What Aaliyah Left Us

Twenty years ago, a maverick entertainer died far too young. A legend was born

What Aaliyah Left Us
Photo:AP (AP)

The story told in veteran music journalist Kathy Iandoli’s new biography Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah is incomplete—and admittedly so. There are just so many things about Aaliyah Dana Haughton’s life that haven’t been shared and may never be, given her untimely death at 22 on August 25, 2001, and her family’s fierce maintenance of privacy. “Even now still there are inconclusive fragments to the story,” writes Iandoli of the plane crash that claimed the life of Aaliyah, and eight others. (Which members of her entourage were pushing to take off in the small Cessna plane that they were warned was overloaded seems impossible to discern, for example.) Details of Aaliyah’s relationships, like that with her collaborator Stephen Ellis Garrett (aka Static Major, who co-wrote many of her hits and much of her self-titled final studio album), are fuzzy. Particularly opaque is how things went down with R. Kelly, who married Aaliyah (with the help of a fake ID) when she was 15 and he was 27.

That’s obviously a delicate matter, and Aaliyah and her family effectively locked it away almost immediately after the union was dissolved (reportedly within a month). In the 2019 book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, Chicago-based journalist Jim DeRogatis (responsible for breaking and keeping with the story of Kelly’s predation and abuse of underage girls) recounts an anonymous executive at Virgin, the label that released Aaliyah’s final album months before her death, saying: “Whenever R. Kelly comes up she doesn’t even speak his name. When she came over to this label, we were all told on the sly, ‘Don’t ever bring up R. Kelly’s name.’ It’s just one of those weird topics.”

As much as it reduces the juicy factor of Iandoli’s book, the not-telling that is so palpable in Baby Girl represents its subject’s own relationship with her public. Aaliyah had what has largely gone missing in the age of social media: mystique. She spent much of her first album cycle behind black sunglasses. When they came off, she hid an eye behind a swoosh of bangs (Iandoli points out that this led to rumors that she had some sort of physical issue with her left eye). She openly held back. Her demeanor was relaxed, her persona had the same kind of spaces in the beats that Timbaland designed for her. They were there by design, a conscious absence as present as sound itself. This was key to what made Aaliyah and her music so alluring.

“Legends are material to be moulded, and not facts to be recorded,” DuBose Heyward and Hervey Allen wrote. In Aaliyah’s absence, her legend has thrived via those who remain in her thrall. Though unquestionably beloved during the seven odd years that she was alive and making music, her work took on a greater sense of importance as a result of her passing. Several posthumous singles, including signature songs like “Rock the Boat,” “More Than a Woman,” “I Care 4 U,” and “Miss You,” kept her career alive even after her death—I can’t think of a pop star who racked up so many legitimate hits after passing. She left so much behind to interpret and explore. It really stung that her third and last album was by far her most consistent long-form work. It seemed like she was just getting started.

It really stung that her third and last album was by far her most consistent long-form work. It seemed like she was just getting started

Aaliyah held court firmly in the “performer” category of music stars. Her airy voice was lovely (striking the balance between Deniece Willams and Janet Jackson), her style has proven timeless, and her dancing was hypnotic. But upon reviewing her work, it seems like her most pronounced gift was taste. Iandoli’s book pays equal mind to her talent and its commodification, never stigmatizing the latter. She deftly describes how Aaliyah’s career was manufactured without making it seem craven or off-putting. It’s just how one plays the pop game. Aaliyah’s 1994 debut, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, was largely guided by Kelly, in terms of the music and image. Within a month of their marriage, DeRogatis reports, a document was signed by Aaliyah, her parents, and Kelly, stipulating “that in consideration of payment of $100 by Kelly to Aaliyah—two sources later told me the amount Kelly actually paid ‘off the books’ was $3 million—the two would sever all personal and professional contact and pledge to avoid any public comment about their relationship or the separation agreement, ‘due to the nature of the music industry and its ability to engender rumors and disseminate personal information, both true and untrue.’” She moved from Jive to Atlantic, and a sonic pivot was in order.

Aaliyah worked with a number of producers for her 1996 sophomore album, One in a Million, including heavyweights (and future heavyweights) like Jermaine Dupri, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, and Daryl Simmons. But after meeting with fledgling producer-songwriting team Timbaland and Missy Elliott, the spine of the record began to cohere.

“I’m feeling really good about this second album,” Timbaland recalls her saying during an early meeting in his 2015 memoir, The Emperor of Sound. “I feel pressure too,” she continued. “The label wants it to be bigger. I want it to be bigger, too. I also want it to be better. I want to be challenged by all the producers and the writers who are working with me.”

And so she was. After they cut their first song together, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” there was a considerable waiting period between submitting it to the label and hearing feedback. Their burgeoning three-person team wanted it to be a single, but as time went on, Timbaland and Elliott felt insecure. “They’ll pick it, I know it. I’ll insist on it,” Aaliyah told Timbaland. On that moment, he reflects: “I just smiled. The way that Aaliyah was willing to go to bat for us was astounding. I felt like I’d known her for years, not just weeks.”

Eventually, “If Your Girl Only Knew” was chosen as a single—the album’s first. It led to further collaborations for the set, including its title track. Almost all of the Tim/Missy tracks on One in a Million were released as singles. The three-way collaboration that Aaliyah was so adamant about ended up defining her album, delivering her career from scandal, and changing music. Timbaland credits his work on One in a Million as directly securing more work for him—he and Missy Elliott (along with affiliates like Static Major) defined late ’90s/early ’00s R&B and hip hop (and, by extension, pop music as a whole) as much as any producer/songwriter team. They changed the game after Aaliyah changed their lives. She had the good sense and impeccable taste to do so.

Her untimely death spawned infinite what-ifs. Would Aaliyah continue to have evolved and taken pop music with her? (Iandoli writes that she had discussed collaborating with Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor.) With her growing roster of movie roles, would she have moved on to acting? Would she have become a casualty of the R&B chart’s abandonment of women artists (when it seemed like Beyoncé was the only one getting airplay)? Would the feather-light vocals on top of cerebral beats have become so attractive to avant pop artists like FKA twigs without the legend of Aaliyah? It’s the kind of conceptual multiverse that potential spawns. What Aaliyah didn’t accomplish is almost as important to her legacy as what she did.

Taken at a memorial candlelight vigil August 27, 2001, in Detroit, Michigan at Aaliyah’’s old school, the Detroit High School for Performing Arts Photo:Bill Pugliano (Getty Images)

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