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What Made Aaliyah So Special Is More Complicated Than It Seems

<em>One In A Million </em>took Aaliyah's air of mystery and the laid-back vibes, and reworked them to help pioneer a new way forward in pop and R&B.
Catherine McGann
Getty Images
One In A Million took Aaliyah's air of mystery and the laid-back vibes, and reworked them to help pioneer a new way forward in pop and R&B.

It was such a pleasurable experience being able to finally listen to Aaliyah's One In A Million album from beginning to end this past weekend, her lilting vocals pouring smoothly through my Sonos speakers. This was a moment fans have been waiting on for years, as behind-the-scenes business wrangling has long kept the majority of her relatively small discography off most streaming platforms. And as of Aug. 20, just a few days ahead of the 20th anniversary of her death in a plane crash, it was finally here, her second studio album available to enjoy and rewind and skip ahead through and immerse one's self in, in all its sonic glory.

Her third and final studio album is set to arrive in the fall, and an equilibrium of sorts will have ultimately been restored. Because for far too long, only her first and most fraught album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, had been widely available, a fact that felt like a slap in the face to her legacy.

In death, as in life, Aaliyah has deserved better.

But what, exactly, does "better" entail? Especially within the last couple of years, some things have become undeniably obvious: She deserved to have been better protected by those around her, to have had someone who saw the writing on the wall when a grown man, R. Kelly, was penning songs for a 14-year-old to sing as a come-on to an older "lover." The music industry shouldn't have swept the revelation of Kelly's illegal marriage to Aaliyah when she was just 15 (or the many other allegations that have arisen over the years) under the rug.

More difficult, at least for me as both a fan and critic, is to reconcile that early part of her career with the rest of her body of work. A part of me would love nothing more than to never have to mention Kelly – who would later go by the ghastly nickname "The Pied Piper of R&B" – when discussing Aaliyah. It remains infuriating that (alleged) victims of sexual abuse are forever linked in name to their abusers, often to the detriment and overshadowing of everything else they accomplished. But while Age Ain't Nothing But A Number is forever tainted in the minds of fans, it's impossible to ignore how crucial it was in establishing Aaliyah's continuous appeal even as she distanced herself from Kelly.

It's been said many times before, but really it can't be overstated: "One In A Million" sounds as if it was predicting the future; indeed, it sounds like now. In Timbaland's skittering production, Missy Elliott's staccato phrasing of the lyrics, and Aaliyah's mellifluous interpretation you can hear the descendants that have followed in their wake – Drake, Jhené Aiko, Syd, Normani. Her various looks in the video were sleek, sexy, and mysterious, as she donned low-rise pants, crop tops and bras, and, in one scene, a silver eye-patch that seemed to come straight from a sci-fi dystopia playbook.

She seemed fully formed, utterly confident and secure in her body. This was true in her other songs from that era as well, from "If Your Girl Only Knew," a self-assured midtempo joint in which she boasts how she won't "be no fool" for a guy who's trying to cheat with her, to "Are You That Somebody?" an earworm where she insists on keeping a hookup on the low until he can prove he's serious. And if you were a young Black girl in the '90s like I was, of course you were probably going to look at her and be struck by how cool she seemed, without thinking twice about it. You'd assume she was a grown woman, because if you're below the age of 12, everyone older than you seems ancient, and what young person is able to assert that much control? Yet she wasn't even 18 when she recorded One In A Million.

That's what made her special – she stood out from the balladeers of the era (the Mariahs, Whitneys, En Vogues) and the teen pop stars (Brandy, Britney, Christina), in part because she seemed in command without needing to do too much. Her theatrics were subdued and contained, more slinky and less in-your-face. In hindsight, though, I've begun to wonder what it meant that she was introduced to the world as being fully formed, despite being a young teenager, an age where everyone is still trying to figure themselves out (and usually awkwardly so).

Female teen pop stars usually emerge with a hint of innocence baked into their public persona, even as they playfully suggest their own sexuality and fuel many a boy's or man's sexual fantasy: Britney Spears is the prototypical example here (the schoolgirl outfit and pigtails in "...Baby One More Time"; that infamous Rolling Stone cover with the lingerie and stuffed Teletubby), but this was also true of Spears' contemporaries in the '90s and early '00s, from Christina Aguilera to Mandy Moore to Jessica Simpson. The playbook for the biggest of those stars seemed to be this: Breakout by towing the line between virginal and sexy (and piss off religious groups and middle-class suburban parents in the process), then, a couple of years later, when you're in your late teens or early 20s, enter your "mature" period, i.e. going full-on SEX KITTEN. Suggest a sweaty, dance-orgy in your video; get dirrty. Get blamed for corrupting America's tweens.

Aaliyah was rarely granted the opportunity to display that kind of innocence – she was branded as "mature" out the gate. From the beginning of her career, the dichotomy between her actual and perceived age was integral to her image. It was right there in the title of that debut album; in the lyrics of that song, where she seductively coos that "age ain't nothin' but a number, throwing down ain't nothin' but a thang." In early interviews her exact age was usually treated as a jokey open secret – "I won't reveal it, but I'm in my teens, I'm still in high school"; "You know I don't tell my age, it's a secret," she'd coyly respond, with a giggle and a smile, when asked about how old she was.

Aaliyah stood out from the balladeers and the teen pop stars of the era, in part because she seemed in command without needing to do too much.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Getty Images
Aaliyah stood out from the balladeers and the teen pop stars of the era, in part because she seemed in command without needing to do too much.

Clashing with the acknowledgment of her youth was how Kelly and her management team played down that crucial facet of her age, in the way she swaggered and sauntered in the baggy outfits, dark sunglasses, and swoop of hair draped over one eye, as if she were a neo-noir femme fatale from the 'hood. (Veronica Lake was a frequent reference point for critics describing her look and mysterious aura.) The public pretty much accepted and played along with it. Billboard's review of Age Ain't Nothing But A Number described her as an "urban teenaged siren"; a review in the Washington Post held her up as a refreshing divergence from other teen stars of the moment, because unlike them, "she doesn't try to assume emotions she's never felt or take on material outside her range of experience" – implying that the image of Aaliyah as a fully sexualized woman (not a 15-year-old girl) with experience "go[ing] all the way" had been so strong at the time as to have been normalized and etched in stone. When that's the public's first impression of you in this business, there's ostensibly no going back.

And so she didn't – instead, she continued to build upon that persona while leaving Kelly behind. If One In A Million largely eschews the ickiness that lies at the core of Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, it's because that Svengali wasn't involved, and Aaliyah was a little bit older. Still, there's that tension and looming sadness over the thought that the singer was forced to grow up too soon. The evolution from Age-era Aaliyah to One In A Million-era Aaliyah wasn't such a huge leap stylistically; she was still being put forth and received as more experienced than her counterparts, and comparisons to Janet Jackson (who by then had fully transitioned into her uber-sensual janet.-era) began to surface. "It's still illegal to act on the thought" of Aaliyah's sexuality, dream hampton wrote in her contemporary review of One In A Million, while noting that since her debut, the singer had "encourage[d] Lolita fantasies." (Hampton would later go on to executive produce the damning and watershed docuseries Surviving R. Kelly.)

In the video for the title track, her love interest is Ginuwine, the R&B singer who was nearly a decade older than her; years later, Timbaland, who was 23 when he first met 16-year-old Aaliyah, would admit in an interview that he was "in love" with her, and had to "fight" to control his attraction to her. (By all accounts, their friendship remained platonic and professional.)

Aaliyah's was a different trapping of fame as a teenaged female pop star – instead of dodging invasive questions about whether or not she was a virgin or if she'd gotten a boob job, she dodged questions about an illegal marriage to a much older man while few seemed disturbed by the fact that this was even a question to be asked in the first place. (Most interviewers, in fact, seemed titillated by it.) Neither scenario is a healthy one for a young girl to have to deal with, but at least in the case of Aaliyah, the divide seems stark: to the public, white girlhood was something to be fiercely protected and saved from "corruption"; Black girlhood – Black innocence – cannot even be comprehended. And when Black girlhood isn't fathomed, it's not protected, as the many accounts from the young girls and women featured in Surviving R. Kelly has made clear.

And yet, there's a narrative of resilience that can be gleaned from One In A Million, one that unearths power in the singer's creative choices over her image and sound post-Kelly. She seemingly took the parts that felt the most like herself – the air of mystery, the laid-back vibes – and reworked them to help pioneer a new way forward in pop and R&B. Her boldness feels less put-upon and more natural, like the musings of the older teenager/budding young adult she was at the time, especially on an earnest track like "4 Page Letter." I love to listen to it in this way, because I remember what it was like to be 16, 17-years-old, exploring my own personality and approach to relationships.

In the last years of her life, she had found more nuance to mine at 22-years-old – on "Try Again," for instance, she expresses hesitancy in starting a new relationship, while coaxing her romantic interest to try a bit harder to earn her love and respect. That word that would follow her until the end – "mature" – still applied here, but this time it applied more to how she played with and expanded upon her vocal lyrical interpretations than it did her sexuality. She was growing up, even though she had been treated like an adult for much of her childhood.

The tragedy of Aaliyah is there are so many "What ifs?" that will forever remain unresolved. The upside is that, at least professionally, she managed to persevere in spite of the many people and institutions that failed her personally. Her final albums deserve to be heard in this way, and her legacy deserves to be remembered this way, too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.