As hard as it is to believe, over 15 years have come and gone since we lost ’90s icon Aaliyah Haughton to a horrific plane crash in the Bahamas.
However, the singer — who would have turned 38 on Monday, January 16th — remains relevant in 2017, thanks mostly to the undying devotion of her fans and her impact on the industry, but also to baffling legal disputes over her catalog, which is largely unavailable to stream digitally. (There have also been rumors circulating of unreleased songs since her untimely death, but very few of them have ever seen the light of day thanks to issues with Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, who still owns her label Blackground Records.)
And so, while a large portion of her small-yet-incredible catalog remains infuriatingly unavailable to fans who very understandably do not feel like dusting off their old CDs, let’s take a trip down memory lane and honor the most iconic moments from her short but oh-so-memorable life in the spotlight.
1 Aaliyah blows our minds on Star Search
If you think Aaliyah came out of the womb a sexy, stylish, ab-tastic, singing and dancing phenomenon … well, we get it, but you’re only half right. In 1989, at the age of ten, Aaliyah sang “My Funny Valentine” for a dazzled crowd on Star Search — a performance that, 28 years later, still proves to fans that Aaliyah was a natural-born talent; able to sell both amped up, choreographed R&B performances and stripped-down ballads like this one with ease.
2 Aaliyah performs for some little-known fans named Bill and Hillary Clinton
In 1997, as her star continued to rise thanks to the success of her debut album (more on that in a second), Aaliyah performed “What Child Is This?” at the annual holiday special Christmas in Washington for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Her gorgeous, stripped-down performance brought the house down … and she even got a photo with the then-President and First Lady (were we ever so young?!) after the show.
3 Aaliyah rocks the Oscars
Anastasia doesn’t get a whole lot of play now that Frozen, Moana, and an infinite number of Pixar films have redefined the power of animation, but back in ’98, the story of the missing Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia — and its oh-so-karaoke-able soundtrack — was the jam. Aaliyah belted out the single best song on said soundtrack, “Journey to the Past,” and became the youngest singer to ever perform at the Academy Awards when the inspirational hit was nominated.
This performance introduced Aaliyah to a whole new audience and solidified her status as a performer to watch, even if the song featured a much different sound than the R&B bops for which she became famous.
4 Aaliyah releases the “Are You That Somebody?” video; officially becomes coolest person on planet
Though Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, Aaliyah’s 1994 debut album, was fantastic — with enduring hits like “Back & Forth” and “At Your Best (You Are Love)” leading the way — it’s hard to separate the album (especially its title) with its producer, Aaliyah’s ex R. Kelly.
Her follow-up, One in a Million, was also great — but it was her 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?”, from the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, that made the singer a household name and earned her her first Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. A lot of its success had to do with the music video (and Fatima Robinson’s choreography in said music video), which was retired from TRL after becoming the third most-watched clip on MTV in ’98.
5 Aaliyah revolutionizes the crop top
We love you, Britney, but years before “Baby One More Time” made navels a major concern for high school vice principals everywhere, Aaliyah was rocking the best abs in the game with her ever-rotating selection of crop tops. The above look, from the Summer Jam 1998 concert in Mountain View, Calif., epitomizes the style that every girl in America later tried to copy.
6 Aaliyah makes ’90s Tommy Hilfiger look good
It may be hard to believe, but crop tops, colorful jackets, baggy jeans, and high-waisted briefs — all loudly and proudly bearing the Tommy Hilfiger name — was once considered THE LOOK. And no one pulled it off better than Aaliyah, who became the spokesperson for Tommy Hilfiger Corporation and even appeared in Tommy Jeans commercials.
7 Aaliyah hits the big screen in Romeo Must Die
Though music was always Aaliyah’s first love, she was also poised for success on the big screen. Her first role was in the 2000 film Romeo Must Die, which featured the singer in a starring role alongside Jet Li as his love interest. The movie was panned overall, but Aaliyah impressed critics with her performance, and proved to the world she could handle starring in a film and topping the Billboard 100 with a colossal hit from its soundtrack based on airplay alone.
7 Aaliyah becomes a martial arts guru for “Try Again”
“Are You That Somebody?” introduced the world to the concept of Aaliyah as a music video scene-stealer, but it was the martial arts-heavy video for “Try Again” that solidified her as an icon. The song itself was nominated for a Grammy Award, while the video won two MTV Video Music Awards for Best Female Video and Best Video from a Film.
Its legacy continues to this day, with Chris Messina’s character Danny recently teaching its choreography to Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project.
9 Aaliyah becomes the stuff of TRL legend
In the midst of “Try Again” fever, Aaliyah delivered one of her most iconic live, televised performances ever on TRL … and from the smooth choreo to her bedazzled belt to her famous belly dance, we are still obsessed to this very day.
10 Aaliyah meets a fan named Beyoncé
Last summer, Queen Bey honored her late friend on the 15th anniversary of her death with this throwback video, of Beyoncé interviewing Aaliyah (can you even imagine?!) on the MTV VMA red carpet back in 2000. Beyoncé, 18 at the time, was still part of Destiny’s Child and a (very rapidly) rising star, while Aaliyah was one of the hottest talents in town — but both women had a whole lot of respect for one another, with Beyoncé later noting that Aaliyah was “the very first person to embrace Destiny’s Child. She was so sweet always.”
11 Aaliyah slays in Queen of the Damned
We all know that Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah’s second film but the first (and, sadly, only) in which she performed the leading role, didn’t exactly earn rave reviews. But her performance as the vampire queen Akasha in the film, based on the third novel of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles series, is sexual, empowering, and pure ’90s camp in the best way possible.
12 Aaliyah says goodbye in “Rock the Boat”
Tragically, “Rock the Boat” was the last music video Aaliyah ever made. Directed and choreographed by Hype Williams and Fatima Robinson respectively, and filmed in Bahamian paradise, the singer and seven others perished on their way back to Florida. It was released posthumously, and remains one of her greatest triumphs — from the music to the style to the choreography to the island backdrop, “Rock the Boat” became a beloved instant-classic, and a bittersweet vehicle for her fandom to say goodbye.