The death of 22-year-old R&B singer-actress Aaliyah in a plane crash Saturday night proved how different we all are based on our age, race, gender, kind of music we listen to and which movies and TV shows we watch.
Depending on these factors, Aaliyah was either a virtual nobody whose death touched on universal fears (i.e., one’s own mortality, fear of flying, the loss of a sibling or child); a pretty girl with a couple of pop hits; or a blindingly charismatic young woman with the potential to become one of the most successful African-American talents in the history of the entertainment biz.
At a time when most black actresses still struggle to find acceptance in Hollywood, Aaliyah was already snagging major roles in mainstream films such as the adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Queen of the Damned” and the two sequels to “The Matrix,” crashing through barriers that have held back black women from Dorothy Dandridge to Angela Bassett. Yet what was sometimes missing from the many discussions of Aaliyah’s bright acting future was a thorough understanding and acknowledgment of what she’d already accomplished in the music industry.
In a business where most teen stars age like dogs, Aaliyah had been scoring hits for seven years. (For perspective, consider that Britney Spears released her first album only two years ago.) She wasn’t a singer-songwriter a la Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill or Alicia Keys. But she had a hand in helping many of R&B’s most innovative songwriting and producing talents achieve their first, and sometimes greatest, commercial and aesthetic achievements.
Before R. Kelly wrote and produced Aaliyah’s debut, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” he was just another soulful crooner. After the success of that album, he became a sought-after producer.
In 1996, such then-unknown talents as Rodney Jerkins, Missy Elliott and Timbaland worked on Aaliyah’s sophomore effort, “One in a Million.” Jerkins went on to write and produce Brandy and Monica’s smash “The Boy is Mine,” as well as much of Michael Jackson’s long-awaited new album. Elliott soon became a solo performer, releasing three critically acclaimed albums. And Timbaland formed a lasting and extremely fruitful partnership with Aaliyah that would last until her death. On Monday, the Grammy-nominated producer told MTV that he felt like “half of his creativity was gone.”
The moody music that she made with Timbaland earned her kudos from R&B veterans Stevie Wonder and Janet Jackson, as well as rockers Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and KoRn frontman Jonathan Davis. “She does really great, different stuff that’s dark,” Davis said to MTV. “She skirts the goth edge. There’s something cool and mysterious about her. I dug that.”
Here’s a look at some of Aaliyah’s most memorable musical moments:
“One in a Million” from the album “One in a Million” (1996).
This Timbaland-produced midtempo tune with its bursts of rapid-fire staccato beats and Aaliyah’s alternately sharp and sinewy croons literally changed the sound of pop and R&B radio. It’s the reason that polyrhythmic smashes such as Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” exist.
“Try Again” from the “Romeo Must Die” soundtrack (2000).
The song announces itself with horn blasts straight out of a Renaissance processional and then it thrusts you onto a ripping electro-bass roller coaster with Aaliyah’s airy voice serving as the wind blowing through your hair.
“We Need a Resolution” from “Aaliyah” (2001).
Horror-movie organs and Aaliyah’s quivering vocals unnervingly evoke the feelings of fear and desperation that often precede a breakup.
“Are You That Somebody” from the “Dr. Dolittle” soundtrack (1998).
Aaliyah issues a “will you still love me tomorrow” sentiment over the inexplicably funky sounds of rolling dice and baby coos.
“Best Friend” from Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott’s album “Supa Dupa Fly” (1997).
A bottom-heavy duet with Elliott on which the singers celebrate the enduring and sometimes complex ties between gal pals.
“Death of a Playa” from the “Hot Like Fire” single (1997). This cut, the only that she had a hand in writing (with her brother Rashaad), reflects Aaliyah’s dark perspective on romance. Further listening: “At Your Best (Gangstar Child Remix)” from “At Your Best (You Are Love)” single (1994); “Man Undercover” from Timbaland and Magoo’s “Welcome to Our World” (1997).