The R&B singer Aaliyah, who would have turned 35 this January (she died tragically in a plane crash in 2001), has become an icon for many current artists. While Aaliyah enjoyed success during her lifetime, with multi-platinum albums and a #1 hit, she didn’t have the commercial power of TLC or Destiny’s Child, and never got the same level of critical respect as Missy Elliot (a hard, fiery rapper, who garnered more praise than a plain-old singer) or the women of the neo-soul movement, like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, with their explicit links to the ‘70s. Despite this, Aaliyah’s vocals have become a touchstone for a large group of musicians—the latest being the English singer Katy B—many of whom were teenagers when Aaliyah was on the radio.
What’s especially interesting about these Aaliyah fans is that they don’t just pay homage to the singer with cover songs and references. They often treat her like she is still alive, as a friend or lover—or, in the case of Katy B’s “Aaliyah,” included on her recently-released album Little Red (it also came out over the summer on the Danger EP), an enemy. Here the singer and Jessie Ware directly address Aaliyah. Over a skeletal, feverish pulse, the two women attempt to persuade the ‘90s whiz-kid to stop seducing their lovers. First they try flattery, “please don’t take my man/ although you know that you can.” Next they beg and scream, “why must you taunt me, girl?” Then they demand a peace-treaty: “give me your word that you will free him.” Finally, with no options left, they declare dance-floor combat, “you can’t get past me, Aaliyah/ I won’t fall for your tricks.”
Ware and Katy B are not alone in the way they attempt to converse with Aaliyah. In 2011, a group of up-and-comers—Kendrick Lamar, the Weeknd, and J. Cole—similarly inserted themselves into dialogues with Aaliyah. The Weeknd opens his song “What You Need” with a disembodied blurt of Aaliyah intoning, “hold me closer.” Both Lamar and Cole situate Aaliyah’s voice even more prominently. In “Blow My High (Members Only),” Lamar raps, sing-song, “R.I.P. Aaliyah, R.I.P.,” as if it’s a mantra to insulate himself from the people around him. Later, he splices in Aaliyah singing, “I’m writing you a four page letter, and I’ll seal it with a kiss,” as if she is his lover. Cole raps over the Missy Elliott-Aaliyah song “Best Friends,” in which the two women discuss a man who treated Aaliyah poorly: J Cole positions himself as the very lover they’re talking about. He tries to state his case to Aaliyah, rapping, “Holla back and tell ya girl you’ll call her back.” Talk to me!
But as Katy B’s new album shows, Aaliyah’s influence is broader than the R&B and rap communities (who showed Aaliyah the most respect when she was alive). A group of predominantly white English musicians who fall under the vague label of “electronic music” have also used her vocals in their tracks. The producer Burial sampled her on his 2007 album Untrue. In 2010, James Blake used squeaky snippets of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” in his song “CMYK.” In both of these songs, Aaliyah’s voice stands in for the artist’s.
There are plenty of conventional examples of the Aaliyah effect as well—singers who honor her by singing like her, not singing to her. The English band the xx demonstrated their love for Aaliyah in the old-fashioned way: some versions of their self-titled debut album included a cover of her song “Hot Like Fire.” Kelela, who released her debut mix-tape last year, attracted Aaliyah comparisons for songs like “Go All Night (Let Me Roll),” with its vocal line swooping over fluctuating strings of drums.
This is a surprisingly diverse list of artists who happen to agree on the usefulness of Aaliyah’s music. And it doesn’t even include Drake—the Aaliyah supporter with the biggest name, and also the biggest Aaliyah supporter. Complex put together a slide show of his “obsession with Aaliyah” in 2012. He has sampled her music and talked about her in interviews and song lyrics. He also had a picture of her tattooed on his back. Drake and Shebib recently cancelled a posthumous Aaliyah album they were trying to produce.
What makes Aaliyah such a powerful inspiration? She released just three albums before her death. Her first, Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number, produced by R. Kelly, pairs Aaliyah with snappy beats and sultry instrumentation. One of the album’s hooks describes it right: “young nation under a groove, keeping it smooth.” Her subsequent work, especially One In A Million, from 1996, and the soundtracks she contributed to at the end of the ‘90s—Dr. Doolittle and Romeo Must Die—plays differently, and it has attracted the lion’s share of the attention. This music was produced by Timbaland just as he hit the groove that would make him a star. (He now works mainly with Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, and Beyonce.) But people tend to focus on his production, ignoring that Aaliyah herself forms a crucial part of the equation.
Aaliyah meshed well with Timbaland for the same reasons that she has been so important to a so many musicians years later: she’s adaptable and flexible. This doesn’t mean she lacks presence. She keeps a cool head in the face of uncertainty, and with the graceful winds and twists in her singing, she always seems to land on her feet. Aaliyah’s dexterous voice burrows through and around a variety of beats. She manages to maintain a gliding, effortless presence even as a track disappears beneath her and comes back in stranger, shiftier form. Singles like “Are You That Somebody” or “Try Again” exemplified Timbaland’s percussive approach and showcased Aaliyah’s ability to dodge and feint around his complicated drum patterns. It requires a nimble singer to avoid being overrun by the beats—to keep up, and to appear calm and collected while doing so. She plays an extended game of cat and mouse with the rhythms around her, shifting naturally between conversational singing and wordless melodic embellishments.
But this is hardly the extent of Aaliyah’s capabilities. In “Choosey Lover,” she sings over an epic, spacious backdrop and huge guitars, floating in a difficult-to-inhabit space somewhere between Prince and the Isley Brothers. Her voice often works best dueling with lush choruses of itself, layered in the way that the singer D’Angelo later favored on 2001’s Voodoo. (On Aaliyah’s first album, she usually only sang a single vocal line.) Her “Giving You More” shows the cool touch of Sade, but merges it with a thicker presence. “Hot Like Fire,” from 1996, seems to anticipate the vocal textures, prominent bass, and rim shots of neo-soul singer Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut, Baduism. Aaliyah is versatile.
Members of the Aaliyah appreciation club (A.A.C.) are linked by mutual fandom, but they do not come off like a group of clones. The Weeknd doesn’t sound like Lamar, and those two don’t sound like the club-friendly Katy B, whose beats in turn don’t resemble Kelela’s. If there is a common thread, it’s Drake: he has worked with Lamar, the Weekend, and a member of the xx; his songs have also been mashed up with Blake’s. But the A.A.C. extends over a number of genres and several different markets—some members are big on the American radio, many aren’t.
In addition, these musicians have been making traditional boundaries more porous. Drake included “Hold On I’m Going Home,” smooth, post-disco soul, and “Worst Behavior,” aggressive, unbridled hip-hop, on the same album, while Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City showed a rapper adept at rapping in a wide variety of styles. Kelela and Katy B work at the intersection of R&B and electronic music. Jamie from the xx also collaborated with Gil Scott-Heron, the ‘70s singer whose deep, resonant voice, thick funk, and social messages exists in a world very different from that of the xx.
In fact, this is the greatest strength of the A.A.C. The musicians who reference Aaliyah work hard not to get stuck in a single mode or genre. In the end, this is also their most important homage to their idol. Their love of Aaliyah doesn’t trap them in imitation: it allows them to channel and reflect their idol’s multiplicity.