An album of unreleased material from Aaliyah is rumored to be on the way and the timing for it has never been better. Though it’s been a decade since we lost Aaliyah Dana Houghton to a fatal plane crash, her R&B songs have unexpectedly spread across genres and become a point of inspiration for an array of different-sounding, young artists. That’s because the R&B songstress had a more expansive sound than her turn of the millenium contemporaries, made possible by Timbaland’s rich production on her later songs. “Her aspirations were beyond any particular format,” her former partner Damon Dash said last August to Billboard, “I felt like she was going to make a bigger kind of music, almost create her own genre.” Today, it’s easy to spot her influence on underground movements like dubstep, strains of indie pop, and in the lo-fi R&B movements. Here’s five artists that take cues from her, and capture her personal appeal in their own intimate ways.
What qualifications are needed to be Aaliyah’s number one fan? The sensitive crooner Drake has certainly set the bar high with his inked tribute to her on his back along with a musical homage to her, “Unforgettable.” Drake misses no chance to cite her as his biggest influence for his singing, either. “She taught me that there was a way to make music so it can be appreciated by a lot of people,” he’s said of her to SoulCulture TV. Aaliyah’s melodies and sorrowful ballads are easy to pinpoint as a foundation for Drake’s late-night lullabies. The two share the gift of baring their emotions without over-singing or over-sentimentalizing, which Drake believes is why their ballads are equally loved by the male community. Aaliyah’s legacy is also a bonding point between Drake and his Toronto cohort the Weeknd, who samples “Rock the Boat” in his standout mid-tempo jam, “What You Need.”
2. The xx
Like Drake and the Weeknd, the xx sings with Aaliyah’s understated sexuality. They’ve also, more obviously, payed homage to her with their cover of “Hot Like Fire.” Though they stripped down the Missy Elliot and Timbaland-penned b-side from Aaliyah’s One in a Million to a single guitar riff, the xx’s rendition sounds just as deeply felt and poised when they sing “You can’t resist.” If you heard either in a crowded room, you’d hear their whispers like they were meant only for you.
Aaliyah once said, “There’s a dark side of me that comes out in everything I do,” and those darker moments are a source of inspiration for How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell. The R&B bedroom experimentalist belts his lo-fi gospels about loneliness with an intimacy and longing as strong as Aaliyah’s. So, listening to his songs often feels like we’re eavesdropping on a personal moment.
4. James Blake
U.K. producer James Blake has a weakness for Aaliyah’s Gothic allure, too, which he explores in his beats and vocals. Blake’s use of negative space in “CMYK” is a hat-tip to Timbaland’s sparser productions, like “Are You That Somebody?” Not coincidentally, “CMYK” samples that track and processes Aaliyah’s vocals until they’re barely recognizable. The mangled transformation isn’t a slight; Blake is locating the emotional distance in her whispers of a secret affair.
Grimes’ Claire Boucher hasn’t spent much time listening to Aaliyah yet Boucher’s voice is as seductive as her whisper and as sturdy, when Boucher reaches for a falsetto. While Boucher has cited Mariah Carey as an influence, it’s possible that she caught on to Aaliyah second-hand. In the silky piano-led track “Genesis,” Grimes coos with the vulnerability and confidence that enabled Aaliyah to be a gatekeeper of emotions for so many of us.