August 27, 2001
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Like Buddy Holly and
Ritchie Valens before her, pop music history will remember Aaliyah for the tragedy of a
promising career ended much too soon.
The Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised singer
was killed along with seven others when her plane crashed in the Bahamas on
Saturday. She leaves behind a small but inspired body of work, the impression that her
talent was only beginning to blossom, and a question that will never be answered:
How far would this
beautiful 22-year-old have risen if her twin-engine Cessna had not crashed shortly after
takeoff from the Marsh Harbour airport en route from the Bahamas to Florida?
In pop music, nothing is
ever a sure thing. But Aaliyah had already overcome considerable odds several times in her
career, and her potential seemed limitless.
Other R&B singers may
have had more technical expertise, and other actresses may have had more raw talent. But
few worked harder to succeed or evidenced such a winning personality that, like Janet
Jackson, the fans who watched her grow up in public couldnt help but cheer her on to
bigger and better triumphs.
She was born Aaliyah Dana
Haughton on Jan. 16, 1979, and her distinctive first name (pronounced ah-lee-yah)
meant highest, most exalted one in Arabic. She was raised in a family
of African-American showbiz royalty: Her uncle and manager, Barry Hankerson, is the former
husband of Gladys Knight, and her first professional gig outside the church choir and
before graduation from Detroits performing arts high school was singing backing up
for the Motown legend.
Early on, Aaliyah wanted to sing
like her heroines, Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand. But as a teen, she discovered
hip-hop and the seductive sounds of New Edition. Then Hankerson introduced her to an
alternately sweet and risque singer whose career he was steering into the stratosphere:
Chicago R&B superstar R. Kelly.
Aaliyah recorded her sassy and
street-smart debut Age Aint Nothing But A Number with Kelly producing
over the course of a year at the Chicago Recording Complex. Released in 1994, it was an
instant hit, and the first single Back & Forth knocked her mentor Kelly
from the No. 1 spot on the R&B charts. But it was soon overshadowed by scandal.
Aug. 31, 1994, at a hotel in Rosemont, Kelly, then 27, and Aaliyah, then 15, were married
after Aaliyah lied about her age in order to obtain a license.
stars have been reluctant to talk about their relationship, and for years, questions
persisted about whether the marriage had even occurred. But sources told the Sun-Times
last November that Aaliyah had indeed been enchanted by Kelly and swept up
into a short-lived marriage. When her family learned about the impromptu wedding, they
became enraged, and the marriage was annulled several weeks later.
Aaliyah had no contact with
Kelly from that point on. Many music-industry insiders thought the incident and her break
from her producer would effectively end her career, but Aaliyah was never just Kellys
meek little protege.
Of course theres a
connection with me and Robert because he did write the whole album, she told the
Sun-Times after her 94 debut. But as far as the second album, he probably will
do some songs, but it wont be a whole project. I do see myself becoming my own
artist. If you know your own style, and youre sure of yourself, you can definitely
overcome the protege thing.
Aaliyah went on to do just
that, enlisting hip-hop producer Timbaland to help craft her second album, One In A
Million. It, too, was a hit when it was released in 1996. It showcased a performer
who could rap with convincing energy (if not quite as fluidly as guest arranger Missy
Elliott) and sing with seductive allure (as a bedroom temptress, her throaty purr ranked
below that of Mary J. Blige, but it was effective nonetheless).
Following her sophomore
effort, Aaliyah seemed to shift her focus toward Hollywood. She won good reviews for a
starring role in the 2000 film Romeo Must Die, and the industry was abuzz
about her turn as Queen Akasha in The Queen of the Damned, based on the Anne
Rice novel and set for release later this year. She was also scheduled to appear in two
forthcoming sequels to The Matrix.
But Aaliyah had not
abandoned music. After a five-year wait, her third self-titled album was released late
last month. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, and it continues to hold a
position in the Top 10.
Like Jacksons Control,
the disc showcases a now-grown-up Aaliyah asserting herself as nobody to trifle with (I
refuse to take it anymore, she wails at one point). At the same time, shes
eager to seduce listeners, and the single Rock the Boat is the silkiest,
sexiest bedroom jam of the year.
Once again, Aaliyah
surprised fans by emerging from behind the shadow of a talented man: Timbaland is present
of the album, but hes only one of several producers.
At the end of the day, the
driving force behind Aaliyahs success was clearly Aaliyah herself. And like her last
album, her career ends with a question: What If?