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
By 2001, Aaliyah released a handful of Timbaland-produced, soundtrack-supported singles that pushed the experimental sound even further—including the Grammy-nominated scorchers “Are You That Somebody?” from 1998’s Dr. Dolittle and “Try Again” from her costarring vehicle Romeo Must Die in 2000. As pop critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote in 2001 in the New York Times, “ ‘Try Again’ helped smuggle the innovative techniques of electronic dance music onto the pop charts, establishing Aaliyah as pop’s most futuristic star.”
The lyrics of both songs were penned by former Playa member Static Major, who also wrote “We Need a Resolution.” Like Missy and Timbaland, the songwriter was once a protégé of Jodeci producer DeVante Swing. Engineer Jimmy Douglass, who has worked side by side with Timbaland on every production since the early days, says of the late songwriter, who died in 2008 from myasthenia gravis: “Static was like a brother to Tim, and he knew exactly how to write to Tim’s music. The first record they did together was Ginuwine’s ‘Pony,’ and that led to their [musical] history.
“We recorded ‘Are You That Somebody?’ at Capitol Records’ studio in Los Angeles,” Douglass recalls, “and it was a soup-to-nuts session, which means we did the entire song in one session. Wrote it, tracked it, and mixed it from 11:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m.; the next to last thing we added was the sound of the baby, and the very last time was Tim saying, ‘Dirty South.’ It was a union studio, so they weren’t used to working overnight; we were trying to finish that song as quick as possible.”
Douglass also engineered the “Try Again” sessions, which began with Static writing a song that was inspirational. Recorded in New York City at Sound on Sound Studios, “Try Again,” as Douglass recalls, “was originally written to inspire young people, but Barry [Hankerson] heard it and told them, ‘It’s got to be about love.’ The melody and hook were the same, so Static changed the lyrics and it became a love song.”
In addition, Aaliyah had begun an acting career that was taking off. Cast in the Joel Silver–produced kung-fu crime flick Romeo Must Die as well as the Anne Rice vampire thriller Queen of the Damned and the Matrix sequels, Aaliyah hadn’t released a full-length album in the five years. “I wanted to take a break after One in a Million to just relax, think about how I wanted to approach the next album,” she told journalist Elon Johnson that April. “Then, when I was ready to start back up, Romeo happened, and so I had to take another break and do that film and then do the soundtrack, then promote it. The break turned into a longer break than I anticipated.”
Back in the Meatpacking District that August night in 2001, I gathered with friends at the then-popular club APT where DJ Chairman Mao spun old-school hip-hop and soul as high-heeled girls sipped crimson-colored cosmopolitans.
Two hours later, a strange vibe could be felt in the wood-paneled room as folks began looking strangely at their Blackberries, pagers, and cell phones. Standing beside me, a female friend suddenly blurted, “Oh my God, it says here that Aaliyah died in a plane crash.” Seconds later, along with other women in the room, she began to weep.
The accident occurred when she and her team were returning to Miami, Florida, from the Bahamas, where she shot the video for “Rock the Boat,” the third single from Aaliyah, her third album finally released in 2001. Their small twin-engine Cessna plane was several hundred pounds overweight and crashed after takeoff, exploding on impact. The pilot was found to have had cocaine and alcohol in his system and had falsified data in order to receive his FAA license.
At the age of twenty-two, Aaliyah Dana Haughton became the latest pop star to enter that rock-and-soul heaven that the Righteous Brothers sang about so many years before. Glancing around at the crying females, most no older than Aaliyah herself, it became obvious to me that she was much more than a star—she was one of them.
Harlem resident and former Jive Records executive Jeff Sledge, who had known the songstress since she was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, had returned from the movies with his fiancée when he heard the news. “It was supposed to be hip-hop night on Hot 97, but they were playing a mix of Aaliyah songs instead,” he recalls thirteen years later. “And then [DJ] Red Alert announced that she had died. I was stunned.”
Of course, he wasn’t the only one. For days, the world mourned the young star with television specials, radio interviews with her contemporaries and friends, and a candlelight vigil in front of her alma mater, the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts. Furthermore, her stunning movie-star features were plastered on the covers of newspapers and magazines.
Although she had the looks of a femme fatale, she was a sweet girl who’d been forced to grow up much too fast and died too young. However, as we all know, icons never die, because the images are forever. In her short lifetime, Aaliyah must’ve had her picture taken a million times, made countless videos, and created music that is still relevant to fans as well as to fellow pop idols Beyoncé, Drake, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and others.
“There are so many artists trying to re-create the Aaliyah vibe in their music,” says singer Courtney Noelle, who was in seventh grade when the Black pop princess died. Growing up on the East Side of Pittsburgh, Noelle made up dances to “One in a Million” while watching the video constantly. “Aaliyah was so relatable and cool; she wasn’t over-sexualized, so we didn’t worry about Mom disapproving,” Noelle continues. “She sang, danced, and acted, but she did it all so effortlessly. She was just so beautiful and graceful.”
While One in a Million was a landmark, the adolescent wonderfulness of Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number is often overlooked when Aaliyah’s small canon of work is examined. Of course, as Jason King points out, “Age has been marred by their troubling marriage and the [statutory] rape/pedophilia allegations that would come later. I don’t think we can now hear Age, particularly given the title, without taking the issue of teenage rape into account. So when I’m listening to Age, I’m struggling to try to listen to it out of context, but mostly I’m hearing R. Kelly as an alleged predator presenting to us his sonic and musical vision of how he wanted Aaliyah to exist in the commercial marketplace.”
Still, for me, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number connects with many memories of the ’90s soul years that gave us debuts from Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, D’Angelo, Faith Evans, Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and the era’s most successful singer, writer, and producer, Robert Sylvester Kelly.
In 1991, R. Kelly and Public Announcement signed to Jive Records a few years before Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys took them mainstream. Better known for being the home of top-tier hip-hop acts A Tribe Called Quest, Boogie Down Productions, Schoolly D, and E-40, the Jive label was put into the business of soul by the success of Kelly’s post–New Jack Swing sound on Born into the 90’s and 12 Play.
“Barry Hankerson had been talking about his niece Aaliyah since she was twelve, but [label owner Clive Calder] thought she was too young,” says A&R man Jeff Sledge, who began working at the label in 1992. “When she turned fourteen, Clive agreed, but only under the condition that R. Kelly produced the whole album. Musically, it just made sense.”
For Robert Kelly, 1993 was a hell of a year. A bittersweet twelve months that included a substantial development in his R&B sound, the death of his beloved mother, Joanne, and the success of his album 12 Play, which was praised by critics and fans alike. It was also the year he began working on the material that would eventually become Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.
Although R. Kelly attempted to uphold his Chi-Town swagger after the death of his mother, the man was a mental mess. There were bizarre reports of the singer locking himself in hotel bathrooms during press days, blowing off Rolling Stone photo shoots, and sleeping in the closet. “His mother was the sweetest lady,” Jeff Sledge says. “When she died, he had a nervous breakdown. During that time, he was also making Age, so Aaliyah was always around to comfort him. After his mother’s passing, all he felt he had left in life was his music and working with Aaliyah.”
R. Kelly’s love for music began when he was a fifteen-year-old student at Chicago’s Kenwood Academy where he encountered famed music instructor Lena McLin. The niece of gospel innovator Thomas A. Dorsey, she taught her students opera, gospel, jazz, and soul. As a child growing up during the Depression, she lived with Reverend Dorsey and played in church. While other girls wanted dolls, Lena McLin wanted sheet music.
McLin taught R. Kelly everything she knew about the keyboards, pushing him by anointing her student “the next Stevie Wonder.” Encouraging the poor lanky boy from the South Side to put down his basketball and sit at the piano, she started him writing songs as well as teaching him discipline. “He didn’t have much,” McLin explained to me in 1995 in a Chinese restaurant in the Hyde Park section of Chicago. “He came from a terrible ghetto and sometimes wouldn’t have the clothes the other kids had, but I had a vision of what he was going to be. The Lord told me he was a genius, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
So, what exactly is a genius? “A genius lives in the present day, has studied the past, and preconceived the future,” explained McLin. “Robert’s mission is to bring back the real essence, the real creativity, the real soul to the music.” Although Robert dropped out of Kenwood when he was seventeen, he already had five hundred completed songs in his portfolio, according to McLin. “Well, I don’t think it was five hundred, but it was a lot,” R. Kelly told me in 1995 while mastering his third album at the Chicago Recording Company (CRC). Founded in 1975, it is billed as the largest studio in the Midwest. The studio became R. Kelly’s main sound factory in the early years.
For R. Kelly, the state-of-the-art room became the rhythmic cathedral where he would expand on the musical legacy of Windy City soul—his city where the Chi-Lites once doo-wopped on street corners, Leroy Hutson made gangster-lean tracks for Curtom, and a young rapper named Common was recording his Resurrection album somewhere across town.
“Miss McLin started me writing every day,” Kelly said. “I’d write a song and she’d tell me it was the most beautiful song she’d ever heard. She also started me messin’ around with the piano. I just wanted to make her happy.” Growing up in the notorious Ida B. Wells Homes, Kelly found those streets a lot more dangerous than the days of Cooley High.
“I had a lot of ups and downs, lots of lessons, and trials and tribulations,” Kelly said. Avoiding the gangs, he spent much time at a neighbor Willie Pearl’s house playing her keyboards. One of the first songs he wrote, “Orphanage,” was inspired by a television program. Singing in L stations throughout the city, he waited for strangers to drop change in his chitlin bucket.
Kelly was discovered by house-music pioneer and former Trax Records employee DJ Wayne Williams. After seeing him perform original material at a friend’s barbecue, Williams had to convince his new bosses at Jive Records to sign him: “I was constantly telling them that R. Kelly was the shit, but it took Barry Weiss, the president of the label, coming to Chicago, before they finally said yes. Jive had full confidence in him and gave R. Kelly creative freedom.” While Kelly’s debut, Born into the 90’s, sounded as though it was jacked wholesale from the Teddy Riley/Aaron Hall school of Harlem boogie, by the time 12 Play came out in 1993, the brother had perfected a baby-makin’ style on tracks “Bump N’ Grind,” “Your Body’s Callin’,” and the epic erotica of “It Seems Like You’re Ready.”
Additionally, the album’s more danceable tracks, “Summer Bunnies” and “I Like the Crotch on You,” showed his dance-floor diversity. Still, whether the tempo, Kelly’s lyrics were often sexually explicit, filled with lustful references and obvious double entendres. “He grabbed the brass ring by stepping fully into the role of hypersexual super-stud,” Jason King says. “That’s an archetype in Black music that stretches very far back and that Isaac Hayes took to new heights in the early 1970s. Songs on 12 Play were very much musical analogues of the celebration of Black, freaky, and carnal culture in the 1990s.”
Soon afterwards, Kelly began applying his newly developed, smoothed-out, seductive sounds to singles for Hi-Five (“Quality Time”) and Changing Faces (“G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T.”), and was more than ready to tackle a full-album project for his manager’s niece. “With the flair and energy he puts into his music, we can feel it,” McLin said. “Even when working on songs for others, he touches all the talent he comes in contact with; Robert’s mission is to bring soul music back.” Inspired by an extensive list of vocalists, musicians, and producers including Quincy Jones, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and Tyrone Davis, he turned himself into an R&B auteur on the Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number project.
R. Kelly was determined to become a one-man Holland-Dozier-Holland with a splash of Phil Spector eccentricity to keep things interesting. “Age was solely an R. Kelly production intended to not only introduce us to Aaliyah, but to show off R. Kelly’s polymath awesomeness,” says King. “It’s hip-hop soul in the way that Mary J. Blige, Xscape, and SWV fused those genres. But, Aaliyah embodied the hip-hop soul merger in a different way. She had the sweet, soothing, and slightly reserved soprano more associated with Diana Ross, Minnie Riperton, or Janet Jackson. I don’t think any producer understood what contemporary R&B audiences wanted to hear and pushed them further in the 1990s more than R. Kelly.”
In the summer of 1993, with Aaliyah on break from the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, she spent her entire vacation holed up inside the CRC. “The first song we recorded was ‘Old School,’ which I loved, because it had an Isley Brothers flair,” Aaliyah said. “That song didn’t take long to do, maybe two days. At first, I had to get comfortable, but I had been around Robert, so it was cool. Both Robert and I are perfectionists, and if you listen to the music, there is a lot of passion in it.”
Like Batman, one of his favorite comic book characters, R. Kelly worked best at night. “Most people are asleep, so it’s just the moon, the stars, the quiet, and the music.” Subsequently, the nights spent with the underage singer led to Kelly’s first accusations of statutory rape when an alleged affair began between them. Although there was a twelve-year age difference, the affair supposedly led to marriage, which paved the way for scandal and an annulment. While R. Kelly and Aaliyah always denied these accusations, the man who wrote the title track to Age tellingly said, “I write from everyday experiences and what moves me; that, to me, is a true writer. I love all forms of music. Everything that comes into my mind and hits my heart, I write it and record it. I love songs that mean something, and have some kind of truthfulness to them.”
Photographer Terrence A. Reese (aka Tar), who shot the album covers for 12 Play and Age, recalls that during the shoot “Aaliyah relied on Robert to teach her. He was like Berry Gordy to her Diana Ross. The following day was her fifteenth birthday, and she was also going to film the ‘Back & Forth’ video, so they were working on the dances and styling. You could see the attraction between R. Kelly and her.”
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