Last week I saw the video for Aaliyah's "I Miss You" for the 100th time, stomach tightened, eyes fixed to the screen as if it were the first. As I watched the celebrity ensemble share a moment of collective grief, somberly mouthing the words in the posthumously released clip, I feel certain that Aaliyah Dana Haughton never intended for her best friends and biggest fans to sing her song as a tribute. Not this way, at least.
The video features a montage of our favorite moments from her short career. From a quick cameo in Notorious B.I.G.'s "One More Chance" to the breathtaking underwater scenes from "Rock the Boat," the video that would be her last, Aaliyah's effortless beauty and piercing likability bolted from my screen, making it hard, even still, to accept the abrupt ending of her life.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of her death on August 25, that end is still hard for her fans to digest. I was 11 years old when Aaliyah released her debut single, "Back and Forth," in 1994. She, only 15 at the time, was a brilliant balancer from the beginning: mature yet appropriate; rugged and sexy; inviting and mysterious. She was the kind of "grown" that my friends and I aspired to be, and we obsessed over her for it, hoping that if we paid enough attention, some of it would rub off on us.
She was also important to a generation of 1990s urban music aficionados who bore witness to the melding of hip-hop and R&B, the signature sound of the first half of the decade. If Mary J. Blige was our queen of hip-hop and R&B, then Aaliyah was our princess.
A Loss That Still Haunts Us
The grief attached to Aaliyah's death is almost as pronounced as it was right after a plane crash ended her life in 2001 when she was 22 years old. With most celebrity tragedies, shock ensues, wears off, and the reality of the loss sinks in. But Aaliyah's death continues to haunt our communal psyche.
Consider the loss of those who passed before her. In 1996 Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas. Six months later, Notorious B.I.G. was shot and killed in Los Angeles. The sorrow over their deaths was immeasurable, but both artists did a decent job — consciously or unconsciously — of preparing us for their downfall. Biggie named his first album Ready to Die. Pac famously said, "In my death, people will know what I was talking about."
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.
Timbaland co-produced Justin Timberlake's first album, Justified, in 2002, certifying him as a go-to mainstream pop music producer. Elliott went on to sell 7 million records in the U.S. and has an endless list of production credits under her belt. It's difficult not to wonder how Aaliyah would have grown as an artist, considering the company she kept.
She was not a power singer; nor was she a songwriter. But she was an artist who had an immense impact as the muse of powerhouses like Elliott and Timbaland. Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" — her contribution to the Dr. Doolittle sound track in 1998 — was as innovative as it was influential. Timbaland's brilliant production, Aaliyah's sultry vocal performance, and video choreography that every teenage fan wanted to memorize made for what Rolling Stone magazine called "one of '90s R&B's most astounding moments."
Aaliyah also had her eyes set on Hollywood, starring in the action thriller Romeo Must Die and the horror film The Queen of the Damned. She was also slated for a role in the Matrix movie series. Critiques of her acting were mixed, but she was generally accepted as solid and not laughable, like many musicians-turned-actors (not all that Glitters is gold, Mariah).
Aaliyah carries as much mystique, both in life and in death, as the swoop of jet-black hair that she famously wore over her eye suggested. The Washington Post called Aaliyah "hip-hop's Lady Di." She, like Princess Diana, was just coming into her own when she was robbed of her future.
What could have been had Aaliyah survived? As a music lover, I'm sad that she never got the chance to give us more. Would Queen Bey have had to, at the very least, share the spotlight? It's likely. One thing is for sure: There will never be another quite like Aaliyah. She was one in a million.
Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter.