In the predominantly male-driven hip-hop industry, successful female performers are few and far between compared to their ultra-macho peers. The late Aaliyah Haughton, however, was an anomaly. She inspired a unique brand of hip-hop and R&B for her own generation as well as future ones.
More than ten years have passed since Aaliyah died in a plane crash in the Bahamas at the age of 22, but a recent reintroduction of her music through sampling has motivated contingents of male hip-hop artists to finally open up and reveal their innermost insecurities, imperfections and vulnerabilities.
Despite having released three celebrated albums during her lifetime, Aaliyah is perhaps best known for the work done on her second LP, One in a Million, as well as her affiliation with Timbaland and Missy Elliot, the producer-artist duo who helped Aaliyah sculpt a new R&B sound that was emotional and heartfelt yet coated in a distinctly street aesthetic.
There was also her short-lived, controversial marriage to R. Kelly when she was still a minor — but let’s not go there.
One in a Million includes an intriguing contrast in song styles, particularly for a female R&B artist at the time. The title song and “4 Page Letter” are more traditional professions of love and loss, while songs like “If Your Girl Only Knew” and “Hot Like Fire” are urban anthems with a gritty edge, sparkling over Timbaland’s signature bass-driven beats.
The album was unlike anything hip-hop and R&B fans had ever heard. It was a fusion of juxtaposing styles that, at least on paper, shouldn’t have worked as well as it did.
As time passed after Aaliyah’s death, only her most loyal fans remained true. Her trademark blend of hip-hop and R&B was pushed further into the background, as the mid-2000s produced a slew of popular gangster rap artists including 50 Cent, T.I. and Game.
Then came Drake.
On his 2010 album, Thank Me Later, Drake, with producers Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da, included a song called “Unforgettable” featuring Young Jeezy. The song included a faint, almost ghost-like intro and outro taken from Aaliyah’s 1994 song “At Your Best (You Are Love)” from her first LP, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. Having already sampled from Timbaland and Missy Elliot’s catalogue on his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone, “Unforgettable” didn’t reach single status, but it remains a favourite among fans largely due to Drake’s interpolation of Aaliyah’s song and vocals, which compliment his own sound.
On his 2011 album, Take Care, Drake also praised the R&B songstress on the song “We’ll Be Fine” with Birdman, rapping, “Since I saw Aaliyah’s precious life go too soon / She deserve the credit for how I’m about to get it.”
Since Drake’s open love affair with all things Aaliyah, other artists have followed his lead. R&B artists The-Dream and Omarion have released their own tribute versions of “One in a Million,” while The Weeknd sampled Aaliyah’s vocals for his song “What you need.” Rap artists Rick Ross, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Dom Kennedy have all used Aaliyah samples in their music.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the sole reason for the recent Aaliyah revival in modern hip-hop and R&B, but it should be noted that her music was always thought to be ahead of its time. In an era filled with club scene, guns-out party tunes, her light and tender voice of sincerity wasn’t necessarily what the hip-hop community represented — or was ready for.
With a new Aaliyah song featuring Drake called “Enough Said” hitting the Internet last month, and a posthumous full-length album apparently on the way, there’s an opportunity to reintroduce Aaliyah’s music amidst a changing of the hip-hop guard.
Young fans yearning for the soulful side of an industry marred in anger and violence will finally meet the woman who balanced all aspects of the game with such grace.
And this time, the people will be ready.