Aaliyah was always ahead of her time. The singer-dancer-actress-model died in a plane crash in the Bahamas 15 years ago today at the age of 22 and was already firmly established as a force in the pop culture landscape. From setting soulful vocals to a hot Missy beat, creating music videos that played out like movies or sparking trends with her head-to-toe leisurewear look, there is hardly a pop star today who hasn’t been touched by her influence. How her legacy lives on:
Aaliyah is widely credited for creating a new kind of “chill” music—R&B slow jams that didn’t feature the typical power vocals or runs that were popular at the time. She was also one of the first to work with then-fledgling producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott, fusing their experimental beats (like the baby crying in the background on “Are You that Somebody?“) with lyrics that celebrated a young woman’s sexuality with breathy bravado. The three formed a musical dream team, and both Tim and Missy have said Aaliyah would have reached Beyonce-level fame and fortune if not for her untimely death. It’s easy to hear her modern R&B influence on songs like “Goodies” by Ciara, Ashanti’s “Foolish” and “Promiscuous” by our own Nelly Furtado.
Athleisure is the darling of the fashion industry today, but long before designers were outfitting pop stars in $600 cashmere sweatpants, Aaliyah was repping ‘90s street couture with bejeweled bandanas, jeans paired with crop tops on the red carpet, white kicks and sateen bomber jackets. Artists like Rihanna and JLo (and their stylists) clearly pulled from the Aaliyah archives for the sport jersey look and your new Mary Jane, Zendaya, channeled Aaliyah with her Tommy Girl look. Even Beyonce chose to pay homage to the “Back and Forth” singer the day after Elevatorgate—Jay is rumoured to have had a serious crush on Aaliyah.
Alicia Keys’ had a hit with 2003’s “If I Ain’t Got You” and though it may have seemed like she was pining after a romantic partner, it was actually inspired by Aaliyah’s sudden passing. Drake–an outspoken Aaliyah superfan–released one posthumous collaboration, 2012’s “Enough Said,” but he and producing partner 40 had an entire album in the works. When word of the project leaked, public reaction was overwhelmingly negative. That, along with Aaliyah’s mother asking them to not put it out, caused seven tracks to be shelved. Drake continues to be candid about his deep love for Aaliyah, expressing himself with open letters, using samples of her work in his music, and referencing her in his lyrics. After all, back tattoos aren’t for passing crushes.
Her connection to music lives on in a more direct way through artists and producers who’ve sampled the classic Aaliyah sound. Songs with a direct line to her catalogue include Jennifer Lopez (“One in a Million” is sampled on “Waiting for Tonight”), The Weeknd (“What You Need” is heard on “Rock the Boat”), Lil Wayne (“Are You That Somebody?” is on “Love Me”) and Kendrick Lamar (“4 Page Letter” meets “Blow My High”).
And the beat goes on.