Aaliyah's Influential Afterlife
When she died 11 years ago, few sounded like her. Now, though, the rest of the music world is catching up.
Listen closely, and you'll hear Aaliyah's voice getting louder all the time.
This week, DMX growled his scorn for the posthumous album Drake has announced is in the works, joining a chorus of disapproval from the late R&B singer's family and former collaborators. The controversy erupted last month when Drake dropped a new track featuring previously unreleased vocals and confirmed rumors of the full-length project. Days earlier, Chris Keating of Yeasayer had cited her alongside David Bowie as a major influence on the Brooklyn band's new album. In recent years following her death in a 2001 plane crash, Aaliyah has been covered by The XX, sampled by James Blake, J. Cole, and Azealia Banks, and shouted out by many others.
The reasons she persists are as varied as the artists who've turned to Aaliyah for inspiration. Part of it's her voice, and part of it's the way she innovated. Before she died 11 years ago, few others sounded like her; today, though, the rest of the music world seems to be finally catching up.
Around the turn of the century, Top 40 stations were flush with belters like Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys, eagerly packing many syllables into small spaces. American Idol beamed vocal acrobatics into prime-time living rooms nationwide. Even Cher's candidly Auto-Tuned anthem "Believe" was an exercise in full-throated histrionics. So when Aaliyah's "Try Again" hit the airwaves in 2000, the difference was noticeable. Rather than soaring and diving, her voice (which grieving friends and family later compared to an angel's) hovers over the crisp, shuffling beat. It's hardly more than a whisper, and even in the flourishes of the chorus it remains hypnotically subdued.
Today, restrained vocal performances are widespread. Singers as dissimilar as Rihanna, Lykke Li, and Victoria Legrand of Beach House have all honed versions of a reined-in monotone, without skimping on drama. Drake, who rapped for years before taking up singing, says he looked to Aaliyah to help him temper the vulnerability it would bring to his music. He saw her as an alternative to the "overly emotional" style typical of her female peers: "She conveyed these amazing emotions but never got too sappy."
He's right, but it's funny hearing that from a guy who's had such a big hand in hip-hop and R&B's recent confessional turn. Given the popularity of artists like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West, you could argue that the genres have never been so emotional. But what Drake hears in Aaliyah is sentiment without sentimentality. It's not that she couldn't get sentimental—listen to "Never Givin' Up" for proof—but it's equally true, as Aaliyah herself once put it, that "there's a dark side of me that comes out in everything I do." That atmosphere was better suited to the melancholic R&B songs younger artists began writing in the later part of last decade.
Like Drake, many of those artists were men. Hearing Aaliyah, he explains, "was the first time I could really sing a woman's lyrics and not feel like I was singing a woman's lyrics, because she was speaking [so] generally." That attitude risks dismissing other female artists as melodramatic saps, but the view that her music was less "gender-specific" and more "complex" is widely shared. For better or worse, it's helped clear the way for more introspective male points of view. Changing gender roles aren't always well received in hip-hop and R&B; recall, for instance, some of the meaner-spirited insinuations about Kanye's sexuality. On the other hand, the deeply personal tone of Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, released this summer, might not have been possible five years ago, to say nothing of the same-sex romance its lyrics recount.
Of course, we can only speculate about the extent to which Aaliyah's brief career actually catalyzed these shifts. Popular music has changed over the last decade in many ways that can't be ascribed to her. But several recent trends seem to gesture uncannily back toward Aaliyah's work. Take dubstep, which grew up in South London around the same time her 1996 breakout, One in a Million, was climbing its way up the US charts. English DJs, fusing 2-step with 30-year-old Jamaican recordings to create a darker strain of garage music, had little to do with her or Timbaland, the mastermind behind much of that album. But both undertakings shared a fairly radical philosophy that (among other things) saw sampling as a fundamental tool. Musicians have borrowed one another's inventions since the first caveman learned to whistle, but few until then laid entire foundations for songs with such small bricks salvaged so far afield. That mewing baby in "Are You That Somebody?"? It's the sole element Timbaland lifted from an obscure 1966 track by electronic pioneers Perrey and Kingsley.
By the time he did, computer-driven production had made this approach to songwriting more practical than ever, often resulting in starker arrangements and syncopated rhythms. Fast forward to the point when dubstep's influence had become mainstream and extensive sampling commonplace, and "Are You That Somebody?" suddenly sounded a lot more prescient than it might otherwise have. Before you know it, James Blake (who cut his teeth on the post-dubstep circuit) is sampling it on his own suite of Frankensteined R&B songs, 2010's CMYK.
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But in some respects, Aaliyah made one, too. You don't have to look further than the first track on her eponymous 2001 album, "We Need a Resolution," to find freaky vocals that go from staccato to snake-charmer and a beat that hopscotches all over the place. But you should anyway. "What If" is probably the most out-there song Aaliyah ever recorded. It features whining guitars like something from Bowie's Eno days, and the defiant "We'll burn you / we'll cut you / we'll kill you" of the chorus even gives off a faint whiff of Queen. Aaliyah stomps through the bizarre, genreless thing with exhilarating brio. Voice-of-an-angel stuff this isn't.
Maybe the fact that Aaliyah can be such different things to such different artists is the surest stamp of her ingenuity. But perhaps it's more concrete than that. Soon after her death, Kelefa Sanneh observed in the New York Times that "many of her songs weren't really songs at all, but simple vocal riffs, repeated and refracted to echo the manipulated loops that create digital rhythm." Having fitted her voice to the new features of electronic production, Aaliyah anticipated a decade's worth of popular music. No wonder she still fascinates us well into the next.
On her final album, there's a buoyant, jazzy song called "Loose Rap." It's not so experimental, but Aaliyah's voice sounds confident and unfussy. "We got somethin' for all the fools," she sings. "It ain't just rhythm and blues." If she only knew.