Where Do I Start With Aaliyah?

Slate's Culture Blog
May 23 2014 3:05 PM

Where Do I Start With Aaliyah?

As Aaliyah's debut album turns 20, a look back on her legacy.

Aaliyah album artwork

This Saturday, May 24, marks 20 years since Aaliyah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, was released. At the time, she was a virtual unknown—and just 15 years old. Some knew her for her controversial relationship with R. Kelly, who, as her mentor, produced and wrote the bulk of her first album. And Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, while an impressive debut, is not nearly so good as what was to come.

Two years later, Aaliyah parted ways with her record label, Jive, and decided against future collaborations with R. Kelly. That risky split ultimately paved the way for Aaliyah to become the muse of Timbaland and Missy Elliott, a much more fruitful creative partnership. The trio redefined R&B, with sharper production—harder drums, syncopation, looser melody—and a minimalist aesthetic tailored to Aaliyah’s alluring falsetto. Together they created Aaliyah’s best work, One in a MillionRolling Stone rightly named it one of the best albums of the ’90s—which, in its title track, boasts one of the best R&B songs of its decade. One in a Million was unlike anything on the radio at the time, and it inspired a major redirection throughout R&B, helping to bring the genre into the spotlight once again.


Twenty years after her first album and nearly 15 years after her untimely death in 2001 at the age of 22, Aaliyah’s presence is still felt in contemporary music. The style that she, Timbaland, and Elliott crafted has given rise to a new subgenre, loosely referred to as experimental R&B  (or “PBR&B”), noted for its spaced-out production and introspective lyrics. Newer artists like Drake, Frank Ocean, SZA, and Jhené Aiko—who each count Aaliyah as an influence—have built much of their sound around the elements showcased on One in a Million.

But to understand how songs like Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” can be traced back to Aaliyah, and how her influence continues to expand even in 2014, it’s worth exploring her work all the way back to its beginnings. And it’s terrific in its own right as well. So in case you haven’t heard much of Aaliyah past her big hit, “Try Again,” or just need a refresher on her discography, here’s a career-spanning collection of 10 songs that’ll get you acquainted.

Got to Give It Up” ft. Slick Rick (One in a Million, 1996)

A Girl Like You” ft. Treach (One in a Million, 1996)

Journey to the Past” (Anastasia soundtrack, 1998)

Are You That Somebody” (Dr. Dolittle soundtrack, 1998)

Rock the Boat” (Aaliyah, 2001)

Dee Lockett is Slate's editorial assistant for culture.



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