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Five on it: Remembering Aaliyah, 20 years since her stunning self-titled album

Two decades after her best album – and her tragic death – Aaliyah’s legacy is everywhere. Plus, new music from Little Simz, Priya Ragu and more.

09 Jul 2021

The tragic death of Aaliyah was one of those moments that sent shockwaves for fans, casual listeners and the music industry itself. Back then I was a small eight-year-old. But I still remember my mum coming to tell me that the artist had passed away in an aeroplane accident in the Bahamas. Even then, I thought a life ending at the age of 22 was unspeakably cruel. I had twin stepbrothers who were 20 at the time, which helped to give some relative perspective: what if, in the near future, they just disappeared, before having a chance to tick all the boxes and life-landmarks that we presumptuously take for granted? 

20 years ago this week – a mere month before the artist’s untimely death – Aaliyah released her self-titled album. Mum loved it, and would always crank up the volume when the videos for ‘More Than A Woman’ or ‘Rock The Boat’ came on the TV. Those singles were hot as, and have stood the test of time. 

“Its sultry sensuality feels just as fresh in the present as it did upon its release”

Beginning her career as a child star, Aaliyah released her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, at the age of 15 and her second, One in a Million, two years later. Her voice has always had a silky composure and clarity that befitted the quintessential qualities of 90s R&B, eschewing theatricalities even as the genre twisted and she continued to experiment within her own work. 

Following her back-to-back releases, Aaliyah took a five year hiatus from music to graduate in drama and appear in the films Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned. In many ways, Aaliyah was a comeback for those who had wondered where on earth one of the most exciting R&B talents of the decade had disappeared – but the wait was worth it. With this album she proved her relevance and left ripples on the genre that are still felt now. 

Teaming up with longterm collaborator Timbaland once again, opening track  ‘We Need A Resolution’ captures all the elements that seeped into the producer’s mainstream work between the 00s and early 2010s. People like Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake wanted in on that sound later on, and acts like Destiny’s Child took a heady influence in their own music and vocals (though, notably, they never worked with Timbaland on a major project). 

‘More Than A Woman’ refines much of the aforementioned: it is a perfect pop song. The cyclical guitar work and rhythm don’t deviate much, and the same is true for the melody and Aaliyah’s understated vocal – but its deceptive simplicity is hypnotic. ‘Rock The Boat’ captures the same essence with its low-key hooks and tropical inflections, but its sultry sensuality feels just as fresh in the present as it did upon its release. 

Despite its impact, Aaliyah isn’t available to stream – a boggling prospect for such a successful album in this day and age, but one that has only added to the poignant mythology and prestige surrounding the work. With her self-titled, Aaliyah delivered the best music of her career. Her legacy is the music in the charts today. 

Little Simz – ‘I Love You, I Hate You’

Isn’t it always a great day when Little Simz drops a new single? The latest in her slew of recent drops doesn’t mess around. Rooted on a vocal refrain, ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ is propelled by a thrumming bassline and brisk percussion that captures the unease of Simz’s conflicting emotions. Her lyrics are, as always, impactful, reflecting on the realisation that our parents are as flawed as we are.

Priya Ragu – ‘Kamali’

Priya Ragu, too, is dropping hit after hit. One of the most exciting artists to come through this year, new single ‘Kamali’ is a return to her typical rhythmic pop-meets-R&B sound – aka “Raguwavy” – after releasing recent slowie ‘Forgot About’. Ever one to celebrate her heritage, this new single pays homage to Suganthi and her love for her daughter Kamali, the titular character from the short film that inspired the track. The debut mixtape, damnshestamil, drops on 3 September.

Peyton – ‘What Did I Do’

Taken from her upcoming album PSA, ‘What Did I Do’ is a bittersweet moment for Houston talent Peyton. Understated R&B beats and bright chimes create a rich yet dreamy atmosphere as she muses on the end of a friendship, how it got to that point, and the importance of acceptance whilst remembering the good times. 

Pip Millett – ‘Hard Life’

Like Little Simz, Pip Millett is also ruminating on the dynamics of her childhood. ‘Hard Life’ is a frank statement of a title with that in mind, as she reflects on unresolved trauma and learning that ignoring pain does not make it go away. Her throaty tone is at its delectable best as Pip croons over laidback beats. In her own words, “It takes learning and listening to yourself and lots of patience”. 

Master Peace and Mae Muller – ‘Boyfriend’

Master Peace has been slowly building momentum over the past couple of years, and new single ‘Boyfriend’ feels like a great crossover hit. With a voice like Kele Okereke and the buoyant energy of Bakar, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the punchy rhythms and gleefully catchy hooks. Teaming up with fellow upstart Mae Muller, ‘Boyfriend’ captures the thrill of the chase and the potential for new love. Master Peace’s new EP, Public Display of Affection, is out now.