Both provided countless references to dangerous dealings, premature death and the fears and anxiety that came with it in their music. It was hard not to associate their untimely deaths with their own musical narratives.
Aaliyah, though, offered up a stark contrast. Here she was: 22, stunning, in love with Damon Dash, riding the waves of a successful acting debut in Romeo Must Die and preparing for the release of her third studio album. Her body of work dealt mostly with the trials of love.
Quite simply, death was not a part of her story. Aaliyah maintained an innocence — despite that icky R. Kelly marriage scandal — that was hard for her fans to reconcile with her tragic demise.
I was preparing for my first day of college when a friend called to tell me that Aaliyah had passed. I immediately asked “Aaliyah who?” because surely it couldn’t have been the same one whose dances we had practiced in my basement in summers past. I remained numb for some days.
At that moment, I felt as if I knew her. I felt like she was one of us. And for the first time, at 18, I had a real-life example of an old mantra I had heard a million times prior: Tomorrow really isn’t promised to anyone.
And so all we are left with are thoughts of what could have been had Aaliyah not been cut down in her prime. As it goes with most celebrity deaths, we posthumously call our fallen heroes “the best,” spewing out the names of current stars who wouldn’t stand a chance had our hero lived.
Ciara has been accused of jacking Aaliyah’s entire aesthetic, from the bare midriff to the tomboyish appeal to the heavy focus on dance. Aaliyah left a void in the market for soft singers with urban flair, making it easy for Ashanti to slide right in and achieve the sort of success she had in the early 2000s. And of course, there is the looming question: Could Aaliyah have succeeded in putting the kibosh on Beyoncé’s quest for pop music domination?
Beyoncé and Aaliyah: A Shared Reign?
The reality is that attempts to find out what could have been are moot. We will never know. But it’s not off base to assume that things might have been different had Aaliyah lived.
Following her solid debut at age 14 with the album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, Aaliyah introduced a new sound to R&B with her widely influential and best-selling sophomore album, One in a Million. In truth, the signature sound of Missy Elliott’s debut album, Supa Dupa Fly — also produced by Timbaland — in 1997 was not a surprise to those who had been paying attention to One in a Million.
In fact, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Aaliyah’s producers and close friends, shaped the sound of pop music with their unorthodox arrangements and instrumentals. They had a choke hold on urban pop music production and urban radio from the late ’90s well into the 2000s.