This week marks the untimely death of Aaliyah. America’s soundtrack wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the late rising star’s musical impact on R&B. Aaliyah Haughton was born on January 16, 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, but was raised in Detroit, Michigan. At the age of 11, the young singer competed on the television show Star Search, but didn’t walk away with a win.
However, later that year, she performed with the legendary Gladys Knight who was the former wife of her uncle and manager, Barry Hankerson, at a stint in Las Vegas.
Becoming a Musical Legend
At 15 years old, Aaliyah took the industry by storm with her 1994 debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, produced by R. Kelly.
The album sold over a million copies and earned platinum status based on the success of two hit singles form the record, “Back and Forth,” and her rendition of the Isley Brothers’ hit, “At Your Best (You Are Love).”
While still in high school, Aaliyah released her sophomore album, One in a Million in 1996, produced by dynamic duo Timbaland and Missy Elliott. The album showcased her maturity along with a seductive edge with laid back hip hop beats.
The album sold two million copies. The first single, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” went double platinum and contains Timbaland’s signature syncopated beats and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott’s lyrics. “4 Page Letter” and “Hot Like Fire” were also hits.
Landing in the Musical Spotlight
Aaliyah landed in the spotlight in 1997 when she recorded “Journey to the Past,” the Academy Award nominated theme song for the film Anastasia. She performed the song during the 1998 Oscars.
On her next soundtrack effort, “Are You That Somebody?” for the 1998 film Dr. Dolittle, starring Eddie Murphy, went to number one on the R&B charts and earned Aaliyah her first GRAMMY nomination.
In 2000, the singer made her acting debut in the film Romeo Must Die, opposite martial arts star Jet Li in a Romeo and Juliet inspired story. She was the executive producer of the movie’s soundtrack and performed the hit, “Try Again,” which landed her another GRAMMY nomination as well as two MTV Music Awards for Best Female Video and Best Video from a Film.
In July 2001, her third album Aaliyah was released and reached number 2 on the Billboard album chart. It sold 2.4 million copies worldwide. Aaliyah featured the smash singles “We Need a Resolution,” “More Than A Woman,” and “Rock the Boat”. The same year, she was working on the film Queen of the Damned, and signed on to appear in two upcoming sequels of the blockbuster thriller, The Matrix.
The Death of an R&B Star
Then tragedy struck. August 25, 2001, 22-year-old Aaliyah was killed when a small Cessna passenger plane carrying the star and her video crew crashed and burst into flames shortly after takeoff in the Bahamas. They had just finished working on her video “Rock the Boat.” Aaliyah and seven others, including the pilot are believed to have died instantly, and a ninth passenger passed away later at a hospital.
At the end of 2002, the posthumous album, I Care 4 U, hit the charts at number three; it mixed some of the singer’s biggest hits with a selection of unreleased material. The title track was a Top 20 pop hit, and “Miss You” topped the R&B charts early the next year.
Even 17 years later, Aaliyah’s musical impact is still being felt from her cutting-edge style to being ahead of her contemporaries by not being afraid of taking chances on a new sound. Her music has been sampled by Drake, Jennifer Lopez, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, The Weeknd and many more over the years. While it’s impossible to know whether the nicknamed, “Baby Girl” would have ended up following the trends that surfaced in the industry after her death, but one thing is for certain, her music is timeless and still lives on.
Nashville Music Museum
For more information on African American musicians, producers, and industry leaders, visit NMAAM.