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Aaliyah: How the singer is still the go-to muse for millennial R&B music 19 years after her untimely death

On the singer's death anniversary, we reflect on one of music's biggest artists
Aaliyah (Getty Images)
Aaliyah (Getty Images)

When a beloved musical icon passes away, it isn't easily forgotten and the pain of their loss often remains for years to come. The past two decades have seen the deaths of more than enough popular celebrities such as Prince, Robin Williams, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie and more, but as we hit August 25, we want to pay homage and reflect on one of the world's most beloved R&B singers, Aaliyah.

Fans attend a memorial for the late R&B singer Aaliyah at Cipriani restaurant, as the funeral service is held at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, August 31, 2001 in New York City. The 22-year-old singer died August 25 in a plane crash in the Bahamas. (Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images)


Aaliyah Dana Haughton left behind a powerful legacy when a fatal plane crash tragically ended her life nineteen years ago. At just 22-years-old, her death was way too soon and the world felt it.

Aaliyah began shooting underwater scenes for the music video of her next single 'Rock the Boat' on August 22, 2001. She and her crew then flew to the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas to continue the shoot. "Those four days were very beautiful for everyone. We all worked together as a family," video director Hype Williams said. "The last day, Saturday, was one of the best I've had in this business. Everyone felt part of something special, part of her song."

The singer had finished shooting her part of the video a day earlier than expected and on the evening of August 25, Aaliyah and several other colleagues boarded a twin-engine Cessna 402-B. Almost immediately upon takeoff from Marsh Harbor, the plane crashed near the runway.

Born for fame

A multi-talented singer-songwriter, model and actress, Aaliyah had catapulted into stardom from an early age. She was born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Straight out of the crib, Aaliyah started taking voice lessons shortly after she learned how to talk. Her first television appearance wasn't a successful one when she competed on the television program 'Star Search' at age 11, but determined to make a name for herself, Aaliyah signed a contract with Jive Records the following year.

It wasn't until 1994 that Aaliyah would see her first major success with her breakout debut record 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number'. The album was produced by R. Kelly and quickly sold a million copies, even earning platinum status based largely on the success of two hit singles, 'Back and Forth' and 'At Your Best (You Are Love)'. She was just 15 at the time.

Aaliyah (as Trish O''Day) stars in "Romeo Must Die." Photo credit: Kharen Hill 2000 Warner Bros. (Source: Getty Images)


When you think of Aaliyah, it is hard to forget her 2000 smash, 'Try Again'. The song was released as the lead single for the soundtrack to the Jet Li film 'Romeo Must Die', and was later included on the singer's self-titled album. 'Try Again' took the crown on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, becoming the first single to reach No. 1 based solely on airplay. In Canada and Europe, the song peaked within the top five on eight music charts, including those of Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. 

For ventures outside of music, Aaliyah's showstopper good looks and talent in her modeling and onscreen appearances, although unfairly short-lived, had her shining just as bright as her music. Her villainous role in the vampire film 'Queen of the Damned' was nothing less than jaw-dropping and even though the film was released posthumously, Aaliyah's onscreen time was stunning.

Aaliyah at 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' at the NBC Studios in Burbank, Ca. 7/25/01. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.)

The Aaliyah impact

Aaliyah was an absolute legend. The varied list of artists Aaliyah has shared as her influencers isn't what you would expect for an R&B artist to share: Nine Inch Nails, Korn, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Sade, En Vogue, Prince, Naughty by Nature, Johnny Mathis, Janet Jackson and Barbra Streisand. Yet, knowing who Aaliyah has influenced herself will blow you away.


Drake has said that Aaliyah had the biggest influence and "most impact" on the creation of his music, especially with his decision to start singing.


During the early years of her career, Rihanna said 'Are You That Somebody' is one of her favorite music videos and said that she admired the way the late singer danced and injected personality into her videos. "She is killing it in this video," Rihanna said.

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys has shared that one of her biggest hits 'If I Ain't Got You' was inspired by Aaliyah. "The song idea came together right after Aaliyah passed away. It was such a sad time and no one wanted to believe it. It just made everything crystal clear to me -what matters and what doesn't."

Other artists such as J

Cole, Ciara, Frank Ocean and more have all cited Aaliyah as an influence on their music. Jeff Robinson, who is behind the breaking out of Alicia Keys and several R&B acts, said in an email, “I can’t tell you how many times I sat in studios and labels claim their newest artists need to have an Aaliyah vibe or look.”

Described as one of "R&B's most important artists" during the 1990s, Aaliyah's second studio album, 'One in a Million', became one of the most influential R&B albums of the decade. Critics such as Simon Reynolds cited 'Are You That Somebody?' as "the most radical pop single" of 1998. The New York Times wrote that, instead of being the song's focal point, Aaliyah "knew how to disappear into the music, how to match her voice to the bass line," and consequently "helped change the way popular music sounds; the twitchy, beat-driven songs of Destiny's Child owe a clear debt to 'Are You That Somebody'."

At the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, Aaliyah was honored by Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Ginuwine and her brother, Rashad, who all paid tribute to her. That same year, the United States Social Security Administration ranked the name Aaliyah one of the 100 most popular names for newborn girls. Aaliyah was ranked as one of "The Top 40 Women of the Video Era" in VH1's 2003 The Greatest series and was also ranked at number 18 on BET's "Top 25 Dancers of All Time."