé or Rihanna, but was Baby Girl really one in a million?

Are You That Somebody?

Aaliyah arrived on the scene fully formed at the tender age of 14, like an angel plucked from the future. By the age of 22, she had recorded three double Platinum albums and starred in two Hollywood blockbusters with a third role lined up in The Matrix sequels. The star’s success continued even in death thanks to various posthumous releases that helped attract 800,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, despite the fact that legal wrangling prevent a number of her key releases from appearing on streaming services.

The girl with “jazz personality” and “G mentality” would be 39 now if her life hadn’t ended prematurely, and those who worked with her believed that Aaliyah would have accomplished even more in the years that followed. Queen of the Damned director Michael Rymer claimed “that girl could have gone so far,” explaining that she had “such a clarity about what she wanted” and that “Nothing was gonna step in her way.”

It’s rare for people to speak ill of the dead, but among the numerous plaudits, there were also some detractors who claimed that Aaliyah was nothing more than a cipher for the artistry of Timbaland and Missy Elliott, simply channeling the sound that they created. Of course, such critiques severely overlook how Aaliyah’s own contribution to the music would help define the landscape of hip-hop in the years that followed.

Although Aaliyah was rarely involved in the writing process, she fused her angelic voice with futuristic beats to create something entirely unique for the radio, singing R&B slow jams that prioritized emotional nuance over diva-style runs. As their muse, Aaliyah inspired Timbaland and Missy Elliott to pen and produce some of their best work, including songs like “Try Again” and “If Your Girl Only Knew.” Together, the music that Aaliyah created with her close friends would also go on to inspire an entire generation of performers, including Ciara, Ashanti, and even Rihanna, whose swagger owes an immeasurable debt to the style that Baby Girl first came out with back in 1994.

Hot Like Fire

Eventually, hip-hop caught up to the futuristic vibes of Timbaland’s signature production style, so his work no longer sounded quite as fresh as before. However, Aaliyah had already proven herself willing to evolve and experiment beyond this, so it’s unlikely that this would have impacted her career trajectory in the long run. On her third and final album, simply titled Aaliyah, the Princess of R&B blended together other genres in her music too, including pop, rock, and even techno, pushing forward with what seemed like limitless potential.

Fans are quick to declare that Aaliyah’s music was timeless, even though some early cuts are starting to show their age, but it’s true that far more of her songs hold up today than those sung by her contemporaries. Tracks like “It’s Whatever” and “Never No More” wouldn’t sound out of place on recent albums like SZA’s CTRL or Solange’s A Seat at the Table, and the bold experimentation heard on “What If” was years ahead of its time, drawing on the star’s surprising love of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.

In contrast, other ’90s favorites like Brandy, Monica, and Faith Evans might remain musically active, but aside from Beyoncé, none are as popular as they once were, and that’s because they failed to evolve with the times. As a result of this, fans often speculate about what would have happened to Ms. Carter’s career if Aaliyah was still alive today. Would she have rivalled Queen Bee on the charts? Or would they have ruled together?

It’s impossible to know now whether the Princess of R&B would have ended up following the dance/pop trends that dominated after her death or whether she would have helped forge a new path that others would follow. What’s clear, though, is that Aaliyah left a void in the industry that Beyoncé helped fill with her own undeniable talent.

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Noted critic Emil Wilbekin once claimed that the success of Aaliyah’s third album and her planned role in The Matrix franchise could have helped transform her into “one of the next big pop stars, the same as Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, or Whitney Houston.” We’ll never know if that’s true or not now, but just like these other icons of urban music, Aaliyah also influenced artists outside of the R&B sphere, and not just in the realm of singing either.

Street Thing

From the moment that Aaliyah first made her debut in the video for “Back and Forth,” her distinct sense of fashion was perfectly crystallized, combining sophistication with street wear in one iconic look that would evolve even further as her videography developed.

Stylist Derek Lee later discussed this with Billboard, reminding readers that Aaliyah was “sexy and feminine even when she was wearing baggy pants,” proving that “you don’t have to show your ass in order to be hot.” It’s easy to forget now, but long before Beyoncé and Rihanna incorporated street couture into their fashion, Aaliyah pioneered Athleisure with an authenticity that attracted the attention of top-level designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Roberto Cavalli.

Now that streetwear has become one of the most pervasive trends in fashion, it’s easy to imagine Aaliyah creating her own clothing line today at the age of 39. 17 years after her death, MAC were even inspired to release a new makeup collection based on her look after fans petitioned the company to honor the star’s legacy. Even if the music would have eventually taken a backseat, there’s no doubt that Aaliyah would have remained a fashion icon regardless.

As the first mainstream artist to combine these urban stylings with an innocence befitting of the nickname ‘Baby Girl,’ Aaliyah almost single-handedly defined the teen pop sound that would dominate the airwaves in the years surrounding her death. Singers who started out young like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera owe a debt to the legacy of Aaliyah and given that they both still retain a dedicated fan base, the R&B starlet and her music would have surely resonated with new generations too.

Are You Feelin’ Me?

Sure, there may have been other performers out there who could hit higher notes or master more complicated choreography, but the emotional cadence of Aaliyah’s voice still hasn’t been matched, all these years later. Whether she’s singing sensually in “Rock the Boat,” pledging friendship on “I Gotcha Back,” or warning off cheating men in “If Your Girl Only Knew,” Aaliyah’s vocals possessed a rare nuance, going back and forth between heartfelt ballads and futuristic dance hits with ease.

The untimely death of our favorite artists will always create a mystique around their artistry, and often, a kind of ‘halo’ effect ensues where their music is deified to the nth degree. This raises some difficult questions; if Aaliyah had lived longer, would her back catalog still be regarded as so iconic? While it’s true that her death did prompt a surge in sales that her peers didn’t benefit from, the fact that so many people are still affected by Aaliyah’s music almost two decades on says it all. Dying doesn’t make anyone a star. It’s what they leave behind after they die that matters most.

Not long before she was taken from us, Aaliyah spoke in an interview about a recurring dream which foretold the circumstances of her demise. Initially scary, the darkness that she encountered in each vision would then give way to something special. “How do I feel? As if I am swimming in the air. Free. Nobody can reach me. Nobody can touch me. It’s a wonderful feeling.” It’s no coincidence that the name Aaliyah actually means “highest most exalted one” in Swahili, because her dream was right. Nobody can touch the legacy of Aaliyah Dana Haughton, and just like her love of performing, Aaliyah’s music was truly was one in a million. It will go on and on, and on.

For more like this, read our take on why Death Grips may be the most important hip-hop act of the past decade right here.

Words by David Opie