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Billboard Staffers Remember Aaliyah, 20 Years After Her Death

Which Aaliyah song do you remember being the first that really made an impression on you? What about it really caught your attention?

Katie Atkinson: Definitely “Are You That Somebody?” The very first thing I noticed was the baby crying and, like a lot of genius musical choices, I thought it was beyond weird at the time — but 20-plus years of Timbaland music later, it all makes sense. The music video made a big impression on me too, because of Aaliyah‘s perfect style (no one combined the masculine and feminine better) and the choreography that I thought I could copy but never really came close.

Carl Lamarre: The first few songs that I loved from Aaliyah were probably the ones that lived on movie soundtracks, including “Are You That Somebody?” (1998’s Dr. Dolittle), “I Don’t Wanna” (1999’s Next Friday), along with “Try Again,” and “Come Back in One Piece” (2000’s Romeo Must Die). The one track that gravitated to me the most when I got older was “At Your Best (You Are Love).” I began understanding relationships, despite being a novice in that department. I wanted to cling to that same feeling she sang about so much that I played the song repeatedly while trying to fall asleep.

Jason Lipshutz: In the summer of 1998, Dr. Dolittle with Eddie Murphy was a very big deal if you were around the age of 10, and “Are You That Somebody?” was everywhere leading up to the movie before being featured within it. I remember watching the video for the brief shots of Murphy interacting with wacky talking animals… and then eventually watching it because the song itself ruled. I hadn’t been familiar with Aaliyah’s first two albums at that point, but “Are You That Somebody?” unlocked her as a rising pop figure for me, and I paid close attention to her following singles (and eventually went back to those first two albums).

Heran MamoHer cover of The Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)” is so painstakingly beautiful, and her airy, a cappella “Let me know, let me know” coos take my beath away every time. With Drake and Frank Ocean respectively sampling and covering her twinkling version, among many other household R&B and hip-hop artists, Aaliyah was the positive, motivating force behind “At Your Best (You Are Love)” becoming a timeless, generation-spanning record. 

Neena Rouhani: Aaliyah and I are both from Detroit, so her music was constantly spun on the R&B and hip-hop stations in the city my entire life. The track that gave me chills, even as a five-year-old in the back of my mom’s ‘99 Honda Civic, is “Are You That Somebody?” My mom used to call it “the song with the crying baby,” which to me speaks to just how iconic that Timbaland beat is. I later learned that the track was made in four hours flat, further cementing it as a classic in my eyes. Aaliyah’s melodies, vocal stacking, arrangement, all of it felt so ahead of its time. She was truly an original and “Are You That Somebody?” was a testament to that.

Andrew Unterberger: The first song of hers I loved was definitely “If Your Girl Only Knew,” with its casually flippant cool and brain-bending bass line. But the real lightning bolt was “One in a Million,” the MTV-conquering slow song built on minimal drums, cricket chirps (?) and Aaliyah’s disarmingly intimate vocals, lushly layered on the chorus and piercingly vulnerable on the bridge. I was still easily scandalized by overtly sexual songs at 10 years old, but this one was just innocent and emotional enough in its sensuality that it didn’t feel totally beyond my grasp — it just gave me, well, a really good feeling.

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