FEATURE: Aaliyah: One in a Million: Remembering a Rare Star




Aaliyah: One in a Million



Remembering a Rare Star


YESTERDAY saw a lot of tributes paid…


PHOTO CREDIT: Sal Idriss/Redferns

to Aaliyah and everything she gave to music. She died on 25th August, 2001 aged twenty-two (she was born on 16th January, 1979) after a twin-engine Cessna 402B she was on crashed shortly after takeoff killing everyone on board. Aaliyah and her entourage were keen to depart back to the U.S. after wrapping up the video shoot for her single, Rock the Boat. The plane was overloaded and should not have taken off - a tragic and horrendous loss the music industry is still feeling. Rock the Boat is a cut from her third and final album – Aaliyah gained a huge amount of acclaim and an extra weight of sadness following her death. I was just about to leave for university and heard the news come through. I bought Aaliyah’s eponymous album – it was released on 7th July, 2001 – and I remember following the songs and being blown away by it! I had followed female R&B singers since the 1990s and was a big fan of girl groups like TLC and Destiny’s Child. I had grown up around powerhouse singers like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin but there was something unique and spectacular about Aaliyah. Since her debut – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number – in 1994; this rare and very special creature was being taken to heart and producing some of the most beautiful music around. The breathy vocals and restrained performances had power and passion but there was so much seductiveness and beauty.

It is an album that sounds incredible and, whilst her best was still ahead, she was fifteen at the time and the fact an album of that confidence was out in the world blew people away! We only had to wait until 1996 before her second album, One in a Million, was released and, yet again, it was a step forward. Still a teenager; this was a young woman making her way through music and releasing big singles like If Your Girl Only Knew and One in a Million. I still listen to these songs today and look around at the modern scene. Although Aaliyah's fashion changed from a typical teenage look to something more grown-up and varied; the seeds were planted from the start and that authoritative sense of being and confidence was there. I have heard nothing like Aaliyah since her debut album in 1994 and, at a time when there are few stars and genuine personalities; Aaliyah is a star that still burns and continues to guide artists. The leap from her debut to One in a Million took me by surprise and confirmed my love for Aaliyah. I was entranced, fascinated and utterly shocked (in a good way).


ALL OTHER PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images

I was thirteen when One in a Million came out and could not quite believe someone slightly older than me was so commanding and confident. She has writers and producers around her – including Missy Elliott and Timbaland – but everything that came out of the speaker was her. There was no need for too much polish and hiding behind samples/sounds: this woman knew how to hold and control music; weave it and captivate anyone listening. The 1990s was a busy and extraordinary decade for music but no artist got into my heart quite like Aaliyah. I listen to her music a lot and discover new revelations and secrets every time I spin - a rare and impressive feat indeed! In this article, written in 2016, Rolling Stone looked back at Aaliyah’s start and how she managed to make such an impact right from the off:

It is one of the greatest moments in modern soul history: The first few seconds when Aaliyah Haughton, then only a 15-year-old newcomer, opens her cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)” with a few seconds of a cappella brilliance. “Let me know … let me know,” she sings with grace, before offering a wordless cry with incandescent softness”.

“…Back in 1994, Aaliyah’s career-defining interpretation topped out at Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100, but that was due to radio programmers and BET’s Video Soul spinning R. Kelly’s “Gangsta Child” remix, which relied on a bass-heavy G-funk beat and an alternate vocal from Aaliyah that’s more restrained than the version on her debut, Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number. But from its release, the LP version drew a cult following, first through constant airplay on the late night mix shows that still populate black radio; and then through samples and homages like Drake’s “Unforgettable” and Frank Ocean’s rendition for his recent “visual album” Endless”.

Listen to songs like Throw Your Hands Up (from Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number) and you can see how she inspired artists today. Whilst her best work was, as I said, to come; you could hear that intense talent and magic come from the music. Aaliyah, at an early stage, was a mysterious figure who would not lust after the camera – look at the cover for Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number where she is wearing sunglasses – and that sense of disguise has been adopted by artists like The Weeknd. One in a Million saw the glasses remain and, whilst there was a bit of restraint from the artist in a visual sense; listen to the music and it is expressive, powerful and intoxicating. Her voice would range from soft and inviting to hardcore and on top; she would switch between a soft and sensitive soul to someone who could step into the spotlight and own it! With her first hit, Back & Forth, she not only created an instant hit and unique piece but brought the black teenage voice to the fore.

A lot of the artists at the time – even contemporaries like En Vogue – were dressed more sexily and seductively. Aaliyah sported shades and baggy jeans; a tough and typical teenage look that was inspiring artists and allowing other teenagers to identify. They had a role model out there who did not need to flaunt or compromise to get noticed. Critics took a while to warm and appreciate the star. She was battling with big bands and, in 1994, we were seeing some of the greatest albums ever being laid down. By 1996, she was getting more airplay and acclaim but her big success, sadly, would arrive after her death in 2001. There was a gap between her second and third albums – five years... – and that built speculation and sense of expectation. The appeal increased and this teasing and engaging artist got people talking. Rolling Stone, in the article I just quoted, made some good points when talking about her legacy. A couple of points really caught my ears:

She made Timbaland and Missy Elliott official
Every R&B fan alive and kicking in 1996 remembers when they first heard Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Its odd interplay of vocal percussion, whistles, and a sludgy yet swinging beat sounded like nothing we had heard before. Timbaland’s (who made the track along with the late songwriter Static Major) stylistic quirks could have been dismissed as a novelty, or gimmick with a short shelf life. (See Rich Harrison’s fusion of go-go and brassy hip-hop, which quickly lost steam after a few classic singles like Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.”) But when Timbaland and Missy Elliott brought the same kitchen-sink aesthetic to Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew,” which appeared just weeks after “Pony,” we realized that their revolution was here to stay.

Her voice is unlike anyone else’s
Many R&B singers have tried to duplicate Aaliyah’s pillowy falsetto and sharp mid-range, from Ciara and Amerie to Teyana Taylor. She could do deep gospel runs, too – check her deep-hued inflections on the Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number track “Street Thing.” But she’s rightly remembered as one of the most influential singers of the modern R&B era”.

The piece went on to speculate where Aaliyah’s career would have gone if she had survived. She would have been in her late-thirties and I wonder how she would fit into a market where the likes of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj are fixtures. I will talk about her eponymous album and its influence but, even from the start, the songs popped and stood out. I can listen to tracks like Back & Forth and Street Thing (from her debut) and they sound so fresh and unusual. There is nobody in the scene today that has that mixture of talents and vocal blends. At a time where there are few teenage stars and newcomers; albums like Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number and One in a Million should be studied and followed. One in a Million showcased a more mature blend and saw Aaliyah grow in confidence. It was award-nominated and sold very well; critics were impressed by her artistry and abilities but, again, something was missing.

There were a lot of unfair reviews and negative comparisons to other artists. Whilst fans were responding and great reviews were coming in; there were many who did not see all of her wonder and what she stood for! Not only was Aaliyah a role model for black girls and fellow songwriters but she was creating something that fitted into the mainstream but was distinctly her own. Five years after her sophomore album, and with Stephen Garrett as the lead writer – replacing Missy Elliott and Timbaland –, there was a tougher and sassier sound. Listen to the squelchy electronics of More Than a Woman and the tense beats. Although there was only a five-year gap between her second and third albums; it seems like so much more than time affected her new direction. Much more boldness and intuition were coming into her voice; a woman who was aiming high and wanted to take her music to the next level. Those critics who dismissed her back in 1994 were earing their words in 2001. You could not escape the sense we were seeing a young woman coming into her own and aiming for the heavens. From the very start of Aaliyah; you know you are witnessing a spectacular album and one of the finest decelerations of the decade.



It is a tight and strutting funk that sees Aaliyah step out and nail it! More confident as a vocalist than ever before; one can hear shades of Aaliyah in Beyoncé’s later career. It is true that, in 2001, she was already shaping the future of Pop and R&B. We Need a Resolution features Timbaland and is a fantastic start to the album; Rock the Boat looks back at her earlier work and provides a more soothing and sweet cut; Loose Rap and Extra Smooth are indelible smashes that, again, show new sides to Aaliyah. AllMusic, when reviewing the album in 2012, summed it up perfectly:

Where such peers as Macy Gray and Jill Scott work too hard to establish their ties with classic soul, Aaliyah revels in the present, turning out a pan-cultural array of sounds, styles, and emotions. This sound is entirely unfamiliar -- part of the pleasure is how contemporary it sounds -- but she sounds just as comfortable within the sonicscapes of Timbaland as Missy Misdemeanor Elliott and, possibly, less self-conscious. Aaliyah never oversings, never oversells the songs -- this comes on easy and sultry, and there's a lot of substance here, in terms of the songwriting and the songs themselves. Urban albums rarely come any better than this, and there haven't been many records better than this in 2001, period”.

By 2001; Aaliyah had a growing film career and was building her name. She could have sold out and created an album that was commercial and lacked any progression but, instead, she provided her most ambitious yet accessible record. It completed her transformation from a sensitive teenage artist to a sensual and fascinating woman. Aaliyah did not see the sweetness and vulnerability of her debut disappear completely – her third album was a chance to unite all her phases and expressions into one record! Whereas her previous two albums showed a little distance between star and collaborators; now, she was engaging with them and using them in a more noticeable and direct way. She was blossoming into a genuine artist who was having her say – some had accused her of being controlled by the studio before (not a shock considering her age and lack of complete critical backing!).

By 2001, contemporary R&B hit a new peak and the popularity of Neo-Soul increased. In a period when these genres were influencing more than Pop; Aaliyah’s self-titled album spoke volumes and pointed at a bright and exciting future – one that was cut tragically short. Despite the tragic plane crash that took her life, you can hear artists such as The xx and Beyoncé take guidance from her – especially that final album. Aaliyah inspired in so many ways: it was not only her music and creative growth that compelled and resonated. This Billboard article from 2014 explored her subtlety and textures and how, quite a few years after her death, so many upcoming songwriters were learning from her:

"The new generation pulls inspiration from Aaliyah, despite not growing up with her, because she was authentic," says 43-year-old Missy Elliott, who co-wrote many of Aaliyah’s songs. "Her music couldn’t be placed in a category."

Rather than the powerful pipes R&B is known for, Aaliyah’s vocals were intimate and low-key. "Coming from a church background, if you can’t hit high notes and runs, some say you can’t sing," says Streeter. "She made me feel OK about not screaming over every track."


 "We owe our chill vibe to her," says Tinashe, 21. "People were used to artists belting things out. She brought a new vocal styling that wasn’t represented in R&B. Not everything has to be so uptempo”.

I am always sad when we have to write about a musician posthumously – looking back on what they created rather than what they will go on to achieve. The thing with Aaliyah is you can hear her D.N.A. and voice in the guise of modern artists. With only three albums, she managed to transform music and, with Aaliyah, here is an album that is being spoken about as one of the finest of the decade (the '00s). Missy Elliott came out and paid tribute to Aaliyah; marking her death and saying how much she has done for music and what she would be doing were she alive today – it is scary to think what she would bring to music and how she could push it forward. I have fond memories of her music; hearing Aaliyah for the first time was a semi-religious experience. From the sweet and street-wise cuts from her first couple of albums to the mature and bold artist who presented a masterpiece in 2001; we reflect and remember a woman who is shaping and affecting music seventeen years after her death. I used one of her album (and song) titles, One in a Million, as the title for this piece. Some might see it as lazy wordplay but, for those who know her and what her music means, there are no other words we could use! In a music world where there are copycats and bland artists, it is true the astonishing Aaliyah was…

ONE in a million.