The lasting influence of Aaliyah 20 years after her death

theGrio's Matthew Allen highlights artists who have covered, sampled, or borrowed from the essence of the late singer

Music has a way of changing over time. The further along we get, the faster trends and fads come and go. So, whenever an artist has the ability to shine and influence from one era to the next, that’s something to admire and respect.

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was that kind of artist. Her presence is still felt two decades after her untimely death. Her influence has weathered multiple musical eras and countless trends, from southern hip-hop, pop-rap and trap music to dancehall.

Aaliyah’s sound and style are still reflected in the music of folks like Normani, SZA, The Weeknd, and Drake. It was on this day that the then 22-year-old singer died in a small plane crash along with eight others after wrapping the video for “Rock the Boat,” from her eponymous third album.

The demise of the young artist lovingly known as “Baby Girl” was a tremendous loss to her fans, as well as a tragic end to an ascending career.

Three consecutive double-platinum albums, eight top 10 R&B singles, and a budding movie career after roles in Romeo Must Die and The Queen of the Damned, all stopped on that one day.

By then, we were used to losing young, innovative musicians. Tupac Shakur, 25, and Notorious B.I.G., 24, were both gunned down after a venomous East Coast/West Coast feud. Decades prior, trumpeter Lee Morgan was only 33 when he was shot dead by his own wife. Jimi Hendrix was 27 when he died from an overdose.

Aside from them all being young when they passed, what do they all have in common with Aaliyah? All of them made a significant mark on their respective genres, standing out amongst their peers.

Pac had his thunderous voice and moving lyrics. Biggie’s unparalleled flow, metaphors, and storytelling prowess were rarely seen in a rapper that was so mainstream. The tone and virtuosity of Morgan’s horn and his commitment to teaching youth about music history and composition left an indelible impression on his peers and mentors.

To this day, Hendrix is regarded as the greatest guitar player ever to touch the instrument.

393728 03: The album cover of former rhythm-and-blues singer and actress Aaliyah is on display at a listening station August 27, 2001 at a Virgin Megastore in New York City. Aaliyah died at the age of 22, August 25 when her plane crashed in the Bahamas. The singer, along with 8 other passangers, all died when the private plane crashed shortly after takeoff on return from the island of Abaco where she had been making a video. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

With Aaliyah, it was the special combination of sensuality with a relatable sense of vulnerability over progressive music production that made her stand out. But what made her sudden death all the more difficult to accept was that she carried herself with a peerless aura of genuine innocence, curiosity and kindness.

The passion that fans continue to have for Aaliyah is evident as many have added her music to their playlists after much of her discography became available for the first time on streaming services last week.

Some artists have paid homage to Aaliyah with a permanent tribute. Drake sports a tattoo of Aaliyah’s face on his back and did a ‘duet’ with her called “Enough Said” in 2012 using her unreleased vocals.

In the wake of today’s sad anniversary, theGrio has selected some standout moments that illustrate just how much Aaliyah’s artistry and image still endures.

Sampling Aaliyah

The act of sampling is maligned by many, in spite of its success as a production and composition tool. However, a byproduct of sampling is that it introduces new generations to time-tested music that they may not have found on their own. 

Over the past two decades, Aaliyah has been sampled countless times. Rick Ross“She Crazy” makes use of “Rock The Boat.” Chris Brown also recorded a posthumous ‘duet’ with her, sampling a hook and bridge from an unreleased Aaliyah track for his 2014 hit, “Don’t Think They Know.”

Four years ago, H.E.R. took Aaliyah’s ballad “Come Over” and transformed it into “Your Way.” Most recently, Normani used “One In A Million” for her current hit single with Cardi B, “Wild Side.”

Covering Aaliyah

It’s risky to cover a song made famous by someone else. However, if done right, you can have real success. Aaliyah’s songs have been generating YouTube covers for years now, so much so that even established recording artists have gotten into the act.

Sevyn Streeter‘s acoustic rendition of “Come Over,” drew almost a million views, while JoJo has redone “Rock The Boat” during her live performances.

Aaliyah, too, covered hits from other artists, including her 1994 rendition of The Isley Brothers’ 1976 composition,“(At Your Best) You Are Love,” which is among her most popular songs.

Her version has become the standard version for a new generation so that when Frank Ocean did his own cover for the 2016 album Endless, it was clear that he was using Aaliyah’s vocal phrasing as a roadmap for his interpretation.

Inspired by Aaliyah

The footprint of Aaliyah’s influence is also evident in the fashion choices of other artists. From her 1994 album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number to her groundbreaking 1996 follow-up One In A Million, Aaliyah became an innovator of fusing street-wise hip-hop fashion aesthetics with sensual, mysterious elegance.

She appealed to the hip-hop crowd without sacrificing her femininity and was just as sexy rocking a bandana or a Tommy Hilfiger outfit with sagging jeans and sunglasses, as she was in an evening gown.

Aaliyah Remembered on MTV
(Getty Images)

Artists like Ciara combined much the same mixture of street and sweet. Take Ciara’s song and video for “Promise.” Her breathy, come-hither singing over a thumping drum and bass harkens back to Aaliyah, just as much as the short film of Ciara showcasing her sexuality and athletic agility through dance is reminiscent of Aaliyah’s videos for “Rock The Boat” and “Try Again.”

Similarly, in SZA’s single, “Hit Different,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign, the contemporary singer/songwriter’s unique timbre is used to capture Aaliyah’s flow alongside memorable melodies in the same spirit of her “4 Page Letter.”

Aaliyah is missed, but thanks to her style, elegance, and grace as well as the visionary production of her main producers Timbaland, Missy Elliot and the late Static Major, her memory and legacy continue to influence other artists and will do so for some time to come.

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