It seems almost impossible to imagine today, 20 years after that fatal plane crash in the Bahamas, that Aaliyah Dana Haughton was just 22 years old when she died. The title of her Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number debut album may be tainted today by what we would learn about R. Kelly, the man who wrote and produced it, but it still feels uncannily appropriate for Aaliyah’s career. Already a star at age 15, her artistic maturation came rapidly; by 17 she was forecasting R&B’s future alongside kindred spirits Missy Elliott and Timbaland, by 21 she was topping the Billboard Hot 100 and threatening a Hollywood takeover. By 22, with her brilliant self-titled album, she had fully come into her own as an adult artist — and she was still just getting started.
With Aaliyah’s classic 1996 sophomore LP One in a Million now available on streaming and at digital retailers — and the rest of her long-absent catalog soon to follow — younger generations will finally able to experience the greatness of Aaliyah’s too-brief catalog for themselves. But while her music has long been absent, her impact has never been less than unavoidable: At no point in the last 20 years could you foray deep into the worlds of hip-hop, R&B, pop or even electronic without running across an Aaliyah cover, an Aaliyah sample, an Aaliyah reference — or just an Aaliyah acolyte spouting the gospel through their words and/or their music. Her presence remains mighty and ineffable, and her music seemingly more influential and more highly regarded with each passing year.
Even with just three official albums across her seven-year recording career, Aaliyah’s catalog is tough to pare down to essentials. But we tried our best, with our Billboard staff list of the 20 best songs from the artist forever known as Baby Girl, counted down below. Listen to a few of ’em today, and marvel at an artist talented and fully realized enough to change the course of an entire genre before she was old enough to buy cigarettes.
20. “Come Back in One Piece” (feat. DMX) (Romeo Must Die OST, 2000)
Aaliyah’s obvious on- and off-screen chemistry with Romeo Must Die co-star DMX unfortunately led to just one collaboration during her lifetime, with this knocker from that movie’s soundtrack. Over a squelching Irv Gotti and Lil Rob beat, Aaliyah generously but firmly grants her man permission to do what he’s gotta do — provided he manages to keep his person intact — while X growls about a dog’s needs. Honestly, it’s sort of unfathomable that neither of them are with us anymore. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
19. “Back & Forth” (Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, 1994)
Aaliyah might not have been able to drive when her debut single “Back & Forth” was released in 1994, but that didn’t stop the then-15-year-old from creating the perfect weekend cruising song, and her first top 10 Hot 100 hit. Of course, her first-album era is now looked at through the lens of decades of sexual-abuse allegations against R. Kelly — whom she illegally married that same year and who wrote and produced the entirety of Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number — but Aaliyah‘s impossibly cool vocal delivery is what makes this song endure 27 years later. — KATIE ATKINSON
18. “Got to Give It Up” (feat. Slick Rick) (One in a Million, 1996)
A cover of Marvin Gaye’s disco-era ass-shaker with a boisterous guest verse from underrated hip-hop game-changer Slick Rick didn’t seem like an Aaliyah homerun when One in a Million dropped. But the late icon demonstrated her ability to serve as a dancefloor siren on this one, which puts “Blurred Lines” to shame (not that you didn’t already know that). — JOE LYNCH
17. “Miss You” (I Care 4 U, 2002)
This turn-of-the-century leftover, penned by Ginuwine, Johntá Austin and Teddy Bishop, became an accidental (and somewhat surreal) tribute from Aaliyah to herself upon its posthumous 2002 release. The verses paint it as a clear breakup song, about being left by her college-bound high-school lover — but with a more ambiguous chorus full of heart-tugging lyrics (“It’s been too long and I’m lost without you/ What am I gonna do?”) and a bird-twittering background hook that sounds like the singer’s soul flying free, it’s a tearjerker anyway. That’s doubly true for the video, filled with friends lip syncing Aaliyah’s vocals, and led by a spoken-word DMX message that’s straight-up impossible to watch without breaking down. — A.U.
16. “I Care 4 U” (Aaliyah, 2001)
This Aaliyah single wasn’t exactly what the progressive vocalist was known for — and in fact it was initially a leftover from her previous album, One in a Million. But Aaliyah demonstrates the ease with which she can slip into a neo-soul ballad – with just enough production eccentricities to establish that Timb is indeed behind the boards. — J.L.
15. “Final Warning” (Ginuwine feat. Aaliyah) (100% Ginuwine, 1999)
Missy and Timbaland were Aaliyah’s most famous star collaborators and musical soulmates, but turn-of-the-century R&B hitmaker Ginuwine was also a longtime artistic partner of Baby Girl’s — co-starring in the “One in a Million” video, co-writing her “Miss You,” and featuring her on his 100% Ginuwine highlight “Final Warning.” Over a mischievous Timbo beat, Aaliyah and Ginuwine tango over who’s been calling the latter at unreasonable hours, both slyly quoting their old hits in the process (“Tell me, are you that somebody?” “I’m always gonna be the Same Ol’ G.“) Destiny’s Child were undoubtedly taking notes. — A.U.
14. “We Need a Resolution” (Aaliyah, 2001)
“We Need a Resolution” probably wasn’t the greatest choice of lead single from Aaliyah, with a chorus and title (“Am I supposed to change, are you supposed to change? / Who should be hurt, who should be blamed?”) a little too challenging for the era of Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez duets. The song stiffed on the charts, but remains one of the set’s most rewarding numbers, with Aaliyah’s pained-but-steadfast vocals guiding Timbaland’s slithering beat — and the producer himself bookending the song, closing with “I think I’m gon’ get me a drink/ I’ll call you tomorrow” and just letting the groove seethe for its final half-minute. — A.U.
13. “Hot Like Fire” (Timbaland’s Groove Mix)
“Hot Like Fire” may have been overlooked off One in a Million, had it not been for Timb’s club-ready remix, which jacks up the bounce of the original track, layers on a dose of funk and essentially sets the whole thing ablaze. The remix also puts a spotlight on Missy Elliott, one of Aaliyah’s closest collaborators who co-wrote many of her songs (including this one). But what really pulls the song together is its music video, where the whole crew — Missy, Aaliyah and Timb — pull up in a firetruck, inciting a bumping block party full of both literal and metaphorical flames. — TATIANA CIRISANO
12. “Best Friends” (Missy Elliott feat. Aaliyah) (Supa Dupa Fly, 1997)
Before “Best Friend” by Doja Cat and Saweetie, there was “Best Friends” by Missy and Aaliyah. The pair harmonized declarations of sisterhood (“I’ll still be there for you/ In your time of need/ You can lean on me”) over a funky Timbaland beat. The arrangement was minimal, leaving plenty of open space for rapper J. Cole to pen his own rendition, “Best Friend,” for his highly regarded mixtape, Friday Night Lights. The Cole track, which used the entire original song, came 13 years after its release on Missy’s Supa Dupa Fly, speaking to the real-life best friends’ longevity, and continued relevance across generations of hip-hop and R&B. — NEENA ROUHANI
11. “I Refuse” (Aaliyah, 2001)
Like Clint Eastwood, Aaliyah didn’t raise her voice very often, because she didn’t have to — histrionics weren’t her thing, and her vocals didn’t have to rise above a whisper to be show-stopping. But that’s not to say she wasn’t capable of going big, as best exemplified by her self-titled set’s emotional climax “I Refuse.” The line-drawing breakup ballad sees Aaliyah stating plain, over melodramatic piano: “I refuse to have one more sleepless night.” No one would’ve confused her for Tamia or Deborah Cox, but her hurt was just as palpable and crushing all the same. — A.U.
10. “Come Over” (I Care 4 U, 2002)
Was it really a booty-call? It was two in the morning, but she never quite spells it out. The subtlety of “Come Over” is unsurprising, considering so much of Aaliyah’s allure lies in her mystery. The innuendos and insinuations that never make her meaning too obvious, instead demand the use of our imagination. In true Aaliyah fashion, contrast is at the core of the track, as gentle guitar intertwines with rapid, Timbaland-inspired percussion, Baby Girl’s voice fluttering playfully throughout. Boasting songwriting and production credits from hit-makers Bryan-Michael Cox, Jazzy Pha and Johntá Austin, “Come Over” will remain an after-hours anthem for years to come. — N.R.
9. “More Than a Woman” (Aaliyah, 2001)
The third and final single from Aaliyah’s self-titled 2001 album serves as a bittersweet memento of what could and should have become of her career. As the title says, she’s “more than a woman” and she’s also more than just a pop star, making it look deceptively simple the way her understated vocals cut through a glitchy, complex Timbaland beat to take center stage. While “Woman” peaked at No. 25 on the Hot 100, it was her lone No. 1 in the U.K., where she became the first woman to posthumously top the singles chart. — K.A.
8. “4-Page Letter” (One in a Million, 1996)
A slowly grinding R&B come-on with a sense of relentless inevitability, “4-Page Letter” touches on the ‘60s soul trope of letter-sending romance, with a distinctly modern sensibility. Adding in Aaliyah’s effortlessly layered harmonies and Timb’s mysterious, beguiling beat, the result is an arresting track that is equal parts cautious and confident. — J. Lynch
7. “At Your Best (You Are Love)” (Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, 1994)
Aaliyah’s cover of the The Isley Brothers’ 1976 hit “At Your Best (You Are Love)” sees the then-15-year-old maintaining the song’s original depth with a sense of maturity and grace that defined her emerging class of young R&B stars, like Brandy and Monica, at the time. For Aaliyah, her 1994 rendition of the song charms listeners and underscores her tomboy/Baby Girl duality. With the latter on full display in her tender vocal, there is no wonder why the song has been sampled countless times by rappers and singers alike. — CYDNEY LEE
6. “If Your Girl Only Knew” (One in a Million, 1996)
Aaliyah scolds a guy for hitting on her and betraying his girlfriend in this slinky, slow burn of a single, which puts her delivery and vocal range on display. Singing in a guttural register and sounding more self-assured than ever, Aaliyah’s verses should make the grown man at the other end cower, but a flirtatious streak runs through her teasing when she sings lines like “If your girl only knew/ That I would want to kick it with you.” The wicked combination helped the track reach No. 11 on the Hot 100, becoming one of Aaliyah’s highest-charting singles. — T.C.
5. “Loose Rap” (Aaliyah, 2001)
Few if any singers have ever been as effective with casual dismissals as Aaliyah, and her self-titled’s “Loose Rap” is perhaps her all-time finest. Armed with lyrics from longtime collaborator Static Major, and a jazzy, almost bossa nova-breezy beat from Eric Seals and Rupture, Aaliyah chucklingly chastises those who try to step to her with ill intent and poor conviction: “I know you can come better than that/ I’m sick and tired of the loose rap.” The content was trademark, but the vibe was totally new — one more sign of just how much ground Aaliyah still had left to explore. — A.U.
4. “Try Again” (Romeo Must Die OST, 2000)
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is a cliché dating back to the 1800s, but there’s nothing trite about this ahead-of-its-time 2000 smash. Aaliyah reteamed with Timbaland for the Grammy-nominated Romeo Must Die soundtrack single, and while he dipped back into the vocal-sampling tricks of 1998’s “Are You That Somebody?,” this time around, the production skews more toward the fuzzy electronic sounds of the future than the thumping hip-hop beats of the past. Aaliyah’s voice is as nimble as ever, slinkily sliding over the synth line and icing the techno-inspired beat with her R&B finesse. “Try Again” was the first song to ever top the Hot 100 from airplay points alone (following a 1998 chart rule change), and its hall-of-mirrors-set VMA-winning music video — featuring scenes of Aaliyah opposite Jet Li in her debut movie role — was an MTV and BET staple and further cemented her status as a fashion trend-setter (the bedazzled bra with low-cut leather pants) and a choreography queen. — K.A.
3. “Rock the Boat” (Aaliyah, 2001)
Where to begin — with the fact that “Rock the Boat” was nominated for a Grammy award and spent 25 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 14? Or with the unfathomable fact that it nearly wasn’t released, since producer Eric Seats almost deleted its early version out of disinterest (and later, label executives resisted making it a single)? Or with the worst — that Aaliyah was returning from filming the song’s nautical music video when she boarded her last, fatal flight? For all these reasons and more, “Rock the Boat” will always carry near-mythical significance. But even devoid of context, the song crystallizes the things we loved, and continue to love, about Aaliyah: Her angelic vocals, her seductive delivery, her aura of strength and sexual liberation and (thanks to the video) her innate talent as a dancer, all layered over a sleek, infectious beat that seems to loop forever. — T.C.
2. “Are You That Somebody?” (Dr. Dolittle OST, 1998)
The goofy AF 1998 Eddie Murphy remake of the 1967 box office bomb Dr. Dolittle did not deserve one of the absolute greatest R&B jams of the ‘90s, and yet when an exhausted Aaliyah and Timbaland got into the studio after a concert, they delivered a mind-bending, trend-setting (Kanye the Budding Producer was obviously taking notes) classic with “Are You That Somebody?” Her no-nonsense delivery, the popping syncopation, the playfully funky bassline and that brilliantly bizarre baby chirp pull together to create a song that not only defined the late ‘90s, but continues to chart a course for the future. — J.L.
1. “One in a Million” (One in a Million, 1996)
Upon its release, “One in a Million” was an unlikely hit. Lyrically, it’s a love song, the R&B princess declaring her innermost feelings and lifelong promises to a partner. Melodically, its cadences are similar to those of a rapper, formulated by then-newcomer, Missy Elliott. Production-wise, a burgeoning Timbaland sprinkled in sounds of crickets, aircrafts and birds. Radio stations had no clue where to place it. Atlantic Records pushed for a radio mix to make the track more palatable. But Aaliyah and her team didn’t budge. According to Missy, Baby Girl knew “One in a Million” was a hit before anyone else.
Twenty-five years later, her hunch remains true. Like the singer herself, “One in a Million” bridged often-juxtaposed worlds: The track is a gentle ballad over a tough beat, melding together rugged and smooth with ease. Across the song’s 4:30 runtime, the trio joined forces to pioneer an unprecedented R&B lane, defined by its versatility. Despite her understated approach, Aaliyah never felt the need to compete. Besides, even Timbaland’s striking instrumental is no match for the singer, who effortlessly dominates the beat through her inexplicably captivating swagger and tone. During the six weeks “One in a Million” spent at No. 1 on Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, the track’s sound remained untouched, setting it apart from the less imaginative ballads and rap songs surrounding it. But no shade to those other artists, Aaliyah was simply ahead of her time — and as always, truly one in a million. — N.R.