What If Aaliyah Were Here Today?
If you loved Aaliyah, then chances are you sat at two separate tables when it came to watching her biopic 'Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B' on Lifetime, which aired last Saturday (Nov. 15). In short, your eyes were either glued to it or you could care less. When it was announced that Wendy Williams was behind the wheel, the cringes ran rampant, considering everyone knew it would heavily rest upon the rumor mill and Aaliyah's historical teen marriage to R. Kelly. Many people boycotted the film based upon that, while others watched to witness just how terrible it was going to be.
When the biopic was announced, Disney alumna Zendaya Coleman was shamed into a corner, promptly exiting the project. Alexandra Shipp replaced her, but as anyone with eyes can attest, the film didn't do what it was supposed to -- even Timbaland was vocal in his distaste for the project. He wasn't wrong in his opinions. The film was poorly executed and did a terrible job highlighting Aaliyah's legacy, one that has spanned two decades even in her absence.
1994 was the year we met Aaliyah. Her debut album, 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number,' was the R&B equivalent of Lil' Kim's 'Hard Core' -- where the genius male figure (in Aaliyah's case it was R. Kelly; Kim had Biggie) loomed overhead helping craft the female version of their own brand of music. But Aaliyah executed R. Kelly's vision quite well.
As the sounds of R&B were changing, so was the woman behind songs like 'Back & Forth.' She was unique, draped in cut-off versions of your brother's clothes, cooing airy melodies that foreshadowed a time when teenage girls would sing about grown ass things like they lived eons longer than they actually had.
Watch Aaliyah's '4 Page Letter ' Video
While "Baby Girl's" debut was an adequate entry into the proverbial game, it wasn't her finest hour by a long shot. 1996's 'One in a Million' was, as Aaliyah shed R. Kelly's skin to become Timbaland's muse. It was by far a healthier relationship, musically and personally. Flanked by Missy Elliott and the late Static Major, Timbaland had a foundation laid out for Aaliyah. It was her job, though, to fill in the cracks. R. Kelly merely gave his own work a sex change with Aaliyah's debut, but she really figured herself out two years later with Timbaland & co.
It was during that fateful era that the Aaliyah brand came together. Timbaland's quirky blips and rumbling 808s became a comfortable soundbed for Aaliyah to recline on. Never one for songwriting, but always one to interpret lyrics successfully, Aaliyah was an incomparable artist during her time. Her music was ethereal yet tangible and her aesthetic was unmatched as she maintained a strict code of pants-only conduct that screamed sexy once paired with her intimidating array of bare midriffs. Her initial mantra of "street but sweet" remained in tact, though it was solidified during this time as Aaliyah entered young adulthood.
Then Hollywood came knocking as a partial breakout performance in 'Romeo Must Die' gave way to the prep work for 'Queen of the Damned.' All the while Aaliyah was helping to piece together her third (and unfortunately final) eponymous project that set a standard and has echoed for 13 years still following her death in 2001.
When an artist dies that young, it's difficult to then map out the inevitable successor because you aren't entirely convinced that the dearly departed was legendary. You can assume it based on popularity and critical acclaim, but really no one could understand in 2001 that R&B music lost one of the truest trailblazers.
Beyonce wouldn't release her debut solo album, 'Dangerously in Love,' for another two years, and while Alicia Keys was put in a whole other league of singer-songwriter-piano player on her debut, 'Songs in A Minor' (she released the LP in 2001, coincidentally a month before the 'Aaliyah' album), really no one had Aaliyah's je ne sais quoi.
It would take R&B almost a decade to embrace electronic dance music beyond some weird Deborah Cox remix, and really take a second (or 25th) listen to Aaliyah's final project. It was drenched in hard basslines and synths that were more house music than soul -- relying only on Aaliyah's voice to represent for R&B. She was blasting past her genre-box as she had always done, and in true synesthesia form, she looked like her music sounded: slick, edgy and sexy.
And then she was gone.
Watch Aaliyah's 'Try Again' Video
It became taboo to even discuss Aaliyah, really. We would throw up a picture on Instagram every Aug. 25 with an #RIP, memorializing the day but refusing to travel any further. Drake tried it, bringing to light his dizzying obsession by way of elaborate tattoos and commandeering a posthumous song of hers titled 'Enough Said.' Once word got around that he and Noah "40" Shebib were prepping a new Aaliyah project, he was damn near crucified, shouting "mercy" with the announcement that the project had been shelved.
Yes, the Aaliyah legacy is impenetrable. It makes brows furrow at the suggestion that artists like Tinashe are "the next Aaliyah" because the mold was presumably broken when she arrived. Anything after her is in theory manufactured in her likeness, especially since her brand was so specific and so strong.
But what if Aaliyah were still alive today?
In January 2015, she would have been 36 years old. Would she have remained on the arm of Dame Dash? Would she have been the conduit to keep Roc-A-Fella Records together? Would she and Beyonce still get along? Would there be a Beyonce in big capital letters like there is today? Probably, because Team Bey never really operated like it was amateur hour, but Aaliyah would have made it damn difficult for anyone to hit that upper echelon of innovation, since even in her absence we're feeling her presence in music.
As for a presence in Hollywood today, her fate would have rested in 'Queen of the Damned.' Her brother Rashad stepped in to provide re-voicing of some lines as Aaliyah died before being able to re-dub her voice (her Egyptian accent in the film was at times garbled and she wasn't able to fix it herself).
In essence, she still needed work on the acting side, but had she stuck with it, she could've become a threat in both music and film like Beyonce tried to be. This was before Bey resided into the comfortable reality that she's more like Madonna -- give them one good 'Evita' role (for Bey it was Etta James in 'Cadillac Records') and then return to her throne as the Queen of Everything. Aaliyah didn't seem too pressed to be Queen. Her personable demeanor and relatable style made her accessible.
She would be the Barack Obama of music: human with a side of superhero.
Twenty years after we first became acquainted with Aaliyah, we're still chasing the high she left us with. She's the singer these new artists played on their iPods back when they were little girls (cue Banks' acoustic rendition of 'Are You That Somebody'). She's the Stevie Wonder, the Nina Simone and the Ella Fitzgerald that rolls off the tongues of artists on the rise when they name-check all of their inspirations.
If Aaliyah were still alive, she would be in the balcony at award shows, blushing at tributes and gleefully accepting Video Vanguard Awards and stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She would have had all of that because the game wouldn't have broken her Lauryn Hill-style. If Aaliyah could survive a wedding disaster to R. Kelly at 15 and a scandal for allegedly dating both Jay Z and Dame Dash, then she could've handled anything the industry threw at her because she was made of teflon -- much like her legacy is today.
Watch You Think You Know Aaliyah?