For a generation, the unexpected death of Aaliyah Dana Haughton 10 years ago today remains as significant as the deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac. This especially rings true for millennial men, who were just realizing girls really didn’t have cooties when Aaliyah released her debut, Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number, in 1994. In the years since the plane carrying her and her entourage crashed shortly after taking off, killing everyone on board, the fanboy-like appreciation for Aaliyah has only grown.
None of this is to put her memory in the context of a battle of the sexes; many women were in awe of the way she was able to be so cool without being coy, or how her made-for-church voice never overpowered. But for young men, Aaliyah’s death was like losing a crush. We didn’t really know how to deal with losing a crush, and we’d never had one like her.
Mary J. Blige was a bit too seasoned; TLC had Aaliyah’s sexy, tomboy style but none of her grace. She accentuated her perfect midriff, she wore dark shades to cover her eyes when her jet-black hair didn’t do the job. And her songs—”At Your Best,” “4 Page Letter,” “One In A Million”—had men wishing she was talking about us, and women listening to them was thinking about us.
The affection felt toward her by male fans, and the effect her death has had on male artists—those who knew her and those who did not—is evident in song, starting with Jay-Z’s tribute in rhyme over Aaliyah’s posthumously released single “Miss You.” Keep in mind: Jay-Z never spoke at length on how he felt about Aaliyah’s death. These bars are probably the most he ever said and will say about his fallen friend.
The star-studded official video for “Miss You” begins with a heartfelt prayer from DMX, her co-star in the movie Romeo Must Die. DMX getting the honor of reciting a eulogy is a telling sign; a look further back at the video for “Come Back In One Piece,” from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, shows how much DMX adored her. There’s none of that “This is my bitch” vibe to him in the video. It’s more like, “This is my sister, my homegirl.”
Drake is probably the most well-known member of the new generation of rappers that has taken to carrying on Aaliyah’s memory. During his concerts last year, Drake cued up a tribute to Aaliyah before segueing into “Unforgettable,” which samples Aaliyah’s version of the Isley Brothers hit “At Your Best (You Are Love).”
Drake’s buddy from Toronto samples “Rock The Boat,” arguably Aaliyah’s most sensual song, on this track off his debut mixtape House Of Balloons.
“Best Friends” is on Missy Elliott’s 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly, but it’s really Aaliyah’s show. And on Cole’s version, which appears on his mixtape, Friday Night Lights, it’s as if he’s rapping to Aaliyah herself.
Long before Kanye West and Jay-Z made giving artists posthumous “featuring” credits on songs trendy, Rick Ross was on it. On “She Crazy,” from Ross’s mixtape Ashes To Ashes, Aaliyah’s breathy, wordless vocals—taken from “Rock The Boat”—net her a “featuring” credit alongside Ne-Yo.
Section.80, the most recent mixtape by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, has “Blow My High (Members Only),” a standout homage to Aaliyah filled with chants of “RIP Aaliyah” and a bridge containing the chorus to “4 Page Letter.”
By the time Aaliyah released her eponymous album—which came out approximately a month before her death—she’d reached nearly untouchable status in the hearts of men. They respected her, paying attention to every word of “More Than A Woman” like they were trying to get an A in women’s studies. If they ever saw Dame Dash—her boyfriend at the time of her death—they’d sooner dap him for choosing someone so special than try to disrespect her and get in the way of her happiness.
Aaliyah arguably wasn’t the finest singer, and she certainly didn’t have the best voice. But what she lacked in those areas she made up for in intangibles that, 10 years after her death, many men are still trying to figure out.