Designing the cover for Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled release and dealing with the death of an icon

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Aaliyah

August 25, 2001. I am driving on the Bay Bridge, on my way to celebrate my birthday, when I noticed that the radio stations were playing a lot of her songs. Then came a call from the A&R at Virgin Records; she was crying…

 

Originally published as “The Art of Aaliyah” in Wax Poetics Issue 59

 

Years earlier, when I was a student at UC Berkeley, I distinctly remember hearing “If Your Girl Only Knew” when it debuted on KMEL. I had never heard R&B that sounded so dark, tough, and catchy. That slithering bass line…sinister and sexy. A caller came on the air, tripping over his words with excitement: “Do I like it??? Man, that joint is h-h-hot-hotter than f-f-flap-flapjacks on-on-on a grid-grid—on a griddle!” I’m not sure what that meant, but the DJs played the song again anyway. It was as if she and Timbaland had somehow traveled to the future and brought a new sound back with them. I wanted to be a part of that future.

I eventually became part of her team, and years later I found myself tasked with creating the cover for her upcoming self-titled album. A lot had changed since her debut. She performed at the Academy Awards, was nominated for a Grammy, starred in her first major motion picture, and executive-produced the soundtrack. She had come a long way from the enigmatic “Back & Forth” girl hidden behind baggy jeans and sunglasses, and she was on the cusp of entering a new chapter. I felt that the album cover needed to be an announcement of her arrival as a woman. I had poured through hundreds of photos from some of the most notable photographers of the day, before finally settling on a photo by Albert Watson that just felt like the one. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but I decided to tint the photo red. Most of my artistic decisions are based on instinct over reason, and it just felt like it needed to be red.

After her passing, the album cover felt strange to me. The album was a commercial and critical success, and she suddenly became immortalized in that image, a new icon trapped in time. I remember looking at it closely, and it suddenly felt like something from a distant past, even though the photo was taken less than a year before. It made me sad to look at it.

Time races forward. It’s 2014, and her energy is still here, from Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé to cover artist Kelela. The Arctic Monkeys name-dropped her as an influence on their recent record. When the band Haim asked me to direct a dance video, we watched “Try Again” repeatedly and talked about how no one made dancing look so effortlessly cool. We immediately knew we had to get her close friend and choreographer Fatima Robinson on board.

I don’t think she could have ever predicted the influence she would have on our culture years later. I believe the key was her openness. Her mind was open enough to be a Trent Reznor fan in the hip-hop world, during a time where music and people were more segregated into genres. She had an openness to create a new sound with Timbaland, introducing futuristic synths and unusual drum patterns into R&B. She had the openness to play an interracial love story in her big-screen debut. She was open enough to trust me, an unknown artist, to design her album art and direct her TV spot. The future is unknown. The future is openness.

There are times we put out art for others to simply enjoy, but sometimes that art unintentionally works as a beacon that draws other artists in. I’m glad I responded to her beacon and rode the wave with her for that brief period of time. Without that initial push, I would have never been able to create with Julian Casablancas, Mark Ronson, Daft Punk, or any of the other brilliant artists I’ve had the honor of collaborating with.

The current of time continues to move us forward. As we journey into this new era of music with diminishing constraints of genres and race, a world of marriage equality, I can’t help but wonder what kind of art she would be creating if she was still here today.

When I look at this cover image now, I see it differently once again. I see it as a celebration. She is in the moment, exuding confidence and maturity. She no longer feels trapped in time; she feels alive. The red makes more sense to me now. It feels like love and passion. It’s a color that has reappeared a lot in my work since then.

Time never stops. As we all continue to make our waves now and into the future, let’s do it with the same openness to embrace the unknown possibilities as she did…

AALIYAH.

This was a TV spot to promote Aaliyah’s self-titled album. She wanted to do an anime-styled clip after seeing an illustration I had done for her limited edition album cover. It aired on MTV and BET in the throughout the summer of 2001.

Director: Warren Fu
Producer: Alex Altrocchi
Animation Director: (the AMAZING) Robert Valley
Cell Animation: Wild Brain Studios
Client: Virgin Records / Blackground Entertainment

aaliyah special edition cover

Special-edition cover by Warren Fu.

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