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
Turning back the hands of time to Good Friday, 1994, I was on a flight from New York City to Detroit to interview Aaliyah. Hired by Jive Records publicist Lesley Pitts, who was also my girlfriend, I was assigned to write the budding singer’s bio. Having worked with TLC and Toni Braxton on their debuts, Lesley was excited about the teenager’s pop potential.
Aaliyah’s first single, “Back & Forth,” was already being played on the radio and video channels. Unlike the broken-glass balladry of Mary J. Blige, which was hard as the Yonkers ghetto she hailed from, Aaliyah’s voice had a soft strength that reminded me of the Black pop women (Dionne Warwick, Marilyn McCoo, and Barbara McNair) I’d grown up listening to in the ’70s.
For weeks, Lesley had been bragging that this new kid was going to be large; after hearing a few tracks, including “At Your Best (You Are Love),” her lovely cover of the Isley Brothers’ ballad, I was hooked. “I like to groove to artists like Parliament or the Isley Brothers, because that was when music was really real,” Aaliyah said later that day. “I just think the Isley Brothers are so unique.”
After my jet landed in the Motor City, I took a short cab ride to the Sheraton Hotel and within minutes was sitting in the dining room with Aaliyah, her mother Diane, and Lesley. Dressed casually in jeans and sneakers, Aaliyah wore her shades, but soon took them off as she became more comfortable with me. “When I was younger, I used to go around the house singing with my mother,” Aaliyah said, her voice poised and proper.
Coming from a middle-class family, she was a product of nice schools and an artistic yearning that was encouraged with classes. “I’m a big fan of Johnny Mathis, so I used to sing ‘Chances Are’ with my mom. Luther Vandross was another favorite. I was so drawn to singing, because I could get away from everything, and I just loved it.”
Uncle Barry first introduced Aaliyah to R. Kelly when she was twelve. “He was just completing Born into the 90’s, and I sang for him,” she smiled, her voice lightening. “I sang for him, and he liked what he heard. Still, we didn’t start working on the album until a few years later.”
Arriving first in January of ’93, when there was snow on the ground, Aaliyah returned in the summer, and their relationship clicked in the studio. “We vibed off of one another, and that’s how the songs was built,” she said. “He would vibe with me on what the lyrics should be. He’d tell me what to sing, and I’d sing it. That’s how the whole album was done. We put in a lot of hours; as far as the music, we’d be in there all night making sure it was perfect. There were times when I was tired, but I knew I had to push on if I wanted to come off.”
When the two weren’t recording, they’d be in the studio watching horror movies. “Silence of the Lambs was my favorite,” she said. “The studio can be hectic, so sometimes we went to McDonald’s.”
While some of the Kelly’s double entendres could be embarrassing, Aaliyah defended “Back & Forth,” a song whose title hints of sex. “It’s not a song about love or whatever; it’s about going to a party and having fun. I have songs about love, crushes, or whatever, but that song is about dancing. This album is about teens and what they go through.” One of the more forward crush records was the sensually upbeat “No One Knows How to Love Me Quite Like You Do.” Aaliyah smiled when I asked about it and said, “Every girl looks for that one person who is going to love them right. That song is saying, when it comes down to it, I like how you satisfy me.”
Months before Age was released on May 24, 1994, the stylish Millicent Shelton–directed clip for “Back & Forth” was shot at Aaliyah’s performing arts school in Detroit, where teens were recruited to be in various scenes. “That was my first video, but Millicent made me comfortable.” Between takes, she listened to the music of Tupac, Wu-Tang, and Gang Starr. “They all rap on an intellectual level.”
In the studio, she was a sponge who later spoke about her aspirations to produce and write: “When we were recording ‘Down With the Clique,’ I watched how Robert [Kelly] laid the drums and everything. He taught me to play the piano a bit, and I’m also trying to learn the mixing board, though it looks complicated. The studio is my first love.”
After wrapping the interview, Lesley and I went upstairs to our hotel room. Once inside, I turned to her and bluntly stated, “I know this sounds crazy, but I get the feeling R. Kelly is sleeping with that girl.”
Looking at me as though I was losing my mind, Lesley was appalled. “Why would you say something like that?”
“It’s just a feeling I get.”
“Well, it’s not true, so don’t say that,” she scolded, more protective publicist than loving girlfriend. Of course, a few months later, the entire sordid story became yet another tale in the Babylon that is the music industry that eats its young.
In 2013, journalist Jim DeRogatis, who broke the R. Kelly sex scandal in 2002, told the Village Voice, “I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined. Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that.”
Six days after the disaster that ended Aaliyah’s life as well as the lives of the pilot and seven members of her team, I sat in my Brooklyn apartment watching footage from Aaliyah’s funeral on Entertainment Tonight. There were images of the white horse-drawn carriage that carried her casket from Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel to St. Ignatius Loyola Church on East Eighty-Third Street in Manhattan.
After the funeral, in front of thousands of fans, twenty-two doves representing the years of her life were released in front of the church as her mother Diane, father Michael, older brother Rashad, Uncle Barry, and fiancé Damon Dash cried. The only person missing, for obvious reasons, was R. Kelly.
Six years before—just a year removed from his notorious split with Aaliyah—R. Kelly sat inside his studio at CRC telling me about producing for other artists, including Michael Jackson (“You Are Not Alone”) and Kelly Price (“Friend of Mine”). “I have many styles,” he said. “I’m more than just the 12 Play guy. I don’t write one kind of thing.”
Looking at him closely, I asked, “If there was just one person you could work with right now, who would it be?” Without hesitation, he held his head high and shamelessly answered, “Aaliyah.” .
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