Ten years ago today, music lost an angel when Aaliyah Dana Haughton was killed in an airplane crash en route from the Bahamas to Florida. After appearing in concerts with Gladys Knight at age 11, the R&B songstress signed to her uncle’s Blackground Records, who released the then 15-year-old’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, in 1994. Written by mentor R. Kelly, the album’s mix of traditional R&B and New Jack Swing helped Aaliyah sell more than 3 million albums and make her an instant star.
1996s One in a Million and 2001s Aaliyah would follow, but despite leaving behind a scant catalog, the singer’s immutable grace and soulful vocals made her one of R&B’s most respected artists. While we’ll never know Aaliyah’s full potential, Rap-Up.com celebrates her legacy with 10 classic songs.
“At Your Best (You Are Love)” (1994)
The second single from Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number keeps the laidback tone of the original Isley Brothers’ 1976 soul classic. The song’s minimal instrumentation is an effective early showcase of Aaliyah’s voice, which would later be sampled by Drake and Young Jeezy on 2010s “Unforgettable.”
“Back & Forth” (1994)
Age‘s lead single hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the first of five top 10 hits for Aaliyah. With its hip-hop beat and buoyant, bouncy vibe, the jam, penned by R. Kelly, exemplified the New Jack Swing influence that would define much of the singer’s debut album.
“If Your Girl Only Knew” (1996)
With 1996s One in a Million, a then-17-year-old Aaliyah diversified her production squad—Timbaland and Missy Elliott co-wrote and produced half the album—and delivered a bolder, more mature sound. Produced by Timbaland, “If Your Girl Only Knew” was a tribute to Patti LaBelle’s “If Only You Knew” and spent two weeks atop the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart.
“One in a Million” (1996)
The sultry ballad remains one of the singer’s signature tracks, with Timbaland’s jagged drums anchoring Baby Girl’s lush vocals. Jay-Z would go on to sample the singer for In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’s “A Million and One Questions,” with The-Dream releasing a polarizing cover of the track in 2010.
“4 Page Letter” (1997)
Written by Timbaland and Elliott (the latter providing background vocals), the fourth single from Million is a heartfelt ballad of anticipation and shyness. The iconic video, set in a forest and ending with the singer dancing in a ring of fire, remains a fan favorite.
“Are You That Somebody?” (1998)
Timbaland’s skittering drums and ingenious samples helped define late ’90s R&B, and on this song from the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, the producer flips a baby’s coo from Prince’s “Delirious” into one of the biggest tracks of the decade. Co-written by Static Major, “Somebody” saw Aaliyah deftly bending her voice to match the idiosyncratic beat and creating a modern classic.
“Come Back in One Piece” feat. DMX (2000)
Producer Irv Gotti samples Parliament’s “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk” for this single from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack. With verses from a barking DMX, the gritty duet’s atypical beat didn’t move much on the charts, yet showed that Aaliyah could hang with the boys while remaining cool with the girls.
“Try Again” (2000)
Written by Static Major and Timbaland, “Try Again,” Aaliyah’s biggest commercial hit, earned her two MTV Video Music Awards and a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Released as the lead single from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, the song’s squelchy synths, breathy vocals, and self-affirming message ended up on numerous critics’ best-of-the-year lists.
“Rock the Boat” (2001)
Originally deemed too explicit for the traditionally chaste singer, the second single off 2001s Aaliyah earned Baby Girl her third Grammy nomination. After filming the Hype Williams-directed video for “Rock the Boat” in the Bahamas, Aaliyah would board the plane that crashed seconds after takeoff, killing herself and eight others.
“Miss You” (2002)
This soft-spoken track, released posthumously on the compilation I Care 4 U, would later double as hip-hop and R&B’s musical tribute to the late singer. The video featured an earnest intro by DMX and cameos from famous friends including Missy Elliott, Jamie Foxx, Lil’ Kim, and Toni Braxton.