The past month has, by any measure, been a significant one in the legacy of R&B superstar Aaliyah.
In early August, after a years-long dispute, her longtime manager agreed to release her music to streaming platforms for the first time.
And last week, the trial of R. Kelly got underway. Kelly’s trial — which comes two years after the bombshell Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” — has raised questions about his marriage to the young star. In 2019, federal prosecutors accused Kelly of having bribed a government official to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah so that she would appear to be an adult.
But the recent news has worked to obscure the star’s true gift to the Black women artists who came after her. Aug. 25 marked the 20th anniversary of her death; she died tragically in a plane crash in the Bahamas at 22.
During her life, Aaliyah eschewed questions about Kelly with professionalism, unwilling to reveal intimate details about her personal autonomy, instead focusing on her remarkable career in such a brief time. In 1989, at the age of 10, the Detroit-raised vocalist appeared on Star Search, performing a cover of “My Funny Valentine” by Frank Sinatra. She captured the hearts of Americans but was snubbed from the competition. At 15, she reemerged with her first studio album, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” and she was destined for stardom.
The salient presence of Kelly aside, Aaliyah inspired young female R&B acts of the 1990s that would later materialize and fashion themselves after Aaliyah’s smooth allure. Once Aaliyah’s parents forbade Kelly from collaborating with their daughter again in 1995, the singer joined the Superfriends, a Virginia-based R&B and hip-hop collective founded by Devante Swing of Jodeci and helmed by Timbaland and Missy Elliot.
Young audiences drawn to Aaliyah’s mystique were obsessed with the singer’s constant recrafting of her sound. The singer was a budding icon, revolutionizing the R&B genre with grace, unapologetically experimenting with a wider soundscape of genres.
Entering her twenties with an incomparable bravado, Aaliyah’s confidence shined on her final album, “Aaliyah.” By 2001, Aaliyah’s career had reached a massive incline: She was accurately dubbed “the Princess of R&B” for her laid-back swagger at just 22. Multifaceted in her range and sound, “Aaliyah” was a definitive album for the singer, zeroing in on her mesmerizing vocals and the album’s atmospheric production, an organic collaboration between Aaliyah and the album’s lead songwriter, Static Major.
It’s clear she would have gone on to accomplish so much more; Aaliyah’s influence was just as omnipotent in film as it was in music. She won audiences over as Trish O’Day in the 2000 action film “Romeo Must Die.” As she wrapped the final stages of her second film, “Queen of the Damned,” she was also cast as Zee in “The Matrix: Reloaded” before the role went to Nona Gaye following the singer’s untimely death.
Now, audiences are rediscovering the songs that made Aaliyah such an icon 20-plus years ago. After a nearly 20-year-long dispute between Barry Hankerson, founder of Blackground Records, and Aaliyah fans who petitioned for the singer’s catalog to be released on streaming platforms, Hankerson launched Blackground Records 2.0. Perhaps admitting to his mea culpa and giving reverence to the 20th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death, Blackground Records capitalized on the moment to offer the singer’s long-awaited music to diehard fans and reintroduce her to newer, Gen-Z listeners.
Aaliyah’s distinctly innovative R&B persona can still be found in current-day acts like Kehlani, Tinashe, Kelela and Normani, whose nostalgic, early-2000s charm looks toward the future. While the millennium’s boy band and girl group era met its curtain call, Aaliyah remained.
She never subscribed to the expectations of solely remaining an R&B singer and fearlessly opened her sound to a wider scope of genres — a move that today’s Black artists and The Recording Academy have duly noted to make Grammy Awards categories all-encompassing. The return of Aaliyah’s timeless catalog is a time capsule of the past era that defines the sound of tomorrow.
It’s easy to solely focus on the latest news in the R. Kelly saga in lieu of Aaliyah’s legacy, but her continued influence over today’s progressive Black artists would be remiss. Aaliyah’s captivating spirit balanced R&B and pop sensibilities with perfection, a deft alchemist of originality who won’t be forgotten.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a freelance journalist with a concentration on music criticism.