Remembering Aaliyah, a young woman asserting her identity, gone too soon

In just 7 brief years, Aaliyah rose from a young ingenue to a respected artist who repeatedly captured and held the attention of the late 90s / turn of the millennium zeitgeist. Through this article, I will examine Aaliyah’s output to determine how she realised her identity through her art, as a memoriam on the 15th anniversary of her passing.

Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number

Before Brandy and Monica came Aaliyah, teen protégée of R. Kelly, who was omnipresent during her early career. And yet, Aaliyah’s first album contains the germ of her mystique – flawless vocals that flowed effortlessly over the new jack swing that was all the rage.

Was she singing about things that she actually knew about? Was age really nothing but a number? Surely half of the point of what made Aaliyah such an impressive talent from album one was that she was young, and yet her voice had the confidence and finesse to believably communicate love and yearning without ever growling or straining. The album’s success relied on the listener divorcing the effortlessly smooth and mature vocals from the fact that they were coming from a 14 year old.

Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number then is the debut album of a teenager with bags of streetwise style and an innate uniqueness (the cover includes a guide to pronouncing her one-of-a-kind name, marking her out from the pack). It’s also a very real examination of deep teenage feelings of first-time love and lust, when we don’t understand the new feelings that we experience during adolescence and thus mistake sexual and emotional awakenings for true love, readiness for sex and all of the emotions and consequences that go along with it. And Aaliyah sings about these topics earnestly and believably, but the problem was that these were not her words; they were the words and yearnings of a 26 year old man who not only produced and wrote her entire album and rapped on some of its tracks, but still needed to cameo in the background of the cover. It’s a problematic first chapter in Aaliyah’s legacy, and we never truly know how much of the album’s sultry attitude is hers and how much is his. 

One In A Million

Aaliyah sunglasses

Following the public revelation of Aaliyah’s underage marriage, the union was annulled, Kelly was swiftly excised from her narrative and Aaliyah started afresh (the thank-yous in the booklet allude to “skies… not as clear as they are now!”). And how much fresher could she have been than with a sonic backdrop that not only departed from what she had done before, but had never been heard before. One In A Million was one of the major breakthrough albums (Ginuwine’s The Bachelor being the other) to first showcase the production majesty of Timbaland and Missy Elliott.

Image-wise, we see that Aaliyah is still wearing sunglasses or shielding one eye with her hair, maintaining her mystique. The very first words of the album’s intro proclaim that she’s “got beats for the streets”, a direct continuation of Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number’s opening song “Throw Your Hands Up”. But looking at the young woman on the cover in a long black tracksuit, and in the inlay wearing what would become a signature look: baggy jeans, long coat and tight crop top, it’s also clear that Aaliyah has grown a lot. There’s also another Isley brothers cover (“Choosey Lover”) for continuity, and all of the above is reassuring evidence that Aaliyah’s personality and musical taste did shine through, at least in parts, on her debut.

Another important point I’ll raise here is that Aaliyah rarely wrote her own songs. A common assumption is that the more “genuine” an artist is, the more input they have into the creative process: songwriting, arranging, producing, playing. I myself earlier made the link between R. Kelly writing and producing all of Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, and him having control of the project. However, there is skill in taking a song that has already been crafted and making it your own, moulding it to fit your vision. I believe that One In A Million allowed Aaliyah much more space to express her own vision, as well as displaying her increased skill as an interpreter and performer. Although Missy and Timbaland’s production takes the lion’s share of the album, other producers and songwriters also contributed to the project, including Rodney Jerkins (“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, one of his earliest outings) and Diane Warren, who wrote the closing ballad “The One I Gave My Heart To”. The latter is a prime example of an Aaliyah we hadn’t heard before: a traditional R&B ballad building to an emotional bridge where she displays a vocal surprising in its power and technique, since we had previously only heard smooth nonchalance.

This song was a little bit of an anomaly on an album filled with spacious and off-kilter beats, odd sound effects, sumptuous backing vocals (check out the layers on the bridge of “Heartbroken”), and an inventiveness that is relaxed throughout but just doesn’t quit. I can’t help but think of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” as an effective counterpoint to lead single “If Your Girl Only Knew” – whereas the former is famously bassless, the latter is all about the bass. As handclaps add to the song’s final choruses, the top line is entirely helmed by Aaliyah’s voice and the melody of the song. “One In A Million” repeats this even more so: the first verse is nothing but crickets, bass and layered vocals. Wind chimes and a DJ’s record-scratch buried low in the mix create a lush backdrop that nevertheless pushes Aaliyah’s voice centre stage, as she is the only instrument carrying the melody. As the song progresses, additional effects add to the soundscape before it all drops out for the final chorus.

“4 Page Letter” sees Aaliyah giving direction as she asks for “my music” to be turned “up a little bit more”. It’s a subtle but notable assertion of ownership as she talks about the advice her parents gave her about finding a good boyfriend. Although two years older during the recording of One In A Million than she was for her first album, the songs that discuss love and its emotional highs and lows this time are lyrically age-appropriate and more universal in content than those from Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number: “I’m sending him a 4 page letter and I enclosed it with a kiss” is certainly more elegant, and nearly everyone can relate to both “Your love is one in a million” and “I’m tired of my heart being broken”. Even the most ambiguous lyrics of “Giving You More”, such as “I got what you like, and your love I won’t deny” is mitigated by the song’s promise of devotion and companionship: “You don’t have to worry, I’m with you”… “Call on me and you know that I’ll be all you need.” Of course, everyone involved with Aaliyah’s career at this point had to have been mindful of rebuilding her image, but One In A Million saw this done successfully, with ageless lyrical themes paired to avant-garde musical backdrops.

One cannot close a discussion of the album without mentioning its videos, which also showcased aspects of Aaliyah’s identity and abilities the public hadn’t seen before: a fashion-conscious confidence and slick dance moves. Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number’s videos were nothing to write home about, and the most Aaliyah had to do in them was wander about in shades and a bandanna while she nodded her head and lipped along. “If Your Girl Only Knew” starts off similarly, but sans baggy clothes and instead with startling green and red backgrounds, the video soon establishes a language all of its own, with key words from the song’s lyrics writ large in black paint.

We truly see Aaliyah’s dancing chops in the title track’s video, when she is dressed all in white (quite the contrast from her usual black attire) and executes a routine with a male dancer where they interact, as if conversing through their movements, but without touching until the end, when she embraces him. Meanwhile, she also shares screen time with Ginuwine, who is revealed to have her name tattooed on his arm. Aaliyah’s agency in these videos is amplified, where she is front and centre, not in anyone’s shadow and certainly not with Timbaland and Missy peeping over her shoulder at every opportunity. “4 Page Letter” finds Aaliyah creeping through a forest to observe a male dancer; by the video’s end she frees her love interest from slavery, blows some dust that sets their campsite on fire, and then dances with him in a silver two-piece outfit. It’s all a bit silly but throughout it all, Aaliyah is in control. Now, her maturity beyond her years has become her strength.

A cinematic interlude…

It would be a long 5 years before Aaliyah would follow up One In A Million, during which she sought to develop her career as an actress. As well as playing roles in front of the camera, she contributed to the soundtracks of Anastasia (“Journey To The Past” allowed her another opportunity to flex her vocals), Dr. Dolittle and Romeo Must Die. Dr. Dolittle’s contribution, “Are You That Somebody?”, remains a prime example of the classic Timbaland sound, with the prominent use of a baby’s cry, myriad clicks and whirrs, and a hyperactive bass guitar forming the song’s musical bed. The whole thing sounds like an experiment in weirdness, with repeated occurrences where the whole song falls silent mid-verse and operatic call-and-response in the second voice – but it utterly works and teases the listener’s ear until resistance is futile.

Romeo Must Die had four contributions. Single “Try Again”’s acid bassline would later be sampled by George Michael on “Freeeek!”, and adds a sinister urgency to the song’s jumpy snare and syncopated bass. The melody is simple and catchy, but Aaliyah is content to play a supporting role to the music. “Come Back In One Piece” is a rote collaboration with DMX, and “I Don’t Wanna” is a sweet R&B ballad that’s acceptable without being remarkable. “Are You Feelin’ Me”, meanwhile, is a hyper club jam that is one of Aaliyah’s most uptempo songs, and the hidden gem among her contributions to the soundtrack. The song is less than three minutes long but is never less than musically engaging, with Timbaland announcing a “switch” near the song’s end, causing the bassline to morph into something different as the song plays out. It’s exciting and fun, and all of these songs only heightened fans’ anticipation for what Aaliyah would bring next for her third album.

Aaliyah

Aaliyah

“We Need A Resolution” lived up to expectations. The opening frame of the video showed Aaliyah sitting front and centre, both eyes regarding us coolly as if she had been waiting for us. The song was an elegant reintroduction to Aaliyah as a singer, and it also demonstrated that she was still pushing the envelope. The video combined the gothic (Aaliyah’s black sheer outfit, long straight hair and fierce makeup linked with her recent role in Queen of the Damned) with the futuristic (she levitates, she sits in a curved chair that hurtles through cyberspace) as Aaliyah lamented the absence of her lover. The most arresting scene of the video is when she writhes in a pit of snakes; we realise that Aaliyah is not only dangerous but also fearless – and grown.

These adjectives perfectly encapsulate what Aaliyah the album set out to achieve – a variety of styles and collaborators never before heard on one Aaliyah album, and a range of subject matter that showed her as the arbiter of her own destiny. “Rock The Boat” was an instructive sex jam where Aaliyah takes the lead; “Never No More” sees her leaving an abusive lover and not looking back; “I Refuse” is an epic ballad that dismisses a partner that has taken advantage of her affection one too many times. Aaliyah was also feeling herself: “Extra Smooth”’s bump and grind mocked suitors who thought a little too much of themselves, while “More Than A Woman” trusted in her transformative abilities as an unparalleled lover. Musically, the album was less chilled than previous efforts: while “Rock The Boat”, “It’s Whatever” and “Those Were The Days” sounded effortlessly relaxed and fluid, “Loose Rap”, “More Than A Woman” and “U Got Nerve” showcased some of the most dynamic production of her career. Her vocal performances were as accomplished as ever, with “Never No More”, “I Care 4 U” and “I Refuse” unleashing power and an expressive range that had first been teased on One In A Million’s “The One I Gave My Heart To”.

The imagery of Aaliyah (as well as the fact that it was self-titled) was vital to the album’s statement: the cover was washed in a bright, statement red, and Aaliyah did not wear sunglasses or a coat for the first time. She was unveiling herself, fully blossomed and at the height of her powers. Every photo in the album booklet displayed a different, poised and confident look, and each was a facet of Aaliyah’s developed identity. The cartoon version of her on the album’s limited edition cover was no joke; instead, it perhaps represented Aaliyah’s ability to morph into whatever form she desired. While the “Rock The Boat” video was bright and summery in a way that Aaliyah had never really been before, “More Than A Woman” found her inhabiting various parts of a motorcycle zooming through the city. (Sidebar: cars and motorbikes are omnipresent throughout Aaliyah’s videos and photoshoots.) These videos demonstrated Aaliyah’s stylistic growth and confidence to take risks with her image.

Upon the release of Aaliyah, it felt like she was on the cusp of something greater. With the help of smart management and staff, she managed to somehow navigate her career smoothly past her association with R. Kelly (a feat perhaps not so easily done today, in an age of blogging and social media journalism) to focus on creating music that broke new ground, and building a career that balanced her musical and cinematic ambitions. It’s important to remember that Aaliyah always seemed older than her years – it’s quite surprising that even in the “One In A Million” video, she was 17 years old, and only 20 by the point of “Try Again” and Romeo Must Die. But although the songs that she sang and the clothes that she wore were crafted by other, extremely talented people, I do think that we also witnessed Aaliyah developing her own identity as her career progressed and the confidence to express this identity through her art. By the time she passed away, Aaliyah was the executive producer of her final album, and so I firmly believe that we witnessed Aaliyah discovering and expressing herself through her art in real time. One can only wonder what her career would have become had she lived on. We miss you, Aaliyah.

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