Thursday, August 25, 2011

Aaliyah - 10 Years Later

August 25, 2001. I was at home with my sister and we were watching some show on TV and cracking up. I got a phone call from my friend John that I didn't believe. After checking the radio and the news (pre 24/7 media age), I yelled at him for lying and called him disrespectful for trying to joke about a death like that. I was so angry and then we watched the news flash on Channel 13.

Pop/R&B singer Aaliyah dead in a plane crash.

That was the first time I cried over a famous death. I knew of famous deaths before. I littered my 10th grade notebook with RIP to Coach Tom Landry, Wilt Chamberlain and the shocking deaths of Malik Sealy, Walter Payton and Payne Stewart.  But Aaliyah was something different. She was young, vibrant and carried herself with a maturity beyond her years.

I wrote about her briefly two years ago but thinking about her now. Aaliyah was a 22 year old woman. Not a girl, but a woman. She had an airy voice but she sang with poise and wasn't overtly sexual. Back then, teen R&B stars like her, Usher, Brandy and Monica didn't sound like kids. They sounded like young adults and their music - although poppy - wasn't bubblegum. They had adults who molded their sound to appeal to my generation and older folks. I miss that now.

Back then, I didn't like Brandy as much because she was a nasal singer even though she became a huge star on TV/movies. Monica was probably the strongest, young female singer out of the group as evidenced by how she had a longer, relevant career. Aaliyah fit in the middle - she didn't have the most powerful voice but it was smooth, confidnt and sensual. I'm not gonna say she was the greatest singer but she could kill you softly.

One in A Million, one of the R&B's most influential albums, sounded like a 20-something but she was only 16/17. She sang with so much maturity (and had a hungry Timbaland and Missy on the boards) that it's no surprise the folks who made "Anastasia" asked her to sing the theme song and she took it all the way to the Oscars.

For my generation, her death was a "Where Were You" moment. I remember Tupac and Biggie's death but at the time it didn't register as much to me as it does now. Their deaths were shocking but with the aura of violence around them, you hoped it wouldn't go too far. Aaliyah's death was a tragic shock because nobody saw it coming.

It also was a start of a weird time for me. I was getting ready to be a high school senior and not even 2 weeks after dealing with Aaliyah, 9/11 hit. A few months later, Left Eye from TLC died tragically. It didn't ruin that year at all but looking back, it was crazy to have 3 big moments happen like that.

I watched the making of "Rock the Boat" and seeing her get on that plane, I kept hoping she'd get off. It's why I can't hear that song or watch that video without feeling sad and only recently I realized what the lyrics were about. Seeing it again, you just watch her ooze with sensuality and peace. She could be playful and one of the boys but yet remind you that she was a woman who didn't have to gyrate extra hard or talk extra dirty to make you like her.

She's also a great What If? Back in 2001, her self-titled album was a solid seller at the time of her death. She was set to star in the Matrix sequels after a great role in Romeo Must Die so she would've transitioned into Hollywood. She might've been on Missy's Under Construction album in 2002 and would've risen higher alongside her. Would she and Dame Dash have made for a great power couple and would she and Jay-Z have made some music for Blueprint 2?

There's no telling where she would've gone during my college years (2002-06). Imagine her maybe collaborating with Justin Timberlake as Timbaland expanded his profile (heck, would he still have been so bored with hip-hop/R&B if she was here?). I had heard rumors she was working on a song with Beck (which I still have never heard) and she was rumored to do something with Trent Reznor.

But all of that is speculation. Instead we live in an era where today's high school students probably have no clue who Aaliyah is. It's sobering to me as I tutor students born in 1998-2001 who not only don't know her but they don't know the impact of 9/11. It's realizing that I've become like the older generations talking about JFK or James Dean or the Challenger. They know but they don't know like we do.

The further I get from her passing, the more I realize how special she was and how we were robbed of seeing her full potential. Having lived through my 20's now, I could only imagine what she could've done and realized about herself.

Here's my favorite Aaliyah songs to close on.

1. Hot Like Fire
2. Rock The Boat
3. Journey to the Past
4. I Miss You
5. Back and Forth (Despite the terrible truth about her and R. Kelly, this was good music)
6. One in a Million
7. Choosey Lover (An amazing cover with a twist at the end)
8. Age Ain't Nothin But a Number
9. Try Again (her only #1 hit)
10. Are You That Somebody - written by the late Static Major, who some of yall know from Lollipop

Since it's inevitable, I'll school folks on something. In 2001, Beyonce was on the verge of becoming a breakout star. She was getting credit as the chief songwriter/driving force behind Destiny's Child and DC had more No. 1 hits than Aaliyah did. She had a bigger voice and a bolder presence than Aaliyah (as well as a songwriter). She was Hollywood bound with Goldmember in 2002.

There's no shame in saying that Beyonce would've been a star had Aaliyah lived. But Aaliyah's star would've kept growing as well. Besides what I said, she may have developed into a songwriter as she got older since she didn't write her material. And Aaliyah would've performed songs that kept appealing to women (as opposed to Beyonce writing for girls and settling for cliches).

But there's also no sense to compare the two or elevate one over the other. It's worthless. Just thought I'd share some truth because they were two different artists with different styles. 


  1. I love your blog about Aaliyah! I myself to be honest did not know of her existance when I was a child but atfer discovering the tragic death of this amazing R&B singer, I immediately fell in love with her! here's my top favorite songs of Aaliyah...

    1. Don't know what to tell ya - my first aaliyah song that got me to love her.
    2. One in a million - the best R&B song i had ever heard in my life!
    3. If your girl only knew - the most emotion hip-hop/R&B song i'd ever heard.
    4. Are you that somebody? - it is her most enjoyable song to dance to!
    5. Best friend ft. missy elloitt - the sweetest hip-hop song i've ever heard because she was a great friend in real life.

  2. Thanks Danny! That's a great Top 5 right there. Aaliyah was truly a unique individual worth listening to at any point in life.