Today (7 July) marks the 20th anniversary of Aaliyah, the self-titled and final album by the New York City R&B luminary who tragically died just seven weeks after its release.
The album’s cultural butterfly effect is still being felt today. The LP known to many as The Red Album shifted the needle of R&B, breaking away from the shiny, wistful love songs that were the genre’s stock-in-trade towards something edgier and more futuristic. Alongside the future-facing palette of splintered beats and warped vocals are lyrics tracing, with an unflinching gaze, the life-cycle of a relationship. Lyrics made all the potent thanks to that unmistakably intimate and effortless vocal delivery.
To gauge the measure of Aaliyah‘s enduring influence, you could look at the way its provided sample source material for an illustrious roll call of artists, among them Drake, Burial and James Blake. But the masterpiece’s legacy goes much deeper than that, inspiring and empowering a generation of pop songwriters to side step convention.
To celebrate the album’s milestone, we spoke to a cast of artists, producers and broadcasters who carry the record with them. We also caught up with Eric Seats, who, alongside former production partner Rapture Stewart, produced multiple tracks on the groundbreaking album. RIP Aaliyah.
Eric SeatsProducer, Aaliyah
I first met Aaliyah in 1999 or early 2000. It was when myself and Rapture [Stewart] – my production partner at the time – both moved to New York. Timbaland was the bridge between Rapture and I and Baby Girl. Timbaland noticed mine and Rapture’s production work in 98-ish and signed us to a production deal. He was already heavily working with Aaliyah from the first album, One In A Million. Initially, we were working more with Missy [Elliott], who was writing songs with us. We had a few placements with her, and then we also started working with Destiny’s Child. Of course, Aaliyah was hearing all of this stuff. That’s when she started working on her project and she asked for myself and Rapture to do some work on it. Though, we didn’t know we were gonna do that many songs! We presented all of our stuff to her and Static [Major] – rest in peace – who was writing to most of our tracks. We were actually all living in the same building: Static, Rapture, me and others, and we were all writing. We were just writing for everybody, really, because when you’re that new in the game you just want to get placements everywhere. We established such a rapport with Static that we ended up writing most of her album. But when you’re in those early stages, you don’t know which songs are going to be picked.
I have a couple of favourites on that album: Extra Smooth, Messed Up and It’s Whatever. Those are my babies, I can’t describe why I love them. Those are ones that hold something special though, they are special joints for me. Messed Up almost didn’t even make the album, but Aaliyah loved it so much and said it had to at least be a bonus track. So, they made it a bonus track because she was going so hard for it! She went hard for Rock the Boat as well, because that wasn’t really supposed to be the next single. But then all of the radio disc jockeys and all the stations and everybody was like, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t put Rock the Boat out‘ and so Aaliyah really fought for it too.
Funnily enough, I almost deleted Rock the Boat. I used to have a bad habit of deleting beats or just moving on if I didn’t like them right away. I was about to move on from Rock the Boat until Static heard it through my headphones. I always say Static rescued Rock the Boat because just as soon as I was about to put it away, he was like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s that?’. I took a restroom break, walked away, came back in and he was already writing to it.
When people say the album still feels fresh, or that it feels timeless, I appreciate that. Because I don’t know if any of us sought out to make a classic album. You just sit there and you hope to do the best work. The whole world knows Aaliyah, but they didn’t know us. You know, we were all under the umbrella of her and we were all coming at her with respect. She was already rolling. She was already her. She didn’t need us, and I’m glad she gave our no-name butts a chance to work with her. That was one of her things, she wasn’t really chasing the popular producers. I used to sit in the Blackground offices in New York and we would watch the mail carriers bring all of these demos in from all of these very popular producers. Everybody was trying to get music on her album. I’m not naming any names, but you can imagine – everybody! She was like, ‘nope, nope’ – she wouldn’t even listen to them. She said, ‘I’m working with you, you and you.’
Rapture and I have been doing this stuff since our early teens. When it comes to our production approach, we don’t ever like to sound like anybody else. It’s something that separated us [from other producers] during that time, because Timbaland was so effective that every producer had started doing Tim’s beats! Everybody was just trying to sound like him. That’s why he picked myself and Rapture because he was like, ‘Y’all are the few that are not trying to sound like me’. That’s what really caught his attention. Rapture and I wanted to have our own identity and we didn’t like to do anything typical. That’s what you hear on the album, us trying to make sure we didn’t sound like everybody else. We didn’t listen to the radio. We respected [other] producers, but we didn’t want to pay too much attention to one. That was our thing.
When I look back and reflect on when we were making the album, there were a couple of really special times. Particularly the time Rapture and I threw a surprise birthday party for Aaliyah at one of our sessions. She thought she was just coming for another night of recording with us, and then she walked in and we had balloons everywhere and a cake. We called a few friends and everybody showed up: Missy, Jay-Z, Timbaland. She walked in and it wasn’t a session. It was just us, and we had a good time playing some joints. That was so dope.
My favourite track on the self-titled album is Loose Rap. If I think about how she influenced me, Aaliyah’s always stood as proof that you don’t have to have the biggest voice to make hit songs. And she made me feel more comfortable as a tomboy growing up in the 90s. When it comes to her legacy, she was a Black American sweetheart who was taken too soon.
My earliest memory of Aaliyah was playing Back & Forth a lot and thinking what a soothing, classy voice she had for someone so young. I also saw her perform at Madison Square Gardens in tomboy-ish clothes and a bandana.
I interviewed her before the self-titled album’s release. She was excited because, unlike other artists who dropped music all the time, she was more like Sade – giving us an album every five years or so. I definitely felt she was ready to globally explode, especially after her role in the movie Romeo Must Die.
When it comes to a favourite track, it’s a close call between the beauty of Rock the Boat and the uniqueness of More Than a Woman. They both worked for me in clubland, but More Than a Woman was just so different that I got a buzz seeing people getting down to that.
As an artist, Aaliyah didn’t sell herself short. Her music felt and still feels timeless. She was classy and didn’t succumb to the sexual stereotype that devoured so many female artists. Her only failing was her choice of men.
Aaliyah’s track Loose Rap is really special. It starts with this nostalgic minor third soft synth over the crunchy beats and nails the sound that bridges the end of the 90s into the noughties. I love the way her vocals flow freely, both melodically and rhythmically – this goes for all her tracks – over these stripped hits, filling in the gaps. Then the gospel choir that comes halfway through the track – who thought of that! Giving the track a whole new dimension, but it works so well and leads into Aaliyah’s vocal melody becoming even more ornate.
I first heard Aaliyah when I was ten — the year after she died — while in the car with my parents. A track of her’s came on the radio. This was in China, and we were listening to a station that played Western music. It was probably Rock the Boat, and I was mesmerised.
Speaking of Rock the Boat, how does a track sound hot and cold at the same time? That track screams summer — you can feel the heat in it. At the same time, her vocals are crystal clear and cut through like ice. That richness created by the range of sounds is really inspiring to me. And, of course, the sine bleeps – the bane of my existence…
Aaliyah’s voice and her adventurousness with production really looked to the future. It stood out then, and it still stands out now. I often think, ‘What would Aaliyah do?’ when producing. I’m sure she’d have Nkisi on the production, you know? She would never talk like, ‘Oh music used to be so good.’ She’d be listening to the newest releases from all genres. That’s what I imagine from the short discography she left behind. You can hear the future in it.
I remember as a kid being obsessed with this album and playing it non-stop. She inspired myself and so many young girls all over, and made being comfortable look hot! She also had an effortless swag to her which was so alluring.
It’s really hard to choose one track from the album because there are so many undeniable hits on there. But a song I’ve always been most drawn to is I Care 4 U. Her vocals are so amazing to me on this one in particular, I think it really shows off her range. I also love the way she tells such a simple and relatable story in her own way.
I think her music and her style is her lasting legacy. That is something people always try to emulate because it is something we all miss, but can never be done like how she did it, because it was her authentic self.
My earliest memory of Aaliyah has to be the Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number visual. I remember seeing it vaguely on TV. I also remember how lively the discussion became. Now that I’m older, I can see why – Aaliyah’s talent was immense for her age. My earliest memory of The Red Album was watching the older kids at my summer playscheme recreate the dance to Rock the Boat. I was blown away because I didn’t know the song at the time, and was amazed that a dance routine could be done to such a subtle and soft song. I came from a street dance background and wasn’t exposed to dancing to sensual music yet, so it really opened up my eyes.
After Aaliyah passed, I’d just come back from my first trip to NYC. It was all too surreal and hurt too much. Once I started making music a lot of comparisons were made. I did my research in 2016 and learned we both love SWV, from their tomboy style to the singing. That’s all I needed to know to feel connected to her. As time went on, I did more research and learned how kind-natured and talented she is. I titled my second project fang2001 to thank that era for its influence. The artwork just so happened to look like an Aaliyah cover, so her influence comes out naturally and I love that.
I’m still learning about Aaliyah and can truly say her lasting legacy is that she was an angel on Earth. You can feel that energy when looking back on old interviews and moments – you didn’t have to be there, you can just listen to how people speak of her. To hold such a pure essence is very rare, I feel privileged to have shared the same lifetime as her.
For me, Aaliyah’s lasting legacy is the fact that when she’s on, you know it’s her. She was so unique and didn’t sound like anyone else. Her effortless delivery and intimate tone influenced me big time. She taught me that vibe means more. Feeling what you’re singing and not trying too hard can sound so comforting to the ear.
My earliest memory of Aaliyah is my sister and I singing along to More Than a Woman, seeing her on that motorbike in the video and wishing I could be as cool as her. In terms of The Red Album, we had it at home and it was a no-skips affair. I Care 4 U is my favourite track, it’s just so beautifully sombre. I love the sentiment behind it, and how much of an angel she sounds as a partner.
I remember I had Aaliyah on CD. My sister used to work in HMV when she was a teenager and would bring me home loads of CDs. It had a huge effect on me and it’s why my music taste is so broad, as I listened to anything and everything. This album was really special as you knew she was creating a timeless record that would live forever. We Need a Resolution was an insane opener and the Timbaland production is crazy. Rock the Boat and More Than a Woman are iconic singles and also my favourites. If I had to pick one, the track I revisit the most is Rock the Boat. It is the sexiest jam on the album. It belongs on everyone’s ‘sexy playlist’.
I used to love her music videos: the outfits, the dance moves and the bandanas! She owned the bandanas. I remember standing in front of my TV, aged eight or nine, trying to mimic the dance moves in Try Again. That look is iconic – the diamond bikini with the matching choker and dark eyeshadow. What a look. Aaliyah was just a boss, really. Her lyrics, her music, her swag – it all oozed confidence. That confidence inspired other young women.
Even though she’s described as one of the queens of R&B, Aaliyah’s music explored aspects of loads of different genres – she was so ahead of the curve. She made a real impact on the music industry and the music we hear today. Loads of the biggest musicians we listen to in 2021 are influenced by a record made 20 years ago, and that makes her one of the most special, inimitable and influential artists of our time.
I first came across Aaliyah in 2001. My sister had brought a computer home and I saw Aaliyah performing If Your Girl Only Knew on Showtime at the Apollo. I was absolutely shook. It was a totally different experience to watch her interact with a crowd. There was a natural charisma and generosity that emerged from her. She was such a good dancer and I remember saying to my sister, ‘When I grow up, I want to be like her.’
After that, I saw the Rock the Boat video on French television. Like the rest of the world, I fell in love. I rushed my mum to the store to buy the CDs, magazines and, eventually, Tommy Hilfiger underwear. My mum was like, ‘Get good grades first!’ See, the relationship with the actual object of an album has changed. I was super happy then because all of the lyrics were printed. I spent my whole summer time learning, studying the lyrics of that album. Told you, obsessed.
Some of the songs on the self-titled album were on heavy rotation on radio and music television stations when I was a teenager. Rock the Boat was one of my favourites. I do have a relationship with each song though. Loose Rap, featuring Static Major, has got a special place in my heart. The whole song is a vibe and I’m still obsessed with this one.
I love the young Aaliyah albums so much because they portray a regular girl who’s just like us talking about relationship drama. There is a sense of intimacy in the message that is totally relatable to today’s generation, especially in the Timbaland-helmed We Need a Resolution. The self-titled album reflects a more mature, sexier woman. As a lot of fans, including me, identify in her evolution, she was like the big sister killing the game.
Aaliyah embodied a true divine feminine energy, and she was very ahead of her time. Obviously, I love her sense of style – she was classy as hell, a sexy and natural beauty of her own and had the voice of an angel. But, I think she inspires me the most with her self confidence combined with emotional honesty and a sense of mystique. I admire the art of nuance.
I’m a 90s kid, and when I was at school I used to wear baby t-shirts and baggy pants. A kid in my class kept saying I dressed like Aaliyah. So, I looked into it – at an actual record store – and I was immediately in love. Who was this girl, who was not much older than me, that was so cool? She very quickly became one of my favourite artists. Her style, her music, everything about her.
I became a fan at the age where I was starting to grow up and feel cute, get into music and just be an independent person in general. I dressed like her every day! She also was my gateway drug into R&B, and that was a really great time to love R&B so thank God for her. And let’s not leave out the fact she brought me to Missy – and any producer knows how important Missy is.
Aaliyah has influenced so many artists to this day. Her look, her dancing and her singing style are all referenced on a regular basis. She is referenced in new music to the point where it’s comical. Remember that period of time where every dance music producer was sampling and remixing her? Even young kids that were literal toddlers when she left us are influenced by her. There’s really no one like her and there never will be again.
Aaliyah’s music was the R&B for young love – that’s what it gave, you know? The relationships and situationships of right now. Rather than that older gaze that other R&B often gives.
My first memory of Aaliyah was hearing If Your Girl Only Knew when I was too young to even know what she was talking about. Her self-titled album came a year after 2000, so everything after that just felt like the future. The production was fresh and It’s Whatever still inspires my production to this day. In fact, Aaliyah’s vocal production techniques and song arrangements were instrumental for me in shaping my songs creating the sounds that I do now.
I have fragmented memories of the self-titled album and they mostly revolve around the visuals. I always found her videos to be so futuristic. The Rock the Boat video always stands out as I just thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world and sadly watching it felt wrapped up in her passing. I had a burnt CD of the album which I returned to a few years after her death. I listened to it so much the CD stopped working. Being a bit older, I really took in every layer and every lyric. I really devoured that album, and at changing points in my life a different track resonated. I love the softness of It’s Whatever and the various vocal layers. It’s like an ‘at your best’ moment – intimate, and makes you want to be in love. You often hear the same Aaliyah records played on the radio and in DJ sets, but I’ve always loved the deep album cuts.
Her music being so forward-thinking is what’s made it timeless. The chemistry between her, Timbaland and Missy was second to none, and the sound they made was so unique that it ended up being the blueprint for so much of the R&B we hear now. But, at the time, it was groundbreaking. Also, Timbo and Missy weren’t that well-known, so it was a risk to work with them. Even though Aaliyah was young, she was always in the driving seat with her sound and who she wanted to work with. Artistry comes in many forms, and I think Aaliyah and the way she worked inspired people like Rihanna and Beyoncé. Not only to become megastars and pick up where she left off, but to define and develop a knack of building a really strong team: the best young producers, the best writers and picking out the songs that resonate most with each artist. That way if you didn’t read the sleeve notes, you would’ve believed that those songs came right from her heart and mirrored her life.
Aaliyah had a massive influence on me aesthetically. She showed that it was possible to be a tomboy and still sexy. I loved the crop tops and oversized baggy trousers and jackets, and I still do now. From age 14 to 21, I even had the Aaliyah fringe going on! Also, her style was unapologetically Black and she wasn’t trying to fit into pop standards. She embraced the sides of Black culture that people would describe as “hood”: the bandanas, the earrings, sunglasses and sportswear. It made you feel like she was on a level with people.
Iss hard 2choose my fav Aaliyah record but, gun 2the head, mayb We Need a Resolution. I ws fully sold on wteva Timbo and Missy did thru this era and the Aaliyah album I had on repeat daily. Did u sleep on the wrng side / am catchin a bad vybe? – Aaliyah had no bizniz entering the song in tht pocket. Iss jus rude. Thts 1 studio session i wda luvd 2witness. RIP Static Major.
My erliest moment of Aaliyah ws bein at my aunties house in hackney wen i ws a yunga. Sum of my aunties were born here but theyv lived most of dere lives in Brooklyn. And I remembr wen she cum bk 2live in hackney we ws rnd her house and she ws bangin out Aaliyahs’ 1st album. I remember liking hw it sounded and lookin 4the cd cover so I cud find out who it ws. Then I startd seein the Back & Fourth video alot on The Box or MTV, wteva it ws in dem tyms. I always used 2larf at how RKelly sounds like he get cut off frm finishin hes bars on Back & Fourth. Sounds like the engineer jus locks off hes mic. Now we kno y looool.