The Debatable Legacy of Aaliyah

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One of the great regrets of my youth is that I spent my 20s lamenting what I saw as the early stages of hip-hop's fall. As I explained last week, this lamenting had practical consequences. But those consequences aside, I think it also caused me to miss out on some decent music. The worst part about taking up the banner of the backpacker is that you essentially abandon one flawed sensibility (having your taste shaped by the radio) for another (everything on the radio sucks).


No performer has filled me with more regret over this than Aaliyah. I don't know how, but I somehow got it in my head that she was talentless, couldn't sing, and basically got on because of how she looked. The last third is likely true. The first and second are not. It's not like she had an Franklinesque canon, but in her live performances she certainly had skills. Beyond that, my sojourn into the annals of white music has taught me to appreciate other kinds of singing. The ability to belt out notes in Olympic fashion can't be the only measure of a singer.

All of that aside, it's the product that matters. And a lot of Aaliyah's songs are just really great pop music. I've grown to appreciate that, to not condescend. I'm sorry I couldn't see that at the time--I spent way too much time angry about It Was Written. But today, it holds me back from being too hard on pop music today. We're often blinded by what we believe art should be, as opposed to trying to understand it for what it is. 

I probably should go back and listen to some Missy and Timbaland. I dismissed all of that. Ignorant, I know. Try not to hate me.



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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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