At the time of R&B singer Aaliyah’s passing 10 years ago today, she was on the cusp of greatness, having recently released arguably her strongest body of work to date.
By the age of 22, Aaliyah had been in the game for almost eight years; she had recorded three well-received albums, made her foray into films and helped pioneer a genre of music that would become the decades’ biggest seller.
In August 2001, Aaliyah began shooting the video to Rock the Boat, the third cut from her recently released eponymous third album.
After shooting studio set-ups in Miami, her team travelled south to the Bahamas to complete the Hype Williams production.
The resulting video is unmistakably ‘Hype’; a slick, bold and startling effort which complements the song’s 80s-infused, rhythmic dancehall vibe.
A few hours after wrapping the shoot, Aaliyah and her team of eight boarded a twin-engine Cessna jet bound for Florida. We all know what happened shortly after takeoff.
Born Aaliyah Dana Haughton on 22 January 1979, this Detroit-born singer grew up in a musical household. Her legion of loyal fans across the world knew her mononymously as Aaliyah, a Swahili name meaning ‘highest, most exalted one.’
Her uncle Barry Hankerson was a music label executive at Blackground Records and he was married to soul veteran Gladys Knight.
Signing to Jive Records in 1992, it was her uncle who introduced Aaliyah to singer-songwriter R Kelly, who went on to write and produce the majority of tracks on her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.
Debuting during MTV’s golden age and at the height of New Jack Swing and powerhouse vocalists like Mariah and Whitney, Aaliyah sidestepped the vocal acrobatics for a more laid back, casual style.
Her breathy vocals, coupled with her ‘street but sweet’ image created her signature swagger, and the lead single, Back and Forth rocketed to the top of the charts and gatecrashed a host of ‘Pure Swing’ compilations.
As she grew and matured, so too did her music. After a rumoured marriage to R Kelly at the age of 15, Aaliyah switched to Atlantic Records soon after, and in 1996 released her second album, One in a Million.
This time, Missy Elliot and Timbaland (relative unknowns at the time) presided over production duties.
Compared to her debut effort, One in a Million was a leap forward in artistry and lyricism; honing in on matters of the heart, the soul and love, the album bridged the gap between R&B and electronica.
The album helped break Aaliyah into the mainstream and a string of hit singles followed, most notably the title track; the song’s status as a ‘slow jam’ is unprecedented; Aaliyah’s delicate soprano wraps round the songs’ slow burning beat to create a passionate and hypnotic record.
In the years between her second and third albums, music collaborations came as well as fashion endorsements. Aaliyah branched out into films too and was a successful triple threat (singer, dancer and actor). Her first feature film, Romeo Must Die, was an urban martial arts drama loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, with Jet Li playing opposite her as an unconventional leading man.
Released in March 2000, there was something unusual and brooding in Aaliyah’s portrayal of Trish O’Day. The film went on to rake in $91m at the box office.
Later that year, Aaliyah began production on her third studio album, Aaliyah. Recorded in Australia whilst Aaliyah was filming her second flick, ‘Queen of the Damned’, the resulting album was darker in tone and lyricism that its predecessor.
With Timbaland and Missy Elliott again taking the helm on the production side, the resulting album deliberately avant garde; soulful stylings against a backdrop of hypnotic break beats and electronic arrangements that were ahead of its time.
Released in July 2001, the album charted high on the Billboard charts and its lead single ‘We Need a Resolution’ combined syncopated hand claps with subtle beat boxing and an Arabic-inspired hook. Other benchmarks from the set included the chart-topping ‘Try Again’ and the piano-led ‘Never No More’.
In 2001, the internet was in its infancy; there was no YouTube; online piracy was still an underground practice and the idea of blogging and sharing information through social media was a distant dream waiting to be realised.
Aaliyah’s sudden passing created a surge of interest in her albums; as an MTV darling, her spirit was kept alive by heavy rotation of her videos on music channels, and radio DJs dropping her tunes on stations across the globe.
The outpouring of grief was unprecedented, yet appropriate and fitting. Fans took to huge billboards in New York and Detroit to posts their messages of condolence; MTV News quickly pieced together a special programme which looked at her short, but varied career.
But it was at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, when she was eulogised to a hushed crowd by Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Ginuwine and her brother, Rashad, that her death really hit home.
The final word was given to Aaliyah; speaking in a pre-recorded MTV interview and addressing the audience, she mused on how grateful she was for her career, and said: “There’s nothing better than loving what you do” – statement so true that it can be applied to almost anyone carving a niche for themselves in various arenas and avenues.
A talent so rare, full of grace and vitality, it’s challenging to place Aaliyah in today’s market of over-sexualised, under-dressed and barely-talented R&B princesses.
And whilst a smattering of imitators have attemped to snatch her crown in the 10 years since she departed, it’s Aaliyah’s stunning but heartbreakingly meagre back catalogue that reminds us of how she was simply one in a million.
Aaliyah: 22/01/79 – 25/08/01
♫ Aaliyah – ‘Came To Give Love’