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Music

One in a Million

Aaliyah, 1979-2001

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/5/2001

Lately, I've been driving around town listening to a long-lost mix tape I made a couple of years ago that features "Be Careful," a stormy domestic-turmoil soul ballad sung by an R. Kelly-protégé named Sparkle. More than once while listening to Sparkle and Kelly testify and recriminate over the slinky, foreboding track, I found myself wondering, "Whatever happened to Sparkle?" Like so many would-be R&B divas in recent years, she made a grand entrance, flashing her connections and displaying plenty of luxe style; she released one sharp radio single that quickly became ubiquitous and launched an accompanying album up the charts; and then she more or less disappeared from sight and from mind.

Long before 22-year-old former R. Kelly protégé Aaliyah's plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Marsh Harbor International Airport in the Bahamas on Aug. 25, killing all nine people on board, it was plain that she was much more than just another heavily groomed here-and-gone producer's puppet. She was going to be around for a long time. She was.

At 15, while most teenage girls are still dealing with the fallout from puberty, Aaliyah Dana Haughton was a show-biz vet, a straight-A student at the Detroit High School for the Performing Arts, and recording her debut album, Age Ain't Nothin' but a Number, with Chicago-based R&B star Kelly producing. (Aaliyah's uncle, Barry Hankerson, was Kelly's manager and CEO of Aaliyah's label home, Blackground.) The album's first single, "Back and Forth," was a huge hit, but the album's title hinted at a bombshell revelation--documents indicated that the then-25-year-old Kelly had secretly married the then-15 year-old songbird. The scandal fizzled and both parties remained mum on the subject; the rumor mill reported that the union was eventually annulled.

Aaliyah seemed to find her true creative soulmates in producer Timbaland and songwriter Missy Elliott, who produced and co-wrote seven tracks on her 1996 breakout, One in a Million. a collaboration that roughed out the blueprint for the New Jill Swing currently ruling the R&B and pop charts. Timbaland provided the hippity-hop beats and inventive sampling (the backing track to the album's ravishing title ballad consists of little more than super-syncopated drums and some distant crickets). Elliott wrote chopped-up melodies to fit Tim's tricky tracks and the singer's breathy pipes. Her lyrics also gave Aaliyah a convincing character to play: young, emotional, and yearning for grown-up love, but clear-eyed and determined not to be done dirty. For her part, ever-feminine Aaliyah cuddled up to Timbaland's treacherous, stomping beats and fully invested herself in that conflicted character, perhaps not so different from herself, on a series of singles that were both hits and modern R&B classics: "One In a Million," "4 Page Letter," "If Your Girl Only Knew."

The collaboration climaxed in two more singles about good girls who wouldn't mind being bad if they felt safe, 1998's "Are You That Somebody?" (from the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack) and 2000's "Try Again" (from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack). Timbaland's tracks were so rhythmically distinct and advanced they sounded like science fiction, while Aaliyah continued to explore Janet Jackson's control issues for a new generation. Her lithe voice, though not a high-powered soul-diva instrument, conveyed reserves of passion, while her cool delivery of Elliott's looking-out-for-number-one lyrics telegraphed intelligence and wisdom. Destiny's Child's Beyoncé Knowles may be the current poster girl for independent women and survivors in contemporary R&B, but she's strutting in Aaliyah's carefully measured footsteps every inch of the way.

Aaliyah transferred a version of her musical persona to the big screen in Romeo Must Die, as Trish O'Day, a warm-hearted, cool-headed drug dealer's daughter who flirts with danger and Jet Li's ass-kicking character with equal aplomb. The singer's unbeatable combination of beauty, glamour, confidence, and smarts impresses in the film, so much so that she quickly won two more plum roles, as the female lead in the film adaptation of Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned and a part in the two concurrently filmed sequels to The Matrix. Queen of the Damned is due out before the end of 2001; there is no word yet on whether her part in Matrix will be recast.

Her third album, titled simply Aaliyah, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts upon its release in July. Another Timbaland-produced avant-hop track, "We Need a Resolution," led off as first single, but the album itself found Aaliyah stepping away from her old persona, exploring new poses, sounds, and styles. It sounds like the work of a maturing artist in transition, though now we will never know where she was headed, or where she could have gone. Of course, that was always part of Aaliyah's appeal--a certain simple mystery about what one might find in the heart and mind behind that composed, watchful facade.

Those who knew and worked with Aaliyah unfailingly eulogize her as a sweet and genuine person, a consummate professional, and a performer of limitless potential. The fact that she was so well-adjusted, canny, and in control of her life and career for one so young makes her unexpected passing all the sadder. She never courted disaster, but it found her anyway. But one thing is for certain: Even with just three albums, a handful of singles, and a couple of films to her credit, Aaliyah is likely to remain in our thoughts for a long, long time.

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