The daughter of a vocalist and niece of music industry attorney Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah Dana Haughton got her first break as a child, singing for Gladys Knight. Recognizing her extraordinary talent, Hankerson signed the songstress to his Blackground Records, who released the singer’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, in 1994. Age, written and produced by R. Kelly, mixed standard R&B with the bouncier, hip-hop rhythms or New Jack Swing and would establish the singer as a vital and graceful R&B singer.
But it was her work with Timbaland and Missy Elliott on 1996′s One In a Million that would catapult her into legendary status. The singer deftly bent and adjusted her voice to Timbaland’s futuristic production, anchored by skittering drums and ingenious samples, that helped define late ’90s R&B. A self-titled album would follow in 2001.
The awards came quickly, with the singer earning five Grammy nominations and winning two MTV Video Music Awards for 2000′s massive hit “Try Again.” At the same time, an acclaimed acting performance in Romeo Must Die encouraged the singer to pursue more acting roles, including a posthumously released lead role in vampire film Queen of the Damned.
Despite a scant discography, the singer’s impact — a mix of unyielding gracefulness and earnest candor — can be felt in everyone from Beyoncé to Drake. Besides her myriad accomplishments, there’s probably a greater sense of loss at the unrealized potential of a singer killed at age 22. One can only speculate on which directions her career would have gone, but for countless fans, the singer’s sparse body of work is as much of a tease as a consolation.