Star who brought artistry to R&B
But in a musical sense, it was impossible to confuse her with the fluffy Brandys and Monicas. While they churned out the anodyne party tunes beloved of every teenage mall rat, Aaliyah was a different proposition. A cutting-edge stylist with an aloof, sparse sound, she often forgot that the point of making pop music is to sell 10-million copies per album, and erred instead on the side of artistry.
Her 1996 CD, One in a Million, recorded when she was just 17 (she had already released the aptly titled Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number two years before that), was the first big R&B album to experiment with minimalism inspired by hip-hop.
If female soul stars had previously tended toward the Janet Jackson model of characterless big tunes, the album’s self-containment gave them much to think about. It’s now difficult to find an R&B record, even those by Brandy and Monica, that isn’t in some way influenced by it.
As an artist who wrote little of her own material, Aaliyah was at least partly the creation of producers, who included the maverick Chicago singer R Kelly and fiercely hip producer Timbaland. It was Timbaland, with Rodney Jerkins (credited with bringing Whitney Houston up to date), who saw the young singer’s potential and matched her voice with understated beats on One in a Million.
But to attribute her success to them misses the point that what they did was nurture an already distinctive talent. Her best-known song, Try Again, nominated for a Grammy this year, is a bewitching trinity of voice, melody and a lyric that urges, “Pick yourself up and try again.”
Aaliyah was born in Brooklyn as disco was being succeeded by hip-hop. She was a child of both musical eras; at 11 she performed in Las Vegas with her aunt, Gladys Knight, but was also a rap fan while attending the High School for Fine and Performing Arts in Detroit, where she moved as a child. R Kelly discovered her — and supposedly married her when she was only 15, though it was never confirmed — and produced her debut. She was welcomed by America’s “urban” radio stations as a fresh young contender, a confidence that was repaid by One in a Million.
She notched up seven hits before she turned 18. For whatever reason, however, she didn’t capitalise on that album’s success. Rather than following standard R&B practice by bringing out another album quickly, she waited five years.
When rock bands dawdle beyond reason, there’s usually a drink- or drug-fuelled explanation, but the dynamic, drug-free Aaliyah seemed an advert for clean living. It’s likely she was simply busy with other projects, among them roles in the trendy kung-fu film Romeo Must Die and an Anne Rice vampire potboiler, The Queen of the Damned. She was also signed to appear in both sequels to The Matrix.
The gap between One in a Million and Aaliyah, her latest album, cost her sales. The former sold two million, but despite contributions from Timbaland and rap potentate Missy Elliott, the latter has had a slower start.
Aaliyah was in the Bahamas filming a video for her new single, Rock the Boat, when a twin-engined plane carrying her and staff from her record company, Virgin, crashed. Eight others died.