A look back 20 years to the debut album of Aaliyah, the R. Kelly scandal, and her Timbaland-produced follow-up that set the R&B format on fire
On the heels of her best-selling debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, fifteen-year-old Aaliyah was rocked by a sex scandal that would have crushed a lesser talent. But breaking ties with her label and former producer and lover R. Kelly afforded the teenage singer to create a new musical life for herself. She joined forces with production/songwriting duo Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who crafted a set of funky and futuristic soul tracks that took audiences and stale R&B radio by storm. Aaliyah showed strength and resilience—and effortless cool—and went on to garner multiplatinum sales, becoming a huge star. But her comeback was short-lived. At twenty-two, just as she released her third album and started an acting career, Aaliyah lost her life in a plane crash. However, icons never die, and her musical legacy endures.
It was the last weekend before Labor Day 2001, and the sidewalks of New York City were brimming with Saturday-night folks looking for fun. While a decade before the Meatpacking District was literally just that—with refrigerated trucks parked in front of dingy warehouses and the cobblestone streets sticky with animal blood—by the new millennium, those same blocks had transformed into a chic section of town overflowing with boutiques, restaurants, and clubs blasting the songs of summer that included P. Diddy’s Black-rock single “Bad Boy for Life” and Destiny’s Child’s pop-tart anthem “Bootylicious.”
As I was passing one trendy spot, pop sensation Aaliyah’s latest single, “We Need a Resolution,” blared from the speakers. With a voice that was shy and sexy, the mesmerizing track was the first from her self-titled third album, released a month before. Produced by frequent collaborator Timbaland—whose signature cyberfunk explorations into sound put an electrifying mojo on Black radio in the mid-’90s beginning with Aaliyah’s sophomore album, 1996’s One in a Million—her cool, broken-hearted soprano blended perfectly with the heat generated from his funky, futurist machine dreams.
Like Rachael, the emotional android in Blade Runner, Aaliyah became a cyborg chanteuse, a digital diva for a new generation of soul children. With the music being stuck in a rut of stylistic nostalgia and neo-soul mania, One in a Million made R&B’s potential feel limitless again, as it pulled listeners into the future.
Coming a year before Björk’s equally brilliant 1995 album Post, Aaliyah’s debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, came from a teenage girl from the D who brought the rhythmic weirdness first.
In 1995, Aaliyah Dana Haughton met Timbaland when she was sixteen after leaving her first label, Jive Records, amid much controversy of an illicit marriage to her then twenty-seven-year-old producer R. Kelly, who’d written most of the material on Age. Although both sides denied the allegations, a marriage license was later published in Vibe magazine.
While the “pied piper of R&B”—as Kelly proclaimed himself—had gained much fame since the release of his multiplatinum 12 Play album in late 1993, and was given a pass by the press and his fans, Aaliyah was portrayed as a Lolita seductress. When her picture was shown at the 1995 Soul Train Awards (she wasn’t in attendance), audience members booed.
Years later, allegations of Kelly’s alleged sexual misconduct continue to overshadow his music, including an infamous golden-shower sex tape, a housekeeper who sued him for sexual harassment, and rumors of millions doled out to settle “dozens” of “harrowing lawsuits” brought by scores of underage girls the musician reportedly sexually abused.
Although Age was a platinum-seller for Jive, the label allowed Aaliyah to be released from her contract. Her management company, Blackground, owned and operated by her mother’s brother, Barry Hankerson, who also managed R. Kelly, signed her with Atlantic Records. At the urging of Atlantic vice-president of A&R Craig Kallman (who in 2014 is the label’s chairman), Tim (aka Timbaland) flew to Aaliyah’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan, with fellow producer, songwriter, arranger, and rapper Missy Elliott.
Initially, Aaliyah’s second album was supposed to be helmed by the jiggy prince of production Puff Daddy (P. Diddy) and his trademarked, sample-heavy touch with the Hitmen team (Chucky Thompson, Deric Angelettie, Ron Lawrence, Stevie J., and others), but it never happened.
“I went to Puff’s studio in Trinidad for a week,” Aaliyah said in 1996. “We started working together, but we couldn’t finish the songs on time. I had to leave, because I had to go to Atlanta to record with Jermaine Dupri.”
Setting up shop in Detroit at Vanguard Studios, which was owned and operated by producer/guitarist Michael J. Powell, who’d overseen Aaliyah’s demo material when she was twelve, Tim and Missy went to work. “The first song we recorded was the title track [‘One in a Million’],” Timbaland told me in 1999. “From our first session, I was blown away by how talented she was.” While Missy later claimed that “If Your Girl Only Knew” was the song recorded during their first session, what remains undisputed was the closeness the trio felt during that time.
The Black noise duo christened the beautiful Brooklyn-born, Detroit-reared singer “Baby Girl,” and they became inseparable. Staying at Vanguard for a week, the three of them later flew, according to Missy Elliot, on “a little, little plane,” to Pyramid Studios in Ithaca, New York, to finish their work. The end results were the six groundbreaking tracks and two interludes from her second disc, One in a Million.
Legendary engineer Jimmy Douglass (who worked on countless Atlantic R&B classics) connected with them in Ithaca. “Aaliyah was coming off such a big debut,” he says, “so it would’ve been all right for her to be bratty, but she wasn’t. She was such a nice human being. Aaliyah was very quiet, but when she sang, she sounded great. I was impressed.”
In July 1996, a month before One in a Million was released, I interviewed Aaliyah at the Sea Grill, a restaurant at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. Having first met her two years before, I realized that Aaliyah was always a sweetheart, yet very guarded. After a sex scandal that might’ve squashed a lesser talent, she was obviously resilient. She answered questions thoroughly but tried not to disclose too much about R. Kelly or the alleged marriage.
“I faced the adversity,” Aaliyah said. “I could’ve broken down, I could’ve gone and hid in the closet and said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ But I love singing, and I wasn’t going to let that mess stop me. I got a lot of support from my fans and that inspired me to put that behind me, be a stronger person, and put my all into making One in a Million.”
Sitting next to her equally beautiful mother, Aaliyah was radiant, coy, and confident as she talked about Tim and Missy’s production skills. “At first, Tim and Missy were skeptical if I would like their work, but I thought it was tight, just ridiculous,” she said. “Their sound was different and unique, and that’s what appealed to me.
“Before we got together, I talked to them on the phone and told them what I wanted. I said, ‘You guys know I have a street image, but there is a sexiness to it, and I want my songs to complement that’; I told them that before I even met them. Once I said that, I didn’t have to say anything else. Everything they brought me was the bomb.”
Besides Tim and Missy, she also worked with producers Kay Gee (Naughty by Nature), Daryl Simmons (L.A. Reid and Babyface), and Vincent Herbert (Toni Braxton), who laced her dope remake of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Got to Give It Up,” which featured a smooth Slick Rick rap. Aaliyah explained how the remake came about: “I wanted some real party songs, so when my uncle played me that [original track], I thought of how I could make it different. Slick Rick [who’d been in jail] was on work release at the time, so Vincent got him on the song.
“I don’t know how Marvin Gaye fans will react, but I hope they like it,” she continued. “I always think it’s a great compliment when people remake songs. I hope one day after I’m not here that people will cover my songs.”
Aaliyah’s uncle and manager Barry Hankerson was the person most responsible for making his niece a star. “Barry was bringing Aaliyah to the studio to record when she was twelve years old,” remembers producer and Vanguard owner Michael J. Powell via telephone from his home in Detroit. “At the time, Barry was trying to get Aaliyah a deal with MCA, and he came to me to make her demos.”
Powell was a Chicago native whose studio, Vanguard, was a place that made sophisticated soul. Best known for the lush retro-nuevo production on Anita Baker’s incredible Rapture album in 1986, Powell has also worked with Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and Gladys Knight, who was married to Barry Hankerson from 1974 to 1978. “As a producer, Michael is a very patient person with great ears,” says Bill Banfield, composer and professor at the Berklee College of Music. A friend of Powell’s, he has also recorded with him. “Vanguard was the second generation of Motown with a live band, polished arrangements, and Detroit soul.”
Powell, who is still working in Detroit, recalls working with the singer back before her debut: “That was the time before Aaliyah went to work with R. Kelly, and she sang in a full, powerful voice that was like Whitney Houston’s. We recorded a few covers—‘The Greatest Love of All,’ ‘Over the Rainbow,’ and ‘My Funny Valentine,’ which she had sung on Star Search. She could handle big ballads, and she had great range. I have heard her do things the public have never heard. She was a natural.”
One of Aaliyah’s first professional gigs was singing with her aunt Gladys Knight in Las Vegas. “We performed at Bally’s five nights a week with a little break in between,” Aaliyah said in 1994. “Singer David Peaston [whom Hankerson also managed] opened the show, and then Gladys would bring me out to sing ‘Home’ with her, and then we did ‘Believe in Yourself.’ I loved it; for me, it was like being on tour.”
In 1996, while Aaliyah cited “One in a Million” as her favorite song, the label chose to release “If Your Girl Only Knew” as the first single. However, having debuted in 1994 with the more traditional soul stylings of R. Kelly writing and producing Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, not everyone was pleased with the singer’s new direction.
“Me and Tim were so excited, because this was the first production we were doing outside of DeVante’s camp,” Missy explained. In addition to Jodeci and their famed producer DeVante Swing, the aforementioned camp of young upstarts included Sista (Missy’s rap quartet), Ginuwine, Magoo, Playa, and Tweet. “We were only supposed to do one record, but Craig [Kallman] kept asking us for one more; but, when they played [the singles] ‘If Your Girl Only Knew’ and ‘One in a Million’ for radio programmers, they were afraid to embrace it. They said the beats were too different and it wouldn’t fit in with their playlist. They wanted something that sounded like Puffy.”
Still, when a few braver souls started playing the record, it just took off. “That album broke ground with its experimental tempos and drum programming and hip-hop soul songwriting,” says Jason King, cultural critic, musician, and the director of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.
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