13 years after her death, the R&B star lives on with an astonishing influence over music and fashion
On her aunt’s porch in Haines City, Fla., in 2001, you could find a 15-year-old Sevyn Streeter doing her best Aaliyah impression. She and her cousin would glide from side to side, emulating the R&B icon’s fluid choreography. "We were so excited to move like her and have that same vibe," remembers Streeter, now 28 and one of several new soul stars whose sound and style are blatantly influenced by Aaliyah. "When I think back on that, I realize how long she’s not only been in me, but in our generation, and how long we’ve tried to imitate her."
It’s been more than a decade since Aaliyah Haughton died in a plane crash on Aug. 25, 2001, at 22, and 20 years since her 1994 debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. Nonetheless, the singer has become the go-to muse for millennial R&B. Jhene Aiko’s calm coos and windswept beats, heard on "The Worst" (which peaked at No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated April 26 and precedes her debut LP, Souled Out, due Sept. 9), follow Aaliyah’s downtempo template. In 2013, Streeter paid homage to the singer with a cover of "Come Over," and you can hear Aaliyah’s phrasing in her duet with Chris Brown, "It Won’t Stop," which reached No. 30 on the Hot 100. Brown later sampled Aaliyah, crediting her as a guest on his 2013 song "Don’t Think They Know," and Drake has sampled her as well. Aaliyah’s soft vocals and electro-influenced beats, courtesy of go-to collaborator Timbaland, are also providing a blueprint for the alt-R&B sounds of FKA Twigs (who released her debut album, LP1, on Aug. 12), Kelela, and Tinashe, whose single "2 On" is No. 27 on the Hot 100.
"The new generation pulls inspiration from Aaliyah, despite not growing up with her, because she was authentic," says 43-year-old Missy Elliott, who co-wrote many of Aaliyah’s songs. "Her music couldn’t be placed in a category."
Rather than the powerful pipes R&B is known for, Aaliyah’s vocals were intimate and low-key. "Coming from a church background, if you can’t hit high notes and runs, some say you can’t sing," says Streeter. "She made me feel OK about not screaming over every track."
"We owe our chill vibe to her," says Tinashe, 21. "People were used to artists belting things out. She brought a new vocal styling that wasn’t represented in R&B. Not everything has to be so uptempo."
Aaliyah’s innovations landed her five top 10s on the Hot 100, three No. 1s on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and more than 7.7 million U.S. album sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. They also helped make her a style icon, then and now. “You see her look every day on college campuses and music videos,” says Streeter.
The late singer’s sacred status among young fans came to the fore in the uproars that plagued recent posthumous projects. In 2012, her former label, Blackground Records, headed by her uncle Barry Hankerson and his son Jomo, tapped Drake and producer Noah "40" Shebib to put together a new Aaliyah album with unreleased vocals. Its sole single, "Enough Said," drew fierce criticism from both fans and Timbaland, and the LP was shelved. "The concept was to relate the music to current artists who have common ground with Aaliyah," says Jomo Hankerson, "but the controversy was overwhelming, so we put the brakes on it."
This fall, Lifetime will air a biopic, Aaliyah: Princess of R&B, without involvement from the singer’s family, but it’s facing similar problems, with fans piling up on each casting announcement. In July, Disney star Zendaya Coleman dropped out of the lead role. "The production value wasn’t there; it wasn’t being handled delicately," she said in a video posted online.
BET’s 106 & Park co-host Keshia Chante, 26, auditioned to play Aaliyah in a planned VH1 biopic that also isn’t linked to the artist’s family. But after talking to Aaliyah’s mother, Dana Haughton, she backed out. "If the right production comes along and the family’s behind it, I’d do it," says Chante. "Aaliyah’s been part of my life since I was 6."
Reps for both VH1 and Lifetime declined to comment. Tinashe, however, is very vocal about the reservations she and other Aaliyah devotees have about new projects that try to resurrect the iconic singer. "I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea," she says. "It’s more respectful to let Aaliyah have her legacy, not create new storylines."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 30 issue of Billboard.