Artist Spotlight: Aaliyah

Aaliyah (born Aaliyah Dana Houghton) was a singular talent – the voice of an angel, the ability to project a unique measure of vulnerability and confidence simultaneously, and the effortless swagger of a Hall Of Fame-worthy pop diva, all residing within a credibly “street”, tough-yet-sensitive persona. Unfortunately, the inception of her singing career has a bit of an elephant in its room, which I want to address as early as possible so I can spend the rest of this piece just praising her music. (TRIGGER WARNING for sexual assault discussion in remainder of the paragraph) Her early mentor, producer, and songwriter is a known sexual predator and unapologetic statutory rapist named R. Kelly who married her when she was 14. In a post-#MeToo world, it is unfathomable that a figure as monstrous as R. Kelly – who at the time was domineering to the point that he even put himself on the cover of Aaliyah’s debut album — has never properly been held accountable for his crimes and abuses. Fortunately, Aaliyah was soon able to climb out of the dark shadow of her abuser, and go on to make some of the funkiest, weirdest, most soulful and most enduring bangers of the late 1990s/early 2000s era and ascend to a new level of stardom and iconic status in her own right – only to have all of that tragically cut short, in one of the most devastating losses the popular music world has ever seen. Aaliyah’s career started under suspect circumstances, and ended in the most horrendous, untimely fashion imaginable. In between, however briefly, she was a living legend.

On her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number 1 (1994), Aaliyah does immediately come off as wise and worldly beyond her years. Although not any older than contemporaries like Brandy and Monica, she never sounded as callow or inexperienced as either of them, bringing a mellowness and chill vibe to her vocals that sets her apart as something of a throwback soul singer, working in the context of modern (for the time) R&B. The closest comparison I could make to a contemporaneous singer would be Janet Jackson, who also got her start at as a teen. Like Janet, she had the ability to swerve effortlessly between the worlds of hip hop, funk, R&B, pop, and classic soul. “Back And Forth,” her Cameo-sampling first single, establishes her as a laid-back party jam singer, and what’s remarkable is how romantic she makes the whole idea of cutting loose and getting lit sound. I’m a big fan of the background ascending vocal hook in the chorus, in which she appears to be spelling her name, as well as the “Don’t stop moving” part she sings before the rap-inflected chorus. On the highly questionable title track and “I’m So Into You”, she brings a similar soothing, reassuring energy, while “At Your Best (You Are Love)” and “No One Knows How To Love Me Quite Like You Do” showcase her facility with that 90s staple, R&B slow jams. Compared to the advancements she’d help make to the genre later, this stuff is pretty standard-issue mid-90s R&B – groups like SWV, TLC, Xscape, Zhané, and Total were all working in very similar veins – but despite their problematic origins, these songs make a case for Aaliyah already having a massive head start on all of them, a diva with all the preternatural gifts to straight-up dominate the rest of the decade.

And with the help of a couple of unknown producers named Timbaland and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott2, that is exactly what she did. One In A Million (1996) updates Aaliyah’s style from smoothed-out G-funk R&B to a much weirder, more modern, herky-jerky rhythm-heavy sound that would come to define her. With perhaps one of the only voices in history that could’ve possibly been supple and versatile enough to complement such odd tonal shifts and hypnotic beats without being upstaged by them, she carries these tracks beyond the funky, slightly off-kilter pop compositions they were and turns them into strangely moving and emotional anthems. She always sounded mature for her years, but with this brilliant production team, she found exactly the right match for her incredibly heartfelt vocals and sweet-touch delivery – listen to the “Anything you want/Anything you need/Anything you so desire” part on the title track and just try to think of another vocalist could make such a bizarre hook work3. The debut album had moments of hip hop-style production and beats, but these tracks take the concept further than anyone ever had at this point, adding neo-psychedelic synth drones, jazzier samples, and rapid-fire drum fills that simply sound so much more alive and inventive than any of her previous material. Guest spots from rappers like Slick Rick and Treach deepen the credibility of the rap connection, and if some of the hooks rely a bit heavily on old funk and soul hits (including a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” that really makes you wonder why Robin Thicke and Pharrell even bothered), the sound of her voice just sells every moment. Good lord, she just had such a beautiful voice. Without it, these tracks would still be impressive, but with it they are simply elevated to all-time classic status. Honestly, I’ll put this stuff up against any soul or R&B singer you can name.

The 90s were seemingly a decade where pop stars were recruited to boost the popularity of studio movies like never before, and Aaliyah was no different, recording the sappy ballad “Journey To The Past” for the Don Bluth film Anastasia in 1997. But it was her contribution to the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy vehicle Dr. Dolittle that really cemented her as the icon she became. Written by Timbaland and the late Static Major, “Are You That Somebody?” was easily the most infectious hit song of 1998 – it seems unthinkable to hear that delightful stop-start rhythmic pattern and not begin bouncing around like some delirious holy fool. That “Sleep, sleep, sleep” part, the call-and-response of the chorus, the clattering, all-over-the-place percussion, the sense of fun and playfulness that she brings to the melody, all of it works. The only thing keeping me from calling it my favorite song of hers, in fact, is the GODDAMN ANNOYING baby squeals. It makes the track a lot weirder, which is fine, but it just gets grating by the end. Still, the song reigned supreme, and not for nothing, the video bolstered her status as a skilled dancer and fashion icon in her own right. During a period in music that was still enamored of the goddamned Spice Girls, there was one singer who could be Baby, Posh, Sporty, Scary, and Ginger all at once.

The forgotten sequel Next Friday yielded another hit song, “I Don’t Wanna”, in 1999, a guitar-driven smooth jam that sounded a lot like the stuff Janet Jackson would go on to do at the start of the following decade. Perhaps no longer merely content to help sell movies with just her music, Aaliyah would launch a burgeoning acting career the following year, starring alongside the likes of Jet Li and DMX in Romeo Must Die, which included several new songs on the soundtrack, including the minor horn-laden hit “Are You Feeling Me?”. Of course, it had been a long time (long time), they shouldn’t have left you, left you, without a dope beat to step to4, and that dope beat came in the form of the song “Try Again”, my actual favorite Aaliyah song ever. A relentless buzzing synth churns and bloops away repetitiously as Aaliyah tries to reassure you that it’s okay if you messed up, you can start over, you will never run out of chances, it’s not too late, just keep on trying. It is almost the polar opposite of “Are You That Somebody?”, more hardened and world-weary, but also eminently forgiving and accepting. A message far more inspirational than any number of gospel hymns or training montage-songs in this world, the pure poise and charisma she radiated made it a sincere declaration of hope and mutual trust, at the dawning of a new millenium that she would never live to see.

In 2001, Aaliyah was gearing up to see her fame rise to unprecedented heights of stardom. With new film Queen Of The Damned in the can, and a new self-titled album on the way, continued success off the momentum of her 90s output was assured. In the aftermath of her death, her success did still continue, but there’s no telling how much bigger the album would’ve been if she’d remained around to promote and tour in support of it. It is one of the biggest cosmic injustices of music history that this horrible, brutally sad accident happened just as she was set to release her most accomplished and consistent studio album yet. The story of the plane crash that killed her and eight of her friends and colleagues is a litany of “if onlys” on par with The Day The Music Died. If they hadn’t had to travel to the Bahamas to shoot the video for “Rock The Boat”, if they hadn’t finished shooting ahead of schedule and decided to light out immediately, if they hadn’t gone up on a smaller plane, if the pilot had been legitimately licensed, if, if, if. On August 25, 2001, the life of one of the entertainment industry’s brightest stars, and a career which began in behind-the-scenes infamy and had thus far yielded nothing but rapid ascension and high-profile appreciation and accolades aplenty, came to the most abrupt and heartbreaking conclusion imaginable.

Aaliyah (2001) showed there would have been no signs of slowing down for this passionate, artistic soul, with first single “Rock The Boat” unleashing a more sexually frank side of her than ever before, and “We Need A Resolution” and “I Care 4 U” exploring an understanding of the more complex side of human relationships with her signature grace and maturity. She was still only 22. She was just barely getting started, and she’d already run out of things to prove. It’s all too easy to lionize the dead before their time, but speaking as someone who was there at the time, we legitimately did still kept feeling this one for years to come5 Later artists like Ashanti and Beyoncé would attempt to fill the void, but ultimately, it would become clear that such a unique and appealing voice was impossible to replace. We’ll never see another performer in this mold again – one with astonishing range and emotional facility in her voice, the ability to work just as comfortably in both an old school and a more futuristic context, and such an eminently cool, down-to-earth, relatable-yet-aspirational persona. We stopped looking long ago. All we can do now is try to honor her memory. RIP, Aaliyah. You’ll always be missed.