Now, before the BeyHive swarm around me in an attempt to protect their Queen Bey, please allow me to elucidate a quite innocent, though seemingly provocative title. The question that forms the basis of this article is simply a thought I had once upon a time, whilst witnessing Beyoncé’s extraordinary run of commercial success between 2006 and 2013.
Aaliyah herself had a similarly prosperous period from 1994 until her unfortunate death in 2001, which ultimately lead to the comparison. Incidentally, Beyoncé has stated Aaliyah to be one of her musical influences, citing her as an “inspiration” due to their similar age (they were born two years apart) and educational background (they both attended a performing arts high school).
Aaliyah’s debut studio album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, was released in 1994, while she was at the astonishingly young age of 15. With the help of R. Kelly – who wrote and produced the entire project except The Isley Brothers‘ cover “At Your Best (You Are Love)” – the album spawned timeless hits including “Back & Forth” and album title track, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number”, in addition to other strong tracks, “Down With The Clique” and “Throw Your Hands Up”.
The album, though not critically acclaimed at the time, did enough to substantiate Aaliyah’s position in R&B, giving her a platform to build on for her next release which came two years later. By this time, Aaliyah had began working with Missy Elliot and Timbaland who both had immeasurable impacts on her second album, One In A Million (1996), through writing and production credits. A considerably greater, more well-rounded effort than her debut, Aaliyah took her career to the next level, with successful singles; “If Your Girl Only Knew” and “One In A Million”, as well as solid album tracks.
While we had to wait five years until Aaliyah’s third and ultimately final album, Beyoncé was making her breakthrough as a 17-year-old member of R&B group, Destiny’s Child. The group’s self-titled debut album was released in 1998 and with Beyoncé as the lead singer, they went on to achieve huge success, eventually going their separate ways in 2004, following their final album, Destiny Fulfilled. In among Beyoncé’s journey with Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah had completed work on her self-titled third album, Aaliyah. Released in July 2001 (a month before her death), the album was very well received by critics and fans alike.
“We Need A Resolution”, “More Than A Woman” and “Rock The Boat” are songs that are still played and remixed to this day, continuing Aaliyah’s legacy. In an attempt to further consolidate Aaliyah’s past work, I Care 4 U was a posthumous compilation of songs comprised of both her hit singles and previously unreleased material. Notable songs from I Care 4 U included “Are You That Somebody”, “Don’t Know What To Tell Ya”, “Erica Kane” and “Miss You”. Though Aaliyah’s passing amplified the attention that her final and posthumous albums received, there was little doubt in the quality of the projects.
Aaliyah’s death left a huge void in R&B, a void that would eventually be filled by Beyoncé. In a coincidental parallel, Beyoncé released her first solo album at the same age (22) that Aaliyah had released her final album, adding to the feeling of Bey succeeding Aaliyah as the ‘Princess of R&B’. Dangerously In Love contained radio-friendly singles, “Crazy In Love”, “Baby Boy” & “Me, Myself & I”, which successfully put Beyoncé at the forefront of the commercial R&B scene, even if there was criticism of the album’s overall quality.
Similarly to Aaliyah, it was Beyoncé’s second album B’Day that really made an impression both commercially and critically, as the vocalist honed in on her artistic direction. Led by the first single, “Déjà Vu”, the album continued to produce massive hits like, “Irrepaceable” and “Green Light”. From this point, Beyoncé became an unstoppable force, with her 2008 album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, charting at #1 in multiple countries. Supported by “If I Were A Boy”, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”, “Diva”, “Halo”, “Sweet Dreams”, “Broken-Hearted Girl” and “Video Phone” as singles that spanned from the end of 2008 to the middle of 2010, Beyoncé cemented her place as the Queen B.
Beyoncé’s streak was sustained into 2011, with the first single from her following album, 4, which was “Run The World (Girls)”. Further singles included; “Best Thing I Never Had”, “Party” and “Love On Top”, but a feature of both this album and Beyoncé’s next, self-titled project, was the transition from a collection of hit singles to a complete, comprehensive body of work. This is indicated by the fact that Beyoncé (2013) produced the least amount of singles (five) from an album since her debut and is widely considered the most personal of projects that have been put together by Bey.
As examined above, there are some noteworthy comparisons to be made when looking at the careers of Aaliyah and Beyoncé, with both being exposed to the music industry during their teenage years, both making stronger albums as they matured and even less significant things such as both appearing on Missy Elliot’s 1999 album, Da Real World. Though they had different singing styles, the two singers existed in the same genre that would have inevitably meant (friendly) competition, and with Aaliyah already an established solo artist by the time Beyoncé made her solo debut, it would have been fascinating to see how their careers interacted.
Words by Nathan Fisher