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Though much of the story that led up to Aaliyah Dana Haughton’s third and final album — and so much of what came after it — is filled with trauma and loss, we’re not here to talk about that. The record has become understandably inseparable from that fateful day, less than two months after the release of Aaliyah, when the world lost the singular artist at just 22 years old when her plane went down in the Bahamas on a return trip from filming the video for “Rock The Boat,” killing all nine people on board. Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to consider the singer’s life, impact and career outside the darker forces that shaped them. But, imagine pressing play on Aaliyah on the day of its release. Just for a moment, imagine only hearing the album itself, removed from its context. All you’d hear is a record of the creatively fruitful and personally transformative years in which it was created. All you’d hear is a warm red light, a blossoming, a revelation, the sound of someone shedding a complex girlhood as she crossed the threshold of womanhood to emerge on her own terms.
The album’s loud proclamation of identity could easily be deduced from a glance at the cover alone. On both of her previous two records, 1994’s Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number and 1996’s Timbaland and Missy Elliot-produced One in a Million, she stands off-center, bundled in black clothing, one shoulder turned away at an angle, lips closed into a near-frown, eyebrows slightly raised as if to challenge you for looking, eyes shrouded in her eternally iconic shades. The photographs are enveloped in a filmy haze and icy, hard tones of green and blue. In contrast, resting your eyes on the cover of Aaliyah is like walking into a warm home after hours spent outside on a frigid, wet winter day, the moment when your muscles start to lose tension on their own and you begin to shed your layers. You can almost hear her exhale through parted lips, exposing her teeth in a gentle smile, head tilted back and eyes just nearly closed, somewhere in a space between pleasure and prayer. She stands right in the center of the frame, stance firm, shoulders and hips square, but relaxed. Her arms and chest are bare, and she dons a barely there sheer gold halter, loose black curls cascading carelessly down her back. She looks like what the verb “to glow” was invented for.
The only thing that foregrounds her is her name, simple, bold letters spaciously stretched from one edge to the other. Self-titling an album after your very own name has long been many artists’ method, across eras and genres from The Doors to Beyoncé, of staking a flag into the ground: This record is synonymous with who I am.
“I wanted to [self-title] because my name is Arabic, and it has a beautiful meaning: The highest and most exalted one, the best,” Aaliyah explained in a behind-the-scenes interview for the album. “And I wanted the name to really carry the project. It’s different from the last LPs because I’m older, I’m more mature, and I think that’s very evident on the album. So it really showcases Aaliyah and who she is right now.”
Behind her is a striking plane of color, a sienna-toned crimson. Much like The Beatles’ own legendary eponymous album, “The White Album,” we’ve dubbed Aaliyah “The Red Album.” It’s a nickname that’s far from unearned; Aaliyah is a living, breathing monument — or perhaps, a memorial — to not just her own personal growth and foray into adulthood, but to the unimaginable progression of a sound that would come to define R&B and an entire era of popular culture at large, and influence on an incalculable sum of generations and genres of music to come.
A half-decade passed between Aaliyah’s One in a Million and this album’s release. While fans were hungry, savoring every loose single, feature and appearance they could get, Aaliyah was busy working on expanding her career in other areas of the entertainment industry beyond music, all while entering adulthood. She graduated from the Detroit School of Arts (originally known as the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts) in 1997 with a 4.0 GPA. In 1998, she became the youngest person to perform at the Oscars at just 19 years old. In 2000, she played the Juliet to Jet Li’s Romeo in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s martial arts take on Shakespeare, Romeo Must Die, also executive producing and recording four songs for its exceptional and star-studded soundtrack.
By now, there was no question that she reigned as not just The Princess of R&B, but as an all-around certified It Girl. From fashion to music to creative direction, and now film, she had the culture in her angelic, assertive chokehold. She possessed an unclassifiable, intangible cool — an effortless visionary in head-to-toe tomboy Tommy Hilfiger with a full, glossy face of makeup who existed outside and beyond the boxes of sound, style, gender and any others she encountered. It was tough to understand the scope of her influence at a time when pop culture was booming the way it was — churning out an overflow of icons and output, particularly when it came to women in R&B and pop music. But even without hindsight’s clarity, it was certain Aaliyah was special.
Of her many projects during this period, there is one in particular that stands out for a number of reasons. In June of 1998, Eddie Murphy played Dr. Dolittle in a reboot of the film, and in a peculiar turn of events, Timbaland only had a handful of hours to produce the movie’s lead single for Aaliyah to perform. Luckily, Aaliyah had recently started working with a talented songwriter, the late Stephen Ellis Garrett, known to the world as Static Major. A Swing Mob member like many of her other key collaborators, at the time, his most notable credit was co-writing “Pony” with Ginuwine and Timbaland. “Are You That Somebody?” came together in mere hours: written, produced, recorded, mixed and mastered in record time, right down to the baby coo sample, the song’s most memorable touch, courtesy of a last-minute whim from Tim. By some combination of miracle and extreme talent, Dr. Dolittle had its lead single, and it went on to land a Top 25 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Even aside from the unconventional circumstances of its creation, it was a groundbreaking track and ended up being a standout of the decade: the funky bassline, its unconventional swing, a hush-hush, flirty storyline and Aaliyah’s flippant, smooth delivery. Perhaps most importantly, the track was our first glimpse at the powerful alchemy bound up in the creative partnership between Aaliyah and Static Major, foreshadowing their force on her forthcoming third record. The duo did it all over again on the smash “Try Again” for the Romeo Must Die soundtrack in 2000, which would also later appear on Aaliyah. In May of that year, Aaliyah’s contract with Atlantic expired, it was announced she was moving labels from Atlantic to Virgin and anticipation for album number three continued to bubble.
Though she’d already started cutting some tracks for her third album in 1998, the plan was to ambitiously push full speed ahead on its production while she was simultaneously filming her next movie, Queen of the Damned. She’d wake up, shoot for the film, prepare for her time in the studio, then finish out the day in the studio with her team and, by the end of 2000, Aaliyah would have a new film and the majority of a third album to show for it. Filming was set to take place in Australia, so she also needed to assemble a cutting-edge creative team for the album that would travel with her and work on the album whenever she wasn’t shooting. Aaliyah and her team prepared the material before their cross-continental trip, and when they arrived in Australia, they recorded at Melbourne’s Sing Sing Studios, a short walk from Como Hotel, where she was staying. She tapped into the production duo that she’d worked with on the Romeo Must Die soundtrack known as Keybeats (Rapture Stewart and Eric Seats), alongside producers Stephen “Bud’da” Anderson and “J. Dub” Walker. Writers for the project included R&B singer Tank (Durrell Babbs) and Static’s fellow Playa member, Benjamin “Digital Black” Bush. On the other side of the world from their homes — away from the majority of their friends and families and focused on the same singular creative vision — the team became a supportive and tight-knit unit.
Chiefly, in the vice captain’s seat next to Aaliyah, sat Static Major. He’d already proved himself an astonishing songwriting talent but, more importantly, they shared a mutual understanding for the project’s vision for this to be her most personal yet, and for every element of it to be true to Aaliyah. The pair’s close personal relationship was a vital force in creating Aaliyah. While she was kind and well-liked by nearly everyone she encountered, she admitted to being reserved, even mysterious. Especially considering her near-lifelong status as a public figure, she was relatively private. She kept a lot close to her chest; she took her time opening up to people and was careful about who she showed the real Aaliyah. But she trusted Static, both creatively and with her inner world. Whereas a lot of her previous material was written as an imagined fantasy for her to perform for others, much of the source material for this album was a direct result of Aaliyah’s own life and thoughts. Static and Aaliyah would share long, intimate conversations fueled by their trust, vision and connection, which would, in turn, inform Static’s writing on the album. In exchange for her trust and candor, he listened to her, pushed her, followed her lead and honored her vision.
“He knew how to convey her messages or whatever she was going through at the time and that’s why he ended up doing pretty much the whole record. She could bank on him to get that message out and still be her without forcing his own thing.” Eric Seats remembered in a 2016 interview with Vibe. Bud’da added, “Static was a muse for her, if that’s the right word. He was able to embody what it is that she was thinking.”
As a whole, the tracks on Aaliyah often tackle complex and mature matters with an apparent nuance and confidence. Our narrator on Aaliyah is, indeed, a grown woman who dealt with grown issues the way grown women are wont to do. Album opener “We Need A Resolution” finds her demanding peace in a relationship that’s grown tense, distrustful and passive-aggressive. On “Loose Rap,” she calls out gossip and jealousy — a single warning shot that immaturity in her world won’t be tolerated. On “Rock The Boat,” she commands, doesn’t compromise, asks for precisely what she wants: Work the middle. Change positions on me. Stroke it for me. She reminisces on the early stages of puppy love on “Those Were The Days,” but doesn’t let those memories cloud her judgment. If you act right and meet her expectations, Aaliyah’s Aaliyah loves deeply and cares with tenderness, but she’s far too wise to stick around for any bullshit and unafraid to loudly read you for filth on her way out the door.
Not only did Aaliyah set out to evolve her lyrics on this album, she sought to progress her sound. And it wasn’t a matter of her just stepping into a new sonic era separate from her past work, either; she did not want to sound like anyone or anything else, period. Keybeats, J. Dub and Bud’da rose to the challenge. The result could be referred to as a “genreless” effort — especially for the time — exemplifying the term long before it existed as a buzzword on blogs. You’ve got your timeless slow-jam soul on “I Care 4 U” and sensual pop-driven R&B classics in tracks like “Rock The Boat.” In other moments, she shapeshifts into a rockstar on the shredding Tank-penned rock-leaning tracks “What If” and “I Can Be.” (She was rumored to have hopes of working on a rock project with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, with these rock inclusions standing as proof of her range.) In its totality, the record sat futuristically in a unique pocket between R&B, hip-hop and electronica with elements of rock, Latin, Middle Eastern, pop and soul music interwoven seamlessly into its fabric. After her return to the states, she reunited with Timbaland, and he contributed his production to “More Than A Woman,” “We Need A Resolution” and bonus track “Don’t Know What To Tell Ya,” which all prominently feature inventive uses of samples from Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern-inspired music (Syrian singer Mayada El Hennawy’s “Alouli Ansa,” composer John Ottman’s “Tricks of the Trade,” and Algerian artist Warda Al-Jazairia’s “Batwanes Beek,” respectively). The throughline of this carefully considered sonic salad is, undeniably, Aaliyah’s vocal performance. She had the gift of balance: of somehow being a frontwoman and a chameleon, of roaring and whispering, of standing in harmony beside each sound and style, instead of letting it overpower her or demanding the spotlight to sacrifice the whole. She became each song, because each song was her, and you can hear her uniting sound after sound, no matter how risky or disparate they may seem on paper.
On “More Than A Woman,” she sings, “I’ll be more than a lover, more than a woman, more than your other.” And it really is that simple. She was beyond. She lived up to her name, and then some. With that sparkling vision and irreplaceable presence, it’s natural to mourn what would have been, had she not left us so early. But, take a look at her tidal waves of impact and their various ripples, too massive and wide-reaching to truly comprehend. It’s easy to listen to Aaliyah in 2022 — inundated, all these years, with a never-ending well of work from those that she influenced — and forget one simple fact: She was, in so many ways, the blueprint. And Aaliyah was her proclamation.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.