The day was Sunday, August 26th, 2001. Me and the person I was dating at the time were returning from a trip to the Cape. It was my first visit to the state that, in a few years, would become my home. We were fairly near New York, because I remember that we’d switched the radio dial to Z-100, NYC’s Top 40 station. They were playing “Back & Forth” or “One In A Million” or one of those Aaliyah songs that Top 40 radio didn’t historically play (or wouldn’t historically play so many years after originally being released). I thought it was odd, but didn’t think much of it as it was happening. However, as the song ended, the DJ mentioned that Aaliyah had been killed in a plane crash the day before, and I remember exclaiming something loudly. Just 22 years old at the time of her passing, Aaliyah’s death robbed pop music of a bright young talent.
Sidebar: remember the days prior to texting and smartphones when something like this could happen and you could actually go a whole day without knowing?
With her whispery voice, smooth dance moves and mysterious vibe, Aaliyah had the capacity to become a new millennium Janet Jackson crossed with Sade-with a rock and roll edge (she’d long expressed admiration for artists like Trent Reznor). Her albums up until her death had been good (not great), but there was the sense of enormous potential. I think music fans that mourn her loss do so not because of the legacy she left, but because of what could’ve been. Yes, she was influential in her way-Ciara wouldn’t have a career if not for the blueprint set by Aaliyah, and Brandy’s Afrodisiac was damn near an Aaliyah tribute album-but there was a sense that this was a woman on the precipice. She’d just completed her role in “Queen of the Damned” and was getting ready to star in the “Matrix” sequels, and she’d completed videos for the two best songs from her self-titled third album (which was released just a few weeks before she passed)-“More Than A Woman”, and “Rock the Boat” (the set of which she was leaving when her plane crashed).
One of the worst things you can think of is unfulfilled potential tragically cut short and never realized. Who knows what could’ve happened if not for the circumstances that led to her passing? Would she have continued being Timbaland’s muse? I listen to songs like Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and can totally picture that as an Aaliyah duet. Would she have broken off on her own and become an edgy musical force, like all the R&B singers out these days that sport an indie-rock vibe? Would she have successfully transitioned into a movie actress? Would The Roc-A-Fella team have stayed together and boasted a pair of high-powered execs with gorgeous pop singer wives?
Since we’ll never know, I guess all we can do is remember the music and appreciate what was.
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