It was such an enjoyable experience having the ability to finally hear Aaliyah’s One during a Million album from start to end this past weekend, her lilting vocals pouring smoothly through my Sonos speakers. This was a flash fan are waiting on for years, as behind-the-scenes business wrangling has long kept the bulk of her relatively small discography off most streaming platforms. And as of Aug. 20, just a couple of days before the 20th anniversary of her death during a plane crash, it had been finally here, her second studio album available to enjoy and rewind and skip ahead through and immerse one’s self in, altogether its sonic glory.
Her third and final studio album is about to arrive within the fall, and an equilibrium of sorts will have ultimately been restored. Because for much too long, only her first and most fraught album, Age Ain’t Nothing But variety, had been widely available, an incontrovertible fact that felt sort of a slap within the face to her legacy. In death, as in life, Aaliyah has deserved better.
But what, exactly, does “better” entail? Especially within the last few years, some things became undeniably obvious: She deserved to possess been better protected by those around her, to possess 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 various other allegations that have arisen over the years) under the rug.
More difficult, a minimum of on behalf of me as both a lover and critic, is to reconcile that early a part of her career with the remainder of her body of labor. a neighborhood of me would love nothing quite to never need to mention Kelly – who would later pass the ghastly nickname “The Pied Piper of R&B” – when discussing Aaliyah. It remains infuriating that (alleged) victims of sexual assault are forever linked in name only to their abusers, often to the detriment and overshadowing of everything else they accomplished. But while Age Ain’t Nothing But variety is forever tainted within the minds of fans, it’s impossible to ignore how crucial it had been in establishing Aaliyah’s continuous appeal whilst she distanced herself from Kelly.
It’s been said repeatedly before, but really it cannot be overstated: “One during a Million” sounds as if it had been predicting the future; indeed, it seems like now. In Timbaland’s skittering production, Missy Elliott’s staccato phrasing of the lyrics, and Aaliyah’s mellifluous interpretation you’ll hear the descendants that have followed in their wake – Drake, Jhené Aiko, Syd, Normani. Her various looks within 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 appeared 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 also, from “If Your Girl Only Knew,” a self-assured midtempo joint during which she boasts how she won’t “be no fool” for a man who’s trying to cheat together 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 within the ’90s like I used to be, in fact, you were likely to seem at her and be struck by how cool she seemed, stupidly 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 youth is in a position to say that much control? Yet she wasn’t even 18 when she recorded One during a Million.
That’s what made her special – she stood out from the balladeers of the age (the Mariahs, Whitneys, En Vogues) and therefore the teen pop stars (Brandy, Britney, Christina), partially because she seemed in command without having to try to an excessive amount of. Her theatrics were subdued and contained, more slinky and fewer in-your-face. In hindsight, though, I’ve begun to wonder what it meant that she was introduced to the planet as being fully formed, despite being a young teenager, an age where most are still trying to work themselves out (and usually awkwardly so).
Female teen pop stars usually emerge with a touch of innocence baked into their public persona, whilst they playfully suggest their own sexuality and fuel many a boy’s or man’s sexual fantasy: Britney Spears is that the prototypical example here (the schoolgirl outfit and pigtails in “…Baby another Time”; that infamous Rolling Stone cover with the lingerie and stuffed Teletubby), but this was also true of Spears’ contemporaries within the ’90s and early ’00s, from Christina Aguilera to Mandy Moore to Jessica Simpson. The playbook for the most important of these stars appeared to be this: Breakout by towing the road between virginal and sexy (and piss off religious groups and middle-class suburban parents within the process), then, a few years later, when you’re in your late teens or early 20s, enter your “mature” period, i.e. going full-on sexpot. Suggest a sweaty, dance-orgy in your video; get dirty. Get blamed for corrupting America’s tweens.
Aaliyah was rarely granted the chance to display that sort of innocence – she was branded as “mature” out the gate. From the start of her career, the dichotomy between her actual and perceived age was integral to her image. it had been right there within the title of that debut album; within the lyrics of that song, where she seductively coos that “age ain’t nothin’ but variety, throwing down ain’t nothin’ but a thang.” In early interviews her exact age was usually treated as a jokey secret – “I won’t reveal it, but I’m in my teens, I’m still in high school”; “You know I do not tell my age, it is a secret,” she’d coyly respond, with a giggle and a smile, when asked about how old she was.
Clashing with the acknowledgment of her youth was how Kelly and her management team played down that crucial facet of her age, within the way she swaggered and sauntered within the baggy outfits, dark sunglasses, and swoop of hair draped over one eye as if she were a neo-noir enchantress from the ‘hood. (Veronica Lake was a frequent point of reference for critics describing her look and mysterious aura.) the general public just about accepted and played alongside it. Billboard’s review aged Ain’t Nothing But variety described her as an “urban teenaged siren”; a review within the Washington Post held her up as a refreshing divergence from other teen stars of the instant, because unlike them, “she doesn’t attempt to assume emotions she’s never felt or combat material outside her range of experience” – implying that the image of Aaliyah as a totally sexualized woman (not a 15-year-old girl) with experience “go[ing] all the way” had been so strong at the time on are normalized and etched in stone. When that is the public’s first impression of you during this business, there’s ostensibly no going back.
And so she didn’t – instead, she continued to create upon that persona while leaving Kelly behind. If One during a Million largely eschews the ickiness that lies at the core aged Ain’t Nothing But variety, it’s because that Svengali wasn’t involved, and Aaliyah was a touch bit older. Still, there’s that tension and looming sadness over the thought that the singer was forced to get older timely. The evolution from Age-era Aaliyah to at least one during a Million-era Aaliyah wasn’t such an enormous leap stylistically; she was still being put forth and received as 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 1 during a Million, while noting that since her debut, the singer had “encourage[d] Lolita fantasies.” (Hampton would later continue 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” together with her, and had to “fight” to regulate his attraction to her. (By all accounts, their friendship remained platonic and professional.)
Aaliyah’s was special trapping of fame as a teenaged female pop star – rather than dodging invasive questions on whether or not she was a virgin or if she’d gotten a boob job, she dodged questions on an illegal marriage to a way older man while few seemed disturbed by the very fact that this was even an issue to be asked within the first place. (Most interviewers, in fact, seemed titillated by it.) Neither scenario may be a healthy one for a lass to possess to affect, but a minimum of within the case of Aaliyah, the divide seems stark: to the general 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 isn’t protected, because the many accounts from the young girls and ladies featured in Surviving R. Kelly have made clear.
And yet, there is a narrative of resilience that will be gleaned from One during a Million, one that unearths power within the singer’s creative choices over her image and sound post-Kelly. She seemingly took the parts that felt the foremost like herself – the air of mystery, the laid-back vibes – and reworked them to assist pioneer a replacement way forward in pop and R&B. Her boldness feels less put-upon and more natural, just 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 really like to concentrate thereto during this way, because I remember what it had been wishing to be 16, 17-years-old, exploring my very 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,” as an example, she expresses hesitancy in starting a replacement relationship while coaxing her romantic interest to undertake a touch harder to earn her love and respect. That word that might follow her until the top – “mature” – still applied here, but this point applied more to how she played with and expanded upon her vocal lyrical interpretations than it did her sexuality. She was growing up, albeit she had been treated as an adult for much of her childhood.
The tragedy of Aaliyah is there are numerous “What ifs?” which will forever remain unresolved. The upside is that a minimum of professionally, she managed to persevere in spite of the various people and institutions that failed her personally. Her final albums need to be heard this way, and her legacy deserves to be remembered in this manner, too.