20 years on and a 20-hour flight away, Aaliyah's influence remains incomparable

20 years on and a 20-hour flight away, Aaliyah's influence remains incomparable

As her music finally emerges on streaming, Australian musicians reflect on the influence of one of music's most sorely missed talents: Aaliyah.

Throughout music's long-winding history, it's difficult to find someone that has been so influential in such a short timespan as Aaliyah.

In the time between releasing her debut album Age Ain't Nothing But A Number in 1994 (as a 15-year-old, no less) through to her tragic death in 2001, Aaliyah managed to shape an entire generation of pop, hip-hop and R&B, leaving a long-lasting presence even within the scenes of countries she never managed to visit within her lifetime. In the space of just seven years, Aaliyah managed to make an impact that would inspire almost the entirety of modern-day music; everyone from Adele and Beyoncé to The XX and Arctic Monkeys listing Aaliyah as an influence on their music.

But what is it about Aaliyah's music that makes it so influential? Before Aaliyah's arrival, R&B music sounded and looked far different. In popular culture, R&B was often slower and more subtle, built from the lasting traditional structures of soul music. On top of that, many of its then-hallmark acts were males: Boyz II Men, Usher, Bobby Brown and so on included. In many ways, R&B music was one of the last to adapt to ongoing changes and trends; you could easily find a 1992 R&B single similar to one from 1982, or even 1972 - albeit with slightly more modern production techniques.

Then, in came Aaliyah. Often aided by Timbaland's productions, Aaliyah's music disrupted the conventions of R&B's gradual pace, placing a heavier emphasis on hip-hop production mannerisms as she focused on a production-led mode of songwriting, which in turn, was more fast-paced and dynamic than anything else popular at the time. Then, there's her image as a young, teenage black female musician on album covers and magazine spreads; Aaliyah being one of the first young, black female musicians encouraged by the music industry, in a way that would later be felt by others including Destiny's Child.

Aaliyah's success through to - and beyond - her death was ever-lasting. Her three albums - Age Ain't Nothing But A Number (1994), On a Million (1996) and the self-titled Aaliyah (2001) reconfigured the boundaries of pop music production and sold millions of copies in the process of doing so. Then, through the artists in which her legacy thrives through two decades later, Aaliyah has sold even billions more: the signature bounce of an Aaliyah song - and the way her vocals would navigate the eccentric productions - being newfound territory that remains the norm 20 years on.

In 2021, her music finally joins streaming services, via a series of Blackground Records re-releases throughout the year's second half. For the first time, the modern-day streaming generation can relish in Aaliyah's impact, and recognise her presence within the mere backbone of modern-day pop and hip-hop. You can now hear the sways of her posthumous single Rock The Boat, and how its two-stepping production is carved into the sounds of Drake (who has Aaliyah tattooed on his back, to further reinforce the point) all the way to Billie Eilish, someone born the same year as Aaliyah's death.

One thing that hasn't been highlighted, however, is how Aaliyah's impact crossed geographical borders, to the point where an entire generation of emerging musicians in Australia and New Zealand - a long, 20-hour flight away - list Aaliyah amongst the influences that shape and inform their music. It's an example of the timelessness of Aaliyah's presence; how it can remain an impactful force to musicians so far removed from her initial blossoming - whether it be in age, sound or location.

And such, as Aaliyah's music finally arrives on streaming services and everyone continues to celebrate the lasting legacy of "Baby Girl" 20 years on, we talk to some of the Australian and New Zealand musicians inspired by her sound and image, as we recognise the incomparable influence of one of music's most timeless:

Australian musicians, on the impact and influence of Aaliyah: 

"I remember the first time I heard an Aaliyah record, I can see it so clearly. I was on the way to Sizzler with my family, It was a few years after she released her self-titled album and Try Again came on the radio. I must have been in year 3 at the time and damn, the way that song made me feel at such a young age is a feeling I will never forget. It was game over from that moment. I’ve always learned a lot about melodic phrasing, personality, and great songwriting by listening to her records. Her music and impact will forever remain unmatched," - Tasman Keith.

"The first time I heard Aaliyah, I remember sitting down and carefully listening to her words that felt like a gentle cry of love. The acapella opening of At Your Best gets me every time. She offers so much softness and vulnerability with every word, it still sends waves of warmth through me. She was a mysterious, confidently cool beauty with an amazing range and a unique voice. Naturally the whole world, myself included, fell hard for Baby Girl.

What made her so special isn’t something you can bottle or replicate, she was “street but sweet” and sang from the heart about things she knew. I am inspired by her music, her aura, how she persevered through life's struggles and her work as an entertainer and an actor. Although she was only with us for a few years, she forever changed the r&b scene and her creative legacy lives on," - Akosia.

"Some of my favourite songs growing up were produced by Timbaland; from Missy Elliott, to some tracks on Kanye's Graduation. He had such a distinct sound, which I think is what makes him so prolific. I was a blimp when Aaliyah first released music, but it wasn't long until I was a fan, which only seems fair since my parents named me after her.

It was like finding a piece of history; she was a pioneer in so many ways, from her music to her style. Thereafter, I couldn't help but see and hear her influence in pretty much all of my favourite music. Aaliyah played a vital role in carving out a leading female role in a predominantly male industry. I think Aaliyah's duality as an artist is what inspired me the most, though. You have these floating angelic vocals paired with such conviction. You've got the new school with the old school, the pop star with the RnB songstress," - Liyah Knight

"For me Aaliyah has been super influential through her both her music and style. She has been the blueprint for a lot of other artists like myself, and throughout career I have commonly found pictures of her popping up on my mood boards. I have always really appreciated the way she held herself and expressed herself through not only her music but her steeze," - Becca Hatch.

"My exposure to Aaliyah was early in my life. I grew up in Tamworth which isn’t exactly an R&B hub so I often relied on my older siblings to show me new music. I distinctly remember dancing around our living room with my brother Kurt to her song Hot Like Fire. It’s songs like that and Try Again that really drew me into her world. She showed me how to write subtly while at the same time expressively and that’s something I carry through to my songwriting," - Charlie Collins.

"I was a little too young to appreciate the initial release of One In A Million, but my early high school years were imbued with modern R&B. Limewire mix CDs with hits from Timbaland, the Neptunes, Missy Elliot. It was the sound of awkward, sweaty house parties and Saturday morning Video Hits. Try Again hit me like a ton of bricks - this alien funk, that sultry voice. When I started DJing properly at uni, I went back into her catalogue and discovered the cuts I’d missed the first time around - A Girl Like YouMore Than A Woman (an extra shout out for Nai’s version on Scorpion) and the ageless bounce of Are You That Somebody. Her music is such an important influence on my production when working with other artists, especially in the pop space - I’m forever chasing that uncompromising fusion of tough, weird funk and soulful melodic intent. Aaliyah forever," - Harvey Sutherland.

"Aaliyah is a redefining artist, and has made legendary contributions to so many styles and genres of music. Working with Timbaland heavily, their iconic style together changed the landscape of hip-hop & R&B, merging elements of both genres with pop to rewrite what the sound of ‘mainstream’ is or can be. Aaliyah was young, but innovative and different, and was also a fashion icon for young women who were inspired by her stylish and comfortable outfit choices. She disturbed the mold of expectation in the most beautiful way, and is missed dearly by anyone whose had the chance to experience her art. For me personally, Aaliyah was a trendsetter & a mindblowing-ly talented musician - her discography is incredible and still inspires ideas in me to this day!" - Haviah Mighty.

"I don’t remember the first time I heard Aaliyah. She is one of those voices you heard in the house growing up and once it hit your ears, it settled in your chest and you never forgot it. As a young girl, Aaliyah not only was a voice I admired, but a figure of deep inspiration. I did not see many girls like myself in the media in the 2000’s, but seeing Aaliyah meant I could dream to be where she was.

It’s her vocal stacks, smooth melodies and nonchalant dance moves that I find myself drawn to more and more as I get older, especially now in these early stages of my own career. I will always continue to draw inspiration from her short and incredibly impactful time in this world," - Ashli.

"Aaliyah is truly one in a million. The simplicity and sincerity of her music has the kind of timelessness that will stick with me always. I think that sincerity comes across in the music so easily because she seemed like the down-to-earth, sweetheart in a very manufactured industry that interacted with the world in an authentic way. Also - the style! The essence! The beauty! The effortlessness! As a teen I used to be obsessed with her videos and tried to dress like her when I could. Nowadays I listen fondly and learn so much about how ease and feeling is the main ingredient in the recipe of long-lasting art and music," - Maina Doe.

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