The Anniversary

Aaliyah Turns 20


It wasn’t until a decade into Aaliyah’s career that showing both of her eyes became a habitual pattern. On the covers of her first two albums, 1994’s Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number and 1996’s One In A Million, the singer once dubbed “The Princess of R&B” for her ultra-cool laidback demeanor is guarded under her signature black shades. Not until the fearless photo that graced her final, eponymous LP — released 20 years ago this week — was she no longer hidden in plain sight.

The public got a glimpse of Detroit-raised vocalist Aaliyah Haughton in her adolescence during a 1989 episode of Star Search, where she performed a honeyed rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Funny Valentine.” Aaliyah was snubbed in a fashion similar to a pre-Destiny’s Child Girls Tyme — who were rejected on Star Search four years later — but by her 1994 debut album she gracefully repositioned herself for stardom.

At 15 years old, Aaliyah joined the ranks of young female R&B acts like Brandy and Monica, known for their girl-next-door dynamism and smooth lyrics that nestled between teenage sensibilities and self-assured womanhood. Under the guidance of her uncle, Blackground Records founder Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah was introduced to R&B crooner R. Kelly, fresh from his unapologetically sex-amped debut 12 Play. The 27-year-old became Aaliyah’s mentor, songwriter, and executive producer of Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Fans kept a keen eye trained on the duo’s peculiar relationship but were were still aghast when their marriage certificate surfaced in the December 1994 issue of VIBE.

Her family was livid. The marriage was annulled shortly thereafter, and Aaliyah’s parents forbade Kelly from working with their daughter again. True to her demure persona, Aaliyah pivoted to reclusivity, giving teleprompter-esque responses during interviews, careful not to reveal details about the relationship and her private life in general. In her final magazine profile in the November 2001 issue of VIBE, the singer talked about her personal autonomy: “People feel like they own you in this business, and, to a certain degree they do. But there’s a part of me that will always be just for me.”

Despite her preference for obscurity, Aaliyah soon had a new music camp to trust. Joining the Superfriends — an R&B and hip-hop enclave of artists including Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Ginuwine founded by Jodeci member DeVante Swing — Aaliyah embarked on a period of rediscovery. By 1998 she was entering adulthood, still nascent and crafting her bonafide sound two albums into her career.

Enter Static Major, the Superfriends’ in-house songwriter, producer, and member of male R&B trio Playa, known for being the elusive pen behind “So Anxious” and “Pony” by Ginuwine. The two connected on a series of soundtrack hits — 1998’s bouncy Dr. Dolittle standout “Are You That Somebody?” plus two tracks from 2000’s Romeo Must Die, “Try Again” and the DMX collaboration “Come Back In One Piece” — but Aaliyah and Static had yet to build a cohesive body of work together. Following the sonic direction of maturation, the singer tapped Static as the lead songwriter of Aaliyah. Yasmine Shemesh explained the appeal of their new sound in an MTV News article earlier this year:

Aaliyah was an inspiration for kids coming of age everywhere who saw glimpses of themselves in her. Considering the ingenuity of Aaliyah, it’s no wonder. The production was mind-bending, characterized by a cybernated sonic freakiness, and the way Aaliyah pulled humanity out of digitized ones and zeroes is a master class in nuance.

Aaliyah aimed to demystify listeners who probably didn’t connect with the singer’s reclusiveness before. She appeared more confident and traded out her former tomboy attire for a sexier appearance. In turn, Static drew inspiration from Aaliyah’s newfound bravado, translating it into song. On album opener “We Need A Resolution,” the singer teasingly allures a romantic partner though Timbaland’s hypnotic production, with a disorienting arrangement that samples “Tricks Of The Trade” from John Ottman’s Incognito score. In the music video, Aaliyah’s hair — previously covering her left eye a la Veronica Lake — is worn in sleek, glossy waves as the singer cradles a snake around her neck.

As a lead single, “We Need A Resolution” was an unexpected turn from the smooth aesthetic Aaliyah had cultivated. Those in the studio observed the serendipity between Aaliyah’s vocals and Major’s sensual composition. In a 2016 VIBE article, producer Bud’da spoke about their recording process:

Static was a muse for her, if that’s the right word. He was able to embody what it is that she was thinking. They could sit down and have conversations and laugh and certain things come about from the relation of it all, the relation of being cool. Fitting like a glove was one thing that was unique about Baby Girl. Aaliyah was able to articulate what it is that he wrote and it’d be her. It’s not an easy thing to do unless you are exceptionally talented.

In fact, their joint effort was so perfect that Static’s voice remained on the album’s final mix. Instead of eschewing Static’s reference tracks, Aaliyah stacked her vocals on top of his, the two blending organically from a male and female perspective. Originally intended as Aaliyah‘s lead single, deep cut “Loose Rap” exemplifies the atmospheric production and ethereal harmony between Aaliyah and Static that would become the album’s signatures.

The final recording stages of Aaliyah occurred simultaneously with Aaliyah wrapping her second film Queen Of The Damned, where she starred as Akasha, a vampiric pre-Egyptian queen. Audiences had raved over Aaliyah’s natural charisma as Trish O’Day in 2000 action film Romeo Must Die, which was leading to further high-profile castings at the time of her tragic death. Nona Gaye’s part as Zee in The Matrix: Reloaded was originally supposed to go to Aaliyah.

But if Aaliyah’s screen work was just beginning to show what a multifaceted actress she could be, her spellbinding range was captured by Static in song form. The ballad “Never No More” chronicled a toxic relationship on the brink of domestic violence, while “Read Between The Lines” cleared up murkiness about cues of infidelity. On the lighter side, she teased a suitor for cheesy pick-up lines on “Extra Smooth,” and “Those Were The Days” was a nostalgic fantasy through round-the-way love. Her vocals were poised and sweet on “It’s Whatever,” the minimal, understated midpoint of the album, but on “More Than A Woman,” she exuded a one-of-a-kind resilience. Timbaland’s mesmerizing, synth-heavy production centers Aaliyah as heroic rather than a damsel in distress.

Static ultimately penned 10 of the album’s 14 songs plus several other bonus tracks strewn across various digital and international editions. In a 2011 Fader article, journalist Julianne Escobedo Shepherd succinctly defined the chemistry between singer and songwriter:

When songwriter Stephen “Static Major” Garrett’s lyrics converged with Aaliyah’s voice it created a vortex. Not a “matter turns to nothingness,” vacuum-type of vortex, but a supernovaical vortex that housed and churned all the human emotions generated by their chemistry. Love. Sensuality. Yearning. Devotion. And mystery, above all. Static was a verbal alchemist, taking what could have been the tritest sentiments and handling them with the deftest touch, rendering them ephemeral with melody.

The vena cava of Aaliyah was easily “Rock The Boat,” a Carribean-tinged midtempo groove where the singer forwent teenage crushes in favor of seductive commands. The song rocked airwaves and music video countdowns alike for its iconic island visuals, a steamy routine choreographed by dancer Fatima Robinson that would be Aaliyah’s final video before her untimely death on August 25, 2001 at just 22 years old. After filming for the video wrapped, Aaliyah’s plane back from the Bahamas crashed, killing her and everyone else onboard. As fans mourned globally, Aaliyah — which debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 and climbed to #1 after her death — sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, influencing an entire generation of progressive Black artists.

Really, as Rawiya Kameir pointed out in a 2019 retrospective for Pitchfork, Aaliyah’s influence was evident right away:

In reviews and profiles from the time, Aaliyah is praised, at the expense of some of her peers, for eschewing the “candy-coated” sound and style of the charts; actually, she was simply pre-empting the trends many of her peers would eventually try on. The glossy girl- and boy-band era was at its peak at the turn of the century, and before pop acts would attempt to replace that sheen with cool, calling on “urban” producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes, Aaliyah modeled the perfect balance of pop, R&B, and hip-hop. Months before Britney Spears made headlines for performing with a snake at the MTV VMA awards in 2001, Aaliyah had done it in the video for “We Need A Resolution.”

Despite her music’s frustrating absence from streaming services, reverence for Aaliyah among music’s biggest stars would only become more overt as the years went on. Drake, who for a while was trying to shepherd a posthumous album into the world, even got her face tattooed on his body. These days her spirit remains undeniable and resoundingly felt through the music of Kehlani, H.E.R., the Weeknd, Tinashe, and other Black artists pushing past outdated expectations of hip-hop and R&B. Her landmark final album redefined R&B through celestial futurism, lending brave new eyes to the genre’s next generation.

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