Sunday, September 19, 2021

Retrospective: Aaliyah • Aaliyah


Aaliyah’s first line as a recording artist ensured she’d be unforgettable. “Move, it’s the L-I-Y-A-H,” she demanded over a fresh beat that spun dance music out of rhythm and blues. The song, “Back & Forth,” would land in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100. Aaliyah had become a household name in three minutes and 51 seconds. Just months later, her career would be knocked off course with a discovery that would cast an awkward shadow over everything we knew about Aaliyah, a teenager framed as a full grown adult. It would never fully recover until her passing six years later, when a postmortem outpouring would push her last album to the number one spot. Aaliyah was her first and only album to make it to the top. From the systemic failure to hold her abuser accountable immediately to the preventable accident that killed her, tragedy is stitched into Aaliyah’s story from end to end. Those tragedies would become the common cornerstones of her legacy, as unusual circumstances redacted most of her career’s work from the digital media landscape. But this year, 20 years after her death, Aaliyah’s story is being reconstructed – and this time, her triumph prevails.

The 2019 Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly inspired a near-complete erasure of Kelly’s work as past collaborators responded with revisionist approach to their discography, pulling their duets with him from streaming platforms and new album pressings. His most prominent victim, meanwhile, had only one record to her name according to streaming platforms’ records: Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, an inappropriately titled, blatantly hypermature multi-platinum record written and produced in full by accused abuser R. Kelly. According to the documentary, Kelly would usher the 15-year-old Aaliyah into an illegal underage marriage in Illinois not long after the album’s release, allegedly due to a pregnancy in need of termination. Aaliyah’s uncle, contentious record executive Barry Hankerson, connected the two. Ironically, he – in a squabble with the singer’s estate – would also be the one to hold the rest of her work hostage from digital platforms and physical repressings until Blackground Records’ revival this year. The decades-long media blackout diminished Aaliyah in retrospective conversations on culture at the turn of the millennium – a criminal oversight, given the entertainment enterprise carried under her name by the time she passed.

Simply out of necessity, Aaliyah’s career footprint had been minimized to one record and latched onto her abuser – despite a swift and complete separation from Kelly by 1996 and a successful career to ensue without him. Years removed from Aaliyah’s death in a 2001 aviation accident, used physical copies were the only traded currency through which to access her remaining work: One in a Million, a self-titled record, and the soundtrack to Romeo Must Die, in which she also stars. Kids today could pick up tee shirts printed with her portrait at Target, yet most had been granted access to only a fragment of her full career landscape. What drew them to Aaliyah, a woman whose career was largely a mystery to them? Was her mystique, rather than her artistry, a majority of her allure? Negative. When One in a Million hit streaming services in August, the album surged into the top 10 on the Billboard 200 – higher than it charted upon release in 1996. Aaliyah is expected to perform similar numbers. To many, the lost records are brand new releases – and for what it’s worth, they sound as current and innovative now as they did then.

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Excluding her contributions to soundtracks and any posthumous releases, Aaliyah released just three hours of studio record material in her seven-year career. She more so lurked in the Top 40 than dominated it in her time, but she was the clear stopgap between Janet Jackson, the sexy years, and Beyoncé, the solo years. While she didn’t write the music she performed, she certainly made it: Especially on her self-titled record, she wraps straightforward yet emotive vocals around chops and beats. Brilliant radio songs “We Need a Resolution” and “Rock the Boat,” ones that are quintessentially Aaliyah, are front-loaded into the record, but there are some surprisingly strong moments in the album’s back half. “U Got Nerve” runs in the same bloodline as Janet. and adjacent to the work The Neptunes crafted with Britney Spears. Later yet, rock music creeps into “What If” and “I Can Be” a full year before Christina Aguilera would let it rip over the rock-indebted “Fighter.” Whereas Aguilera competes with her instrumentation, though, Aaliyah’s voice rides against some sick guitar work, smoothing any jags. Given all these comparisons can be made, the signs were there: It seems Aaliyah would have become a crossover sensation, if only time had allowed.

Aaliyah’s most significant contributions to music originated from her sessions with Timbaland and Missy Elliott, a symbiotic musical relationship that forged a foundation for their careers to follow. Together, they created her second record in full and a chunk of her third. As the collaborators behind some of Aaliyah’s strongest songs like “Are You That Somebody?” and “If Your Girl Only Knew,” they helped rehabilitate and elevate Aaliyah’s identity as she crested adulthood. Meanwhile, Missy Elliott became a star in her own right with a flurry of massive rap hits, and Timbaland worked on pop-R&B crossover records with Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake, and Madonna. It’s hard to imagine those records without Aaliyah, a record that integrates Aaliyah’s established sound and 2001 popular music trends – then advanced them both. “Rock the Boat” boasted a next level, downright filthy soundscape, but its veiled metaphors and drumbeat pattern made it the perfect candidate for contemporary hit radio and fully choreographed video. “More Than a Woman” pushes the envelope farther, more obvious in its intentions, but spins listeners through a vocally intensive chorus that buries some scandalous mentions.

No matter how short it may be, an artist’s time with us doesn’t bear much weight in the equation of their cultural impact. After all, it’s easy to forget that Beatlemania lasted only seven years before The Beatles called it quits. But Aaliyah, whose own Beatlemania variant was lost in the digital tidal wave, provides an alarming case study on electronic music cataloging and the definitive source of musical history. If the work disappears from the ever ambiguous streaming cloud, did it ever exist at all? (I remain a proponent of physical media in fear that music streaming will one day follow the fractured, multi-platform approach to television streaming, leading to a similar Aaliyah-like disappearance for even streaming-native artists, but I digress.) One listen to any modern crossover R&B record proves that, yes, the music certainly did exist and resonated well beyond its time The woman now deified as Millennials’ eternal “Babygirl” affected more people than can be quantified – and more will join soon enough, with a complete scope of her artistry now within reach once again. Everyone to follow in her wake will only intensify the everlasting endurance of Aaliyah, a young woman who, despite any disadvantages, solidified her place as a musical legend. 

Aaliyah was released on July 17, 2001, under Blackground Records and Virgin Records.

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Maira Gall