A retrospective on the life and career of one of Black music’s most loved stars on the 20th anniversary of her passing.
On August 25th, 2001, fans worldwide were devastated. R&B singer Aaliyah Dana Haughton tragically died in a plane crash on her way back from shooting the music video for her single, Rock the Boat. Following her untimely passing, a month after the release of her self-titled final album. So many fans and peers, including Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Jay Z, made tributes to the life and legacy of the incredibly talented artist.
With the upcoming 20th anniversary of her passing and the re-release of her discography in physical copies and streaming platforms. Let’s take a short look back at her life and music, leading up to her final album, Aaliyah.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit, Aaliyah’s career as a singer started at 10. With a performance as a contestant on the show Star Search. Two years later, she signed to Blackground Records, which was owned by her uncle Barry Hankerson. To help produce her first album, Aaliyah worked out a contract with Jive records. At the same time, the studio shared the rights to her album with Hankeron’s label. Hankerson introduced her to the alleged groomer and R&B performer Robert Kelly during her early career, who acted as her mentor. He worked as a songwriter on her debut album, not at all subtly titled Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.
The album was a success, selling six million copies worldwide. But its provocative lyrics started a conversation about the nature of Robert Kelly’s influence and relationship with the young artist. Eventually, it came to light that Kelly convinced Aaliyah to elope using falsified documents to say that she was 18. Despite her being only 15 at the time. While her parents quickly annulled the marriage. The general public and music industry still made an effort to victim blame the young artist for her harm. Working on her next album would prove an uphill battle as she ended her contract with Jive and signed onto Atlantic Records.
While recording her second album, One in a Million, Aaliyah collaborated on songwriting and performing with several notable artists like Diddy, Jermaine Dupri, and most famously, Missy Elliot and Timbaland. Both Missy and Timbaland noted that they were nervous that Aaliyah wouldn’t vibe with their sound. However, Aaliyah loved their work, and the three would go on to become frequent collaborators. The album was a departure from Aaliyah’s initial style, being described as “sensual” rather than just sexy by the artist.
One in a Million would go on to the top charts and surpass sales of her previous album. With eight million copies sold worldwide. People raved about the album’s unique mix of funk, hip hop, club and pop style. Aaliyah was telling a story through the album’s lyrics. A story about the journey of a relationship between herself and a fictional lover. Missy Elliot and Timbaland would act as guest vocalists on a few of the album’s tracks. Along with other artists like Slick Rick and Treach of rap group Naughty by Nature.
Despite not releasing a full album between 1997 and 2000, Aaliyah’s career was still climbing higher than ever. During those years, the artist performed on several feature film soundtracks, including a cover of Journey to the Past for the Fox animated film Anastasia. As well as Are You That Somebody for the Eddie Murphy comedy Doctor Dolittle. In 2000, Aaliyah would make her formal debut as an actress in Romeo Must Die’s action-romance movie. Co-starring alongside Jet Li. She played Trish O’Day, the daughter of an Oakland crime boss and Li’s love interest. Aaliyah also recorded a song for the film’s soundtrack, Try Again. While the film received mostly lukewarm reviews. Aaliyah and Li’s on-screen chemistry received nothing but praise.
The following year was even busier for the superstar. In addition to wrapping production on her self-titled album, Aaliyah was finishing her next film, Queen of the Damned. Aaliyah took on the role of Vampire queen Akasha in this film based on a novel. While shooting in Australia, Aaliyah would work on her album during the day and film at night. She finished recording the album in March 2001, and the album was released on July 7th.
Then, on August 25th, at 6:50 PM, Aaliyah passed. In the Cessna 402 crash on a return flight from the Abaco Islands. Before her passing, Aaliyah had multiple film roles lined up to shoot after filming the Rock the Boat music video. She was meant to play the lead in Honey (Jessica Alba replaced her). A romantic film called Some Kind of Blue. A Whitney Houston produced remake of the 1976 Film Sparkle. As well as recurring roles in The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions as Zee (Nona Gaye replaced her.) Fans, family and peers were devastated by the news of her passing. It seemed Aaliyah’s career as both a musical and film performer had nowhere to go but up. Only for her to pass so suddenly.
Aaliyah’s legacy resonates even today, with many hip hop and R&B performers citing her as their inspiration and influence. With all that she did, it makes perfect sense why people have anticipated the release of her discography to streaming platforms. Whether you’re familiar with her work or a first-time listener, now is the time to take a look back and appreciate Aaliyah’s full body of work.