“Find fun in everything you do.”
– Aaliyah, MTV Diary 2001
the talented songstress with the fluttery falsetto was born in Brooklyn, New York and throughout her career; reporters, fans and her contemporaries would comment on her down-to-earth nature and sweetness.
She broke-out onto the mainstream music scene in 1994 aged just 15 with the edgy single “Back & Forth”, from her debut LP Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Aaliyah’s voice slinking along over tough hip hop beats on the album created a young and fresh sound.
Her version of the Isley Brothers’ song “At Your Best (You Are Love)”, is preceded with a stirring A Capella intro. Her crystal cut delivery makes her performance all the more innocent and vulnerable. It’s a defining moment – much like when little Michael Jackson donned a purple hat and belted out the first words of “Who’s Loving You” on the Ed Sullivan show – you stop and listen because it’s so captivating.
“She made that hip hop look sexy for women wearing men’s clothes. It created a whole new look. It was sexy but classic.” – Andy Hilfiger for Tommy Jeans, in 1996
Stepping into the limelight as an elegant hip-hop tomboy – she was known for her baggy leather pants and sunglasses – she naturally blossomed into a graceful siren by the time her self-titled third album was released in 2001 . Her producer and friend Missy Elliott told a sweet story to Vibe Magazine:
“We had a bet as to who was going to wear a dress first, cause neither one of us used to wear dresses. One day, I saw he r in a dress, and I was like, ‘wait a minute, this girl owes me some money’.”
One in a Million was released in 1996 and Aaliyah turned from newcomer to trendsetter, discovering a cutting-edge sound by working with Missy Elliott and Timbaland on a majority of the tracks. The lead single, “If Your Girl Only Knew”, has an unusual grinding-twang pulse beat and Aaliyah’s harmonies seem to control the chords.
Paul Hunter also credits Aaliyah for consciously kickstarting his career when she picked him to direct “Got to Give It Up” and the massive “One in a Million” videos. “One in a Million” would define a new sound in soul music. The album solidified Aaliyah’s personal sense of style and self and set her apart for being a visionary.
“There’s a thing that you see when somebody walks out on the stage, I call it the fire. They got that inner fire, which has nothing to do with the schooling, nothing to do with the teacher, nothing to do with the parents. There is a desire in that person to please the audience. You see enough of it to recognize it. And that’s what I saw with Aaliyah.”
– Ed McMahon, Star Search host
After six hits on the album, she spent the next years training in acting. Although she was missed on the music scene, she did appear on soundtracks during her hiatus. In 1997 she released “Journey To The Past” for Anastasia, which gained her an Academy Award nomination and in 1998, she released “Are You That Somebody”, for Dr DooLittle.
The synth-funk track, which had Timbaland beatboxing and the sample of a baby laughing (from Perrey and Kingsley’s “Countdown at 6”) earned Aaliyah a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance and was a world wide smash.
“I am truly blessed to wake up every morning and do something that I love. There’s nothing better than that. You’ve gotta love what you do, to wanna do it everyday. Sometimes I’m taken aback and I’m just like…I can’t believe it. I can definitely say I’m a truly happy young person. There’s so much more I wanna do in my career and I’m gonna work hard to do and to achieve.” – Aaliyah, MTV Diary 2001
In 2000 her first starring role saw Aaliyah mix hip hop and kung fu with Jet Li in Romeo Must Die. It was a box office success in 2000, and Aaliyah had four superb tracks on the excellent original soundtrack which sold over a million copies. The role once again was edgy, injecting interracial relationship battles into the Romeo and Juliet story.
Aaliyah also landed the huge role of playing the 6,000-year-old Egyptian vampire Akasha in Queen of the Damned. Her acting coach, Joanne Baron, would tell how hard Aaliyah worked to gain it:
“Director Michael Rymer had asked her to do a piece from a play called Salomé. She came in on her knees like a cat, growling, ‘I’m the woman that you left,’ and she did this with such brilliant physicality and vocality. She crawled round on the floor for two hours, moving about the room in unbelievable fluidity, acting this thing to perfection. She put her heart, her time, her love and her life into it. She just ripped it out.”
Based in Australia for the role, Aaliyah would film during the day and work on her album in the evenings. She completed her scenes and released her eponymous album Aaliyah in 2001, she was 22.
In interviews she revealed she self-titled the album because lyrically, it was her most personal album to date. She worked again with the late singer/rapper Static, from the group Playa, who wrote “Are You that Somebody” because she credited him as writing lyrics which she related to.
The lead single “We Need A Resolution”, about an argument, is very dark and futuristic sounding. The video is its equal; Aaliyah bellydances with a snake, swings in a vortex and dances over a disgruntled beat with such charisma it makes your eyes dance. The song’s Middle-Eastern feeling gave insight into the fusion of influences that would contribute to the album.
Aaliyah boldly explores the highs and lows of love on the album with poise and interesting technique over songs which fuse hiphop and soul with electronica, dub and metal, to name a few genres. Her vocal performances range from falsetto, staccato and at times soprano and her emotions shift from sexy and satisfied to complete fury. Like Diana Ross she conveys a story in each song and she tells it with conviction and passion – whether she’s singing about her career, being the other woman or the joys of sex.
Ernest Hardy of Rolling Stone Magazine compared the album’s musical experimentation to OutKast’s Stankonia and Sade’s Lovers Rock.
Christopher John Farley of Time Magazine, who met Aaliyah a few times, heralded her a gentle, humble person. He was impressed how her young voice had matured on the album. He said: “Her gentle voice now seems like something elemental, a kindly wind blowing through the branches of a big tree”.
“Rock The Boat”, directed by Hype Williams, was Aaliyah’s final video-shoot; it was filmed back to back with “More Than a Woman”, directed by Dave Meyers.
By accounts of those on the video shoot for “Rock The Boat” it was a happy time for Aaliyah. She had expressed that she had beaten her fear of being underwater, filming a gorgeous scene wearing a long gown which is seen in the music clip. She thanked everyone on the shoot when it wrapped up and spoke to a young fan for 15 minutes on the way to the airport.
Aaliyah’s “Came To Give Love (Outro)” on One In A Million is a beautiful reminder anyday that Aaliyah’s life was a fulfilled one. Listen to it here:
“Everything is worth it, the hard work, the times your tired, the times when you’re a bit sad. In the end it’s all worth it, because it really makes me happy, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I’ve got good friends, I’ve got beautiful family, and I’ve got a career. I am truly blessed and I thank God for his blessings every single chance I get.” – Aaliyah, MTV Diary 2001
Love to Aaliyah’s family and friends, and those who passed on with her: Hairstylist Eric Forman, makeup artist Christopher Maldonado, bodyguard Scott Gallin, Virgin Records executive Douglas Kratz, hairstylist Anthony Dodd, Blackground staff Gina Smith, Keith Wallace and pilot Luis Morales III