I was first introduced to Aaliyah in the summer of 1994, when ‘Back and Forth’ blared from every car stereo as I worked as a student in the US. I bought the record straight away, and it became a very big track back in Cork, where I used to play every Saturday night in Sir Henrys back bar. Other Aaliyah classics soon followed, but it was her One in a Million album in 1996 that really separated her from the pack. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number was a great album, produced and written by R Kelly, but One in a Million helped revolutionise r&b.
Aaliyah had changed labels amid allegations of an illegal marriage to R Kelly, whose subsequent legal troubles don’t paint him in a good light. Aaliyah fell out badly with the r&b singer, but thankfully a more fruitful and respectful relationship was on the horizon. The then little known Timbaland and Missy Elliot helped shape One in a Million with songs that were slow in tempo but which sounded like nothing else at the time. I remember playing this album to death on pirate radio station Radio Friendly in 1996 and 1997, and though it was harder to break in the clubs, it helped change the face of music at the time.
Aaliyah was a huge r&b icon and soon became an emerging actor too with her performance in Romeo Must Die. Her musical contributions to the soundtrack included the massive ‘Try Again’, which had followed a classic cut from another movie soundtrack, Dr Doolittle’s Are You That Somebody?.
Anticipation was therefore huge ahead of what sadly became her final studio album, the self-titled Aaliyah. It initially sold well but was probably a little too left-field for the mainstream, and it wasn’t until her subsequent tragic death that it became commercially successful.
In many ways, it took years for Aaliyah’s real legacy to be realised. Aaliyah was always very successful musically and the music she created over three very strong albums was unbelievable for a singer who was so young. She worked with the talented but now tainted R Kelly, and it’s difficult to enjoy songs such as ‘Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number’ in light of subsequent events.
The debut album remains a classic of its time, but she made more experimental music in her next two records, and really developed her legacy as a music icon.
The sense of longing in her voice still gives me goosebumps, and, through a career of three albums, Aaliyah always managed to be understated and very cool. It was music from the streets and music from the ’90s, amid a generation of youngsters who made a mark forever.
Aaliyah was also influential as a model and fashion icon in those days, and she always managed to keep an air of mystery around her until her sad end. Her style was unique and her image has influenced numberous r&b singers and fans since. The Tommy Hilfiger style she helped promo may now look very much of its time, but Aaliyah as a style icon has a sense of timelessness that few have managed. The ’90s style has cast a massive shadow not only musically but stylistically and Aaliyah helped lead the way in a golden era of artists such as Brandy, Monica, and Usher. It’s amazing that they were all just teenagers.
I was playing an Aaliyah track on my show the other night and a young fan who runs the Aaliyah Ireland Instagram account got in touch to say how amazing it was to hear her on radio here. In truth, Aaliyah has always enjoyed radio play here in specialist zones, but sadly it took her death in 2001 for her music to chart really highly. I can’t help but think of what she would have done throughout the rest of her 20s and 30s but Aaliyah still left us with three great albums. Nearly 18 years after her death, I’ve been driving around bumping them loud in my car all week.
She remains one of the greatest artists of the last 25 years and her music will live forever.