Remembering Aaliyah

When most of us are 14 years old, we're clumsily navigating the early years of high school. When R&B superstar Aaliyah was 14, she was recording her debut album – the double-platinum Age Ain't Nothing but a Number – while maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade-point average at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts. It marked a fitting beginning to the career of a young woman who would continue to excel for the rest of her life.

But Aaliyah did more than excel – she innovated. Her experimental style of R&B influenced a generation of artists (including those who weren't yet born in 1994, when Age Ain't Nothing but a Number was released). She was just 22 when she died in a plane crash after leaving a video shoot in the Bahamas, but her short life left a long legacy. On what would've been her 36th birthday, we look at five ways Aaliyah left an unforgettable impact on music, fashion and pop culture.

No Divas.

The strident "diva" sound reigned supreme for female R&B artists of the 1980s and '90s. Think Whitney Houston belting out "I Will Always Love You" – a loud voice and plenty of notes on each syllable. Indeed, Houston was a major innovator of that style, and for years her influence had a tight grip on the genre. Then came Aaliyah, and her subtle, quiet, breathy vocals changed everything. Sometimes almost disappearing into the music instead of rising above it, Aaliyah's hypnotic voice compelled attention instead of demanding it. Aaliyah's quiet, sometimes monotone style has since been echoed by Rihanna, Ashanti and others – and while the divas are still out there, they're now far from the primary female sound on the airwaves.

Futuristic Beats.

As Aaliyah grew as an artist, her production – notably by Timbaland and Missy Elliott – evolved into something new for the mainstream. Described as twitchy, stuttery or syncopated, it featured long pauses, jumps and starts. It was much more electronic than the smoother, more organic R&B sound of the 1990s, and it presaged today's highly processed standard, where autotune and electronic instruments rule R&B.

Constant Evolution.

Aaliyah's music changed and grew throughout her career, starting with a new R&B sound and moving on to something that was harder to classify. In The Atlantic, Rick Bellis calls tracks from Aaliyah's 2001 self-titled album "bizarre," "genreless" and "freaky" – words meant as compliments to an artist who created an album that was "way-weirder ... than the Sonic Youth record that came out around the same time." Aaliyah's envelope-pushing was inspirational to a music scene that has become increasingly harder to divide into distinct genres, one in which country singers rap, rappers sing, and everyone seems to borrow elements of everyone else's style.

 

 

Tomboy Style.

The baggy, buttoned-up styles of the 1980s shifted to sexier, tighter looks in the '90s, and in the R&B world, scanty was the word of the day for women's fashion. Aaliyah thumbed her nose at a music scene that expected her to writhe around in lingerie, preferring a tomboy-inspired silhouette of baggy bottoms and sports bra-style tops, sometimes with a jacket. It was functional as well as attractive, allowing her to dance and move, and it began to dominate teen style in the late '90s and early 2000s. In the years since, the style has retained its undercurrent of influence on young trend makers and Tumblr bloggers, and has more recently re-emerged to the mainstream in sporty-chic collections by designers such as Zana Bayne and Nasir Mazhar.

Baby Names.

It may sound silly, but it's true: Aaliyah was perhaps just as influential on parents looking for a baby name as she was on the music world. The name Aaliyah was rarely used before the late '90s, but then its popularity nearly tripled – from about 0.08 percent of babies in 1998 to 0.25 percent in 2001, the year of Aaliyah's death. And the tribute didn't fade out as the shock of the young artist's death wore off. Instead, it grew: in 2013, Aaliyah was the 36th most popular name for baby girls.

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Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.