Limitless Potential


August 27, 2001



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 couldn’t 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 Detroit’s 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 Ain’t 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.

On 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.

Both 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 Kelly’s meek little protege.

“Of course there’s 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 won’t be a whole project. I do see myself becoming my own artist. If you know your own style, and you’re 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 Jackson’s “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, she’s 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 he’s only one of several producers.

At the end of the day, the driving force behind Aaliyah’s success was clearly Aaliyah herself. And like her last album, her career ends with a question: “What If?”