20 years after death, Aaliyah's music stands test of time

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fairly easy
Aaliyah, who died 20 years ago today, remade the steamy slow jam as a place for technical innovation with understated vocals that felt radically intimate.
Jimmy Jam can't remember the executive's name. But he definitely recalls the panic in his voice.

It was 1998, and the veteran songwriter and producer was at work with his longtime creative partner, Terry Lewis, on a movie project for the same studio preparing to release that year's "Dr. Dolittle" reboot starring Eddie Murphy. Aaliyah, the 19-year-old R&B singer with a string of sultry hits, had just turned in her contribution to the "Dolittle" soundtrack, which left this Hollywood suit on the phone in need of reassurance from an experienced hand.

Today the song, "Are You That Somebody?," is widely regarded as a masterpiece of end-of-the-century soul music, with Aaliyah's cooing vocal laid over a fractured digital groove by producer Timbaland. Back then, though, the sound felt so fresh that even Jam — one of the architects behind some of Janet Jackson's most adventurous songs — reeled when he cued up an advance copy.

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"I was like, 'Wow, that's a weird beat!'" he says with a laugh. "The production was so avant-garde, with the baby crying in the sample and everything bouncing from speaker to speaker. But by the end of it, I wasn't listening to the production — I was listening to Aaliyah's melody and her voice. That's what made all the disjointedness work, because it was so grounding. She was carrying something off that most singers couldn't have.

"I called the guy back and I said, 'Listen, this is brilliant,'" Jam says. "And he goes, 'Really? OK, great. Our people wanted to hear your opinion to form their own.'"

Two and a half decades later — and 20 years to the day after the singer's tragic death at age 22 — everyone seems to share Jam's view: Aaliyah, who died Aug. 25, 2001, in a plane crash in the Bahamas, has since become one of the most revered figures in modern R&B, with an army of devoted A-list fans (including Drake and Cardi B) and a clear influence on successors like SZA, Tinashe, Syd and Jhené Aiko.

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