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15 Years After Her Death, Aaliyah Is as Relevant as Ever

Her songs were one in a million and on the anniversary of her death she's still Hot Like Fire.

RnB's reigning princess. All photos courtesy Jim Cooper/Associated Press

"It's been too long and I'm lost without you, what am I gonna do? / Said I been needin' you, wantin' you," and I bet 98 percent of you will be able to finish the lyrics to I Miss You, one of the most popular R&B songs to come out of the 90s. This slow jam, courtesy of the forever swagged out Aaliyah Dana Haughton, better known by her first name is my favorite love song and it solidified my love affair with the Princess of R&B. It's been 15 years since she died in a plane crash in the Bahamas but she means more to me now than she did when I was a child.


Maybe it's because my eight-year-old self didn't fully understand her songs but really appreciated the beats that made car rides go by so much faster. But now as I find myself the same age she was at the time of her passing, I'm revisiting her songs and realizing that Aaliyah was one of the original carefree black girls.

Aaliyah had effortless swag and self-confidence that you saw through her interviews and pictures. She always seemed so sure of herself, and for many young girls struggling through tumultuous teen years and transitioning into their 20s, that was all kinds of goals. She had it. That it that's able to captivate an audience and make them stop and listen. Age really was just a number because at 15 baby girl was singing about love, heartbreak, and loss as if she had lived a thousand years. I felt her music at 12, at 16, and I feel it still at 22. The Aaliyah tunes have never lost their power for me and judging from the social media posts I've seen this week; Vibe Magazine declared August 22 Aaliyah week, and there are countless Tumblr pages dedicated to her music and impact, I'm hardly the only one who is still madly in love with her jazz personality and G mentality.

As a black female singer, it's more than likely that she endured the scrutiny and misconceptions that are part of the package when you choose a career that is not only dependent on your talent but also your looks and sex appeal. She didn't shy away from singing about sexuality; delivering lyrics on relationships, casual hookups, and shameless flirting. She boldly told the world that sometimes she was a goody, goody and sometimes she was naughty, naughty, and through it all SHE was the one that had the final say on what her body would and wouldn't do. And yes, we know R. Kelly became part of the scrutiny around her sexuality back then but we aren't interested in giving him anymore impact on her life than he deserves.


In an interview, she was asked about her image and she said, "I know that people think I'm sexy and I am looked at as that, and it is cool with me. It's wonderful to have sex appeal. If you embrace it, it can be a very beautiful thing." She embraced her sexuality and took hold of the image that was marketed to the media, consenting to the notions that were projected onto her body. People thought she was sexy. She agreed. It's 2016, and as feminine bodies continue to be policed and placed in man-made cubicles of respectability, it is so badass seeing the way Aaliyah took hold of her autonomy. It makes her legacy that much stronger, with her lowkey feminist actions having high-key significance.

When I'm caught up in my feelings, my go-to playlist is the holy trinity of Brandy, Monica, and Aaliyah. All three are hands down, undeniable 90s royalty (you can fight me on this) and have hits we can all sing along to and looks we've copied. We all wanted the Brandy braids and most of us, at least once, envied the way Monica could pull off that short hair. But no look is more embedded in the cool, black girl handbook than Aaliyah's side sweep, leaving only one eye to be the window into her musical soul. All three of these ladies also had their own sound and groove but whereas Brandy and Monica can be safely categorized as R&B divas, Aaliyah was that and then some. She was a little bit pop, a little bit jazz, a little bit soul, and a little bit funk. You couldn't define her in any one way, and isn't that the goal of any artist?


To be undefinable and capable of wearing many hats. Back and Forth, the third single from her debut album, has that house party quality, that has made it not only a 90s party anthem, but a classic "It's Friday, let's get turnt kind" of jam. Whenever this song comes on in the club, everyone looks effortlessly cooler, because they are vibing to Aaliyah. It's like a ripple effect where people become dope by the most distant association to Aaliyah as part of her fandom.

At Your Best (You are Love), depending on your age is another enduring hit. There are those who will swear by the Isley Brothers version (that's perfectly fine) and there are those who will say Aaliyah revitalized the song, giving it the same mainstream, crossover appeal that Whitney Houston gave to Dolly Parton's, I Will Always Love You. Aaliyah released twovery different covers to this song, both of which shot up the charts and helped carve her spot as a singer who could touch the heart and soul, and also recycle killer songs on a hip hop beat. And who can forget Rock The Boat? The third single from her final album release, which was about everything but being on an actual boat and should really be classed as metaphorical genius.

I didn't know it was about sex till I was like 15 and then the lyrics started making much more sense. Her entire discography is about pushing the envelope, trying new things and telling stories that are relatable to so many people. There was absolutely nothing one-dimensional about her talent.

Aaliyah is also among the few musical icons who is recognizable from just a few items of clothing. Michael had the glove and fedora, Sinatra had the stiffly ironed suits, Nina had the headwraps, Prince had the colour purple, and Aaliyah had baggy pants and a crop top. With these two things alone she created one of the most lasting fashion looks of all time, combining femininity, masculinity and androgyny into one trend-setting game changer. Every year I see that look recycled, fitting into every fashion season and completing any legitimate street style wardrobe. She casually inspired an entire generational aesthetic. Tommy Hilfiger is forever indebted to Aaliyah for turning his eponymous fashion label into a briefly coveted global brand that eclipsed many fashion houses with its proximity to hip-hop and R&B, giving it a lasting cool factor. All made possible by a shoot I have always wanted to recreate for Halloween but can never work up the courage. It's just too damn perfect.

I miss her. Not that puppy dog, get her face tatted on my back infatuation like Drake. But missing her in a way that finds me wondering what the music scene would look like if she was present. Would R&B still sound as bare, distracted, and without soul as it sounds now? Or would it be the smoothest genre on the block because its favourite girl was holding it down? We can never know but the one thing that's very much certain is that Aaliyah is as important a figure today as she was when she first arrived on the scene. "Are you that somebody?" she wondered. Well she's definitely that somebody who redefined a genre and created her own, distinct style.

Excuse me while I go put the entire One in a Million album on replay for the rest of the day.

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