One In a Million? Why We’re Still Talking About Aaliyah

Aaliyah made genre-redefining albums in the 1990s and died way too young. She was involved in a controversial marriage, and her breakthrough video was set in a high school gym. Her catalog comprises three studio albums, and new artists can’t wait to assert their cred by covering her songs and name-checking her in interviews.

Photoshop a split image of her and Kurt Cobain, expand on the above points, and voila, you’ve got yourself a story — one of those oversimplified slabs of click-bait the Internet supposedly loves. Here’s your headline: Aaliyah was to R&B what Nirvana were to rock ‘n’ roll.

In the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of the release of Aaliyah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, this week (May 24), there luckily hasn’t been a deluge of such think-pieces. While there are superficial similarities between Kurt and Aaliyah — their posthumous importance chief among them — they were very different artists whose music touched people in fundamentally different ways. To compare them by virtue of the decade in which they happened to work would be to trivialize what made each great.

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Kurt’s appeal was obvious: He was the loner whose loud guitars and angsty poetry galvanized a generation of fellow misfits. Now, as then, Kurt stands for something.

Aaliyah is a little more of a mystery. Nearly 13 years after her death at the age of 22 in an August 2001 plane crash, the reasons behind her vice grip on pop culture are harder to grasp. She wasn’t the voice of a generation — like many R&B singers, she was an interpreter, not a songwriter — and compared to some of her peers, she didn’t even sell that many records. Her only No. 1 single, “Try Again,” was from a movie soundtrack, and when nostalgic 30-somethings think back to the music of 2000, it’s hardly the first song that pops into anyone’s head.

So why was Drake, who has her face tattooed on his back, so adamant for years about masterminding the posthumous Aaliyah album? Why did The xx cover “Hot Like Fire”? What prompted The Weeknd to sample “Rock the Boat” on “What You Need”? And what’s with that song “Aaliyah,” on which Katy B and Jessie Ware beg the late star to stop hypnotizing their men?

Aaliyah’s untimely demise is part of it, as dying young tends to mythologize musicians. Like fellow air-crash victim Buddy Holly, she left behind a fairly spotless discography. The world never had to hear her contract-fulfilling Christmas album or watch her crack under media pressure like, say, Britney or Christina.

But it wasn’t just an overloaded Cessna flown by a possibly intoxicated pilot that cemented Aaliyah’s place in history. Had she made it back to Florida after her “Rock the Boat” shoot in the Bahamas and gone on living up to the present, she almost certainly wouldn’t have pulled a Britney. Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number is by no means her best album, but what’s evident in both the title and on many of the songs is just how mature and self-possessed this Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised triple threat was from the very beginning.

When her debut dropped, Aaliyah was just 15, but you’d never know it from “No One Knows How to Love Me Quite Like You Do” or the title track, both written and produced by R. Kelly. A line like, “Take my hand and come with me/ And let me show you to ecstasy,” would sound ridiculous — and scandalous — coming from a little girl playing diva dress-up. But Aaliyah sings it with an easy grown-up sensuality that frees her from having to attempt any vocal acrobatics.

She also saves the album from sounding totally creepy. Don’t forget, these are come-on songs penned by a then-27-year-old Kelly for the teenager he would briefly call his wife. Theirs was a short and illegal marriage, and given that Aaliyah changed labels after their annulment and sought new collaborators, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number is essentially the lone document of their time together. Kelly’s subsequent dalliances with underage girls only add to the complicated ickiness surrounding the record, and yet 20 years later, you can listen to a slow jam like “I’m Down” without needing to cleanse yourself with bleach — so long as you don’t think about it too hard.

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Always subtle, Aaliyah’s sexiness became more pronounced on her two subsequent albums, the better of which — her 1996 sophomore effort One In a Million — revealed the first signs of her surprising sonic adventurousness. After weathering the R. Kelly scandal and moving from Jive to Atlantic, Aaliyah could have easily gone the safe route and aligned herself with journeymen songwriters and producers. Instead she enlisted the talents of Missy Elliott and Timbaland, then a couple of unknowns with some innovative ideas about what might pass for pop music. The collaboration resulted in songs like “Hot Like Fire,” an airy, strangely anxious space-age sex jam light years ahead of the bumping, grinding “strictly for the Jeeps” gangsta-soul that R. Kelly had crafted for the first record.

Tim and Missy’s contributions to One in a Million and Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled album are a major part of this story. Were it not for their jittery future-funk sound — the template for much of the best R&B that’s emerged since — Aaliyah might have wound up another ho-hum Brandy or Monica, albeit one with a silkier voice and better dance moves.

That’s because for all her magnetism, Aaliyah didn’t exactly exude personality. She played a vampire in Queen of the Damned and spoke of her love for Korn and Trent Reznor, but in interviews, she came across as charming and polite — hardly the kind of person people were apt to form strong opinions about. She had a terrific look — midriff-bearing tops, dark shades, and a Veronica Lake sweep of hair over the left eye — but as was the case with her music, her sexuality was understated and tasteful.

She was known as the “Princess of R&B” and “Queen of Urban Pop,” but if we’re talking fairy tales, she was more of a Goldilocks character. As a singer, dancer, and actress, she was neither bland nor showy. She was an innovator who never alienated her audience, and she managed to sustain a decade-long career free of both major flops and super-duper-massive successes.

If you grew up in the ‘90s, as her most vocal admirers did, she was a constant presence — a superstar who didn’t hog the headlines or do much to overshadow her music. Her influence can be heard on the California King Bed bangers that make up Drake’s latest, Nothing Was the Same, or the distant sense of longing that floats ghostlike through The xx’s music.

She could get your attention without raising her voice and then slink out of view. Even Kurt never learned that trick.