Twelve years ago the United States was in the midst of an R’n'B revolution. Women were sexually liberated and singing about it, producers were becoming progressively more experimental and with music television at the peak of its popularity, pop stars were respected for their celebrity status more than ever. The 90s had seen the birth of some of the most cutting edge talent in urban music, and future stars were being raised and nurtured from their early teens. In the midst of this R’n’B furore, 22 year old Aaliyah Houghton was queen – untouchable in her originality and unshakeable in her success.
Aaliyah was the first of many female solo R’n’B artists born out of an era where the strong, independent woman reigned. In an interview with Billboard, Brandy (who later became one of the faces of early noughties R’n'B) spoke of her respect for Houghton. “I was so excited to meet Aaliyah because she was the first girl on the scene. She came out before Monica and I did- she was our inspiration”.
Houghton’s career started incredibly early, with her first solo album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number coming out under the albeit dubious guidance of R. Kelly when she was aged just 15. It was revealed just as recording started for her second album One In A Million that the pair had been married illegally, but despite the potentially career shattering revelation, Aaliyah went on to release her sophomore album with the help of then freshman producers, Missy Elliott and Timbaland. The three went on to become stars in their own rights respectively, with Timbaland later calling himself Aaliyah’s “soulmate”. He and Missy Elliott have become two of the best respected and widely sought after producers in contemporary American music, and it is widely accepted that were it not for her untimely death, Aaliyah would have joined them in the higher echelons of R’n'B fame.
Her influence spanned not only the immediate time of her success, but has continued well into the 21st century, with artists whose primary releases may or may not be based on R’n’B. The number of producers and bands who credit her as an influence is weighty, with rappers like Kendrick Lamar, The Wknd and A$AP Ferg name dropping her in their bars as a muse. Her influence can be seen in the style of the likes of Azealia Banks and Angel Haze, and her attitude and finesse as a dancer mimicked in the success of likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj.
In tribute to her continuing impact on today’s R’n'B, hip-hop and pop scenes, and to mark twelve years since her tragic passing, we pick out some tracks that would not have been possible without this special songstress.
1. Drake – ‘Enough Said’
As superfans go, Drake is up there with the most dedicated. The rapper has confessed his undying love to the muse he never met via an open letter where he refers to Aaliyah as her middle name ‘Dana’ and declares “Not only was I one of your biggest fans but I was truly in love with you”. He is said to be the executive producer of her posthumous album (though it’s been over a year since the announcement) and has gone so far as to have her face tattooed on his back. Inevitably, he works her into his music too, and there are references slipped into Drake’s lyrics left right and centre; Take Care is full of rejumbled, cryptic Aaliyah lyrics. ‘Enough Said’, recorded in 2001 and released last year, features Drake at a minimal and was widely well received, despite its lack of classic Timb and Missy on production.
2. Ciara – ‘Like A Boy’
Recently, Ciara’s been ruffling feathers with her new track ‘Body Party’, which is really rather good. Way back before she went on a five-year hiatus, the American R’nB artist was filling an Aaliyah shaped gap in the market with hits like “Goodies” and “Promise”. Ciara’s video for her 2007 release “Like A Boy” sees her mimicking both Aaliyah’s fashion and style in a choreographed dance routine that grapples with gender stereotypes and role reversal (sound familiar Beyonce?). One of the artists most compared to Houghton, Ciara’s return to music this year has excited those whose memories of solo female performers have been buried under the likes of extravagant performers like Rihanna and Lady Gaga.
3. Nelly Furtado – ‘Promiscuous
Timbaland had an incredibly close working relationship with Aaliyah, and claims through her continued belief in his talent as a producer was he able to break into mainstream pop production. The producer extraordinaire has claimed the pair were “soulmates”, denouncing any posthumous collaborations with the likes of Drake and Chris Brown. After her death he went on to work with Justin Timberlake, Jay Z and was the man behind Tweet’s ode to whacking off, ‘Oops (Oh My)’, which also featured Missy Elliott. His biggest pop hit came via Canadian songbird Nelly Furtado, whose sultry chart buster ‘Promiscuous’ featured all of the same traits Timb injected into Aaliyah’s work. The sultry, incessantly catchy instrumental and suggestive back and forth lyrics that Timbaland allows himself to play a part of are a natural progression from the beats he produced for “One in A Million”, and it subsequently went to Number 1 worldwide.