When Aaliyah (pronounced Ah-lee-yah) debuted in 1994, most thought she was just the latest teenage singer. But Aaliyah proved that she was a very capable and talented singer. She released two albums that reached platinum status, a slew of singles that graced the top ten lists and then switched gears and landed praise as an actress, all before turning 22.
Aaliyah was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 16, 1979 to Diane and Michael Haughton. The family, including older brother Rashaad, moved to Detroit, Michigan, when she was five years old. From an early age, Aaliyah knew she wanted to perform. “I’ve been singing all my life,” she told Vibe. “I sang in my church, and school and my parents gave me vocal lessons,” she continued. At the age of seven, Aaliyah started trying out for school plays. She credited her parents for supporting her interest in music.
Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson, began managing her career when she was nine. A turning point came when she appeared on the show Star Search. “It was really, really cute,” she told Detail. “I sang ‘My Funny Valentine,’” she added. Although she lost, Aaliyah did not let this setback discourage her. At eleven years old, she performed for a week in Las Vegas with Gladys Knight, who, at the time, was Hanker-son’s wife. Aaliyah sung the song, “Home,” half-way through the set, and at the finale she and Knight sang a duet together—“Believe in Yourself.”
When Hankerson founded his record label, Blackground Enterprises, he signed Aaliyah when she was 14 as his first act. Also around that time Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, a famous R&B singer who was managed by Hankerson’s Midwest Entertainment Group. Kelly took creative control of what would be Aaliyah’s first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.
Age’s first single, “Back & Forth,” spent three weeks at number one on the R&B charts. The record also broke the top five on the Billboard charts. Aaliyah’s second single, “At Your Best(You Are Love),” also made the top ten on the R&B charts, peaking at number two. Around the time of her third single, the album’s title cut, rumors began circulating that the 14-year-old and her producer, Kelly, had eloped. Rolling Stone even
At a Glance…
Born Aaliyah Dana Haughton on January 16, 1979 in Brooklyn, NY; died on August 25, 2001 in Abaco, Bahamas; daughter of Diane Haughton (nee Hankerson) and Michael Haughton; Education: Detroit High School for the Performing Arts, graduate, 1997.
Career: Released Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, 1994; released One In A Million, 1996; sung “Journey To The Past,” for Anastasia soundtrack, 1997; released “Are You That Somebody?” for Dr. Dolittle soundtrack, 1998; released “Try Again,” for Romeo Must Die soundtrack, 2000; made film debut, Romeo Must Die, 2000; starred in Queen of the Damned, 2002.
Awards: Two MTV Awards for “Try Again,” 2000; Grammy nomination for “Try Again,” 2001; “Journey to the Past,” won Oscar, 2000.
Addresses: Home —New York, NY. Record Company —Blackground Enterprises, 15250 Ventura Blvd., Suite 705, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403. Manager —Michael and Diane Haughton, Raliah Management, P.O. Box 21847, Detroit, Ml 48221.
claimed that the Cook County Clerk’s Office had a marriage license which proved Robert Kelly and Aaliyah Haughton, listed on the license to be 18, had been married in Rosemont, Illinois. According to Clickondetroit.com, the marriage was annulled because her parents had not given their permission. “I’m not married,” she told Vibe, “that’s all I want to say about it.”
Aaliyah followed her debut album with nearly a year of touring that took her across the United States and around the world. While on the road, she maintained a 3.8 grade point average at the Detroit High School for the Performing Arts where she was a dance major. Aaliyah graduated from high school in 1997.
For her second album, One in a Million, Aaliyah chose to work with new producers Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and Timbaland. She also switched distributors, from Jive Records to Atlantic. The record was released in the fall of 1996, and by year’s end it was obvious that Aaliyah had scored another hit. Her first single, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” zoomed to number one; a year later the album went double platinum and had surpassed the first record in sales.
In late 1997 Aaliyah recorded “Journey to the Past” for the Anastasia soundtrack, a song that is Disney pop rather than R&B. She performed the song during the televised Oscars broadcast, where it won for Best Song in a Motion Picture. Aaliyah also took part in Tommy Hilfiger’s Tommy Jeans ad campaign. The ads, which included a number of celebrities, showed her sporting men’s boxers under baggy jeans while wearing a tube top with the Hilfiger logo. “It created a whole new look. It was sexy but classic,” Andy Hilfiger told Vibe. Aaliyah adopted this as her style along with covering her left eye with her hair, like the late actress Veronica Lake.
Aaliyah released several singles for various soundtracks. The single, “Are You That Somebody?”, with its infectious hooks and beats, climbed the charts. It was also the biggest hit of her career. Aaliyah hit pay dirt again for the single, “Try Again” off the Romeo Must Die soundtrack. She even won two MTV awards for the song.
Not only did Aaliyah contribute a song for the film, but she made her acting debut. Romeo Must Die, which combined hip-hop and kung fu, was a marginal hit and the critics ripped the movie to shreds. But many praised Aaliyah’s performance. Entertainment Weekly said her debut was “impressive.” In 2001 she also starred in Queen of the Damned, a sequel to Interview With a Vampire. Michael Rymer, Queen’s director, told Vibe, “There were two factors for casting Aaliyah. I was very keen that Akasha, an Egyptian queen, not look like Elizabeth Taylor, and not only did [Aaliyah] do a good job on Romeo Must Die, but people went to see her.” Aaliyah told Vibe, “I have to exude power and be regal…. It was the dream role, so I worked very hard.” None should be surprised that she conquered Hollywood. “Music was my first love, but acting is something I’ve always been interested in,” she told the Dallas Morning News.
Aaliyah filmed Queen in Australia where she also worked on her third self-titled album. It was released in July of 2001, five years after her last album. It showcased her broadening range as a vocalist. “I really wanted to show my versatility,” she remarked to the Dallas Morning News. As she made the rounds promoting her album, Aaliyah signed up for a role in the upcoming sequels to The Matrix, where she hoped to get in on the action. “There’s nothing like a strong woman who kicks butt,” she exclaimed to Time magazine. She was also slated to star in the upcoming film, Some Kind of Blue and the Sparkle remake. However, this wasn’t meant to be. After filming a video for her song, “Rock The Boat,” in the Bahamian island of Abaco, Aaliyah and eight others boarded a plane for Miami. The plane took off and rose 200 feet before plunging and crashing. Aaliyah died instantly on August 25, 2001.
Aaliyah’s death took many by surprise. Her record company, Virgin Records called her “one of the world’s bightest and most talented stars,” according to the Associated Press. Paul Allen, a Detroit producer who worked with Aaliyah on her second album, told the Detroit Free Press, “she was on the cusp of exploding.” According to the Detroit News, Quincy Jones stated, “She was one of the sweetest girls in the world…I loved her and respected her.”
Aaliyah stepped on the scene as a 14-year-old ingenue and then found herself knee-deep in controversy. Not only did she rise above the situation and soon charted her biggest hits and made a dazzling film debut. Though her death may have cut short her rise to stardom, Aaliyah’s impact will not be forgotten. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, released this statement at www.aaliyah-2001.com: “The example she showed young people will be sorely missed and we hope her short time on earth will be an inspiration to young people all over the world.”
Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, Jive Records, 1994.
One In A Million, Atlantic Records, 1996.
Aaliyah, Atlantic Records, 2001.
“Back & Forth,” 1994.
“At Your Best (You Are Love),” 1994.
“Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” 1995.
“If Your Girl Only Knew,” 1996.
“Journey to the Past,” (from Anastasia soundtrack), 1997.
“Are You That Somebody?,” (from Dr. Dolittle soundtrack), 1998.
“Try Again,” (from Romeo Must Die soundtrack), 2000.
Romeo Must Die, 2000.
Queen of the Damned, 2002.
Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 21, Gale Research, 1998.
Associated Press, August 27, 2001.
Billboard, May 14, 1994.
Dallas Morning News, July 22, 2001.
Detroit Free Press, August 27, 2001.
Detroit News, August 27, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, August 4, 2000; October 27, 2000; July 27, 2001.
Essence, January 1997.
Hollywood Reporter, January 30, 2001; April 27, 2001.
Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1995.
Jet, September 25, 2000.
Music Week, March 14, 1998.
Newsday, September 12, 1997.
Seventeen, January 1997.
Time, April 3, 2000; July 30, 2001.
Vibe, September 1994; December 1996/January 1997; August 2001.
AMG, http://www.allmusic.com and http://www.allmovie.com
ClickonDetroit, WDIV-TV, http://www.clickondetroit.com
Electronic Urban Report, http://www.eurweb.com
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com
MTV Online, http://www.mtv.com
Mr. Showbiz, http://www.mrshowbiz.com
Official website, http://www.aaliyah2001.com
—Ashyia N. Henderson
Aaliyah, the sultry hip-hop singer, burst onto the music scene in a flurry of controversy in 1994. She was the latest in a long line of child prodigies to make a mark on the industry, a line that stretches back through Michael Jackson to Little Stevie Wonder and Etta James. The release of Aaliyah’s first record was surrounded by an element of soap opera. As it climbed the charts rumors circulated that Aaliyah—who was a mere 14 years old while she was making the record—had eloped with her producer, said to be at least ten years her senior. The publicity could not overshadow Aaliyah’s talent, however. Before she graduated from high school in 1997, she had two platinum albums and two number one singles to her credit, and two years of international touring under her belt.
Aaliyah’s second album, One in a Million, displayed an artistic maturity well beyond her years. The New York Amsterdam News wrote: “There is more to the singer than song and dance. Not only has she become ‘the highest, most exalted one,’ as the true Arabic interpretation of her name suggests, but she has matured into a hip confident performer whose talents and passions range from music and acting, to her commitment to breast cancer research, Alzheimer’s disease awareness and her dedication to stay in school until she has completed her education.”
Aaliyah Haughton was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. When she was five, her parents, Diane and Michael Haughton, moved to Detroit with Aaliyah and her older brother Rashaad. She was surrounded by music from an early age. Her mother’s collection of soul, R&B, and popular records was an early and on-going influence. Aaliyah would sing along—with her mother’s full encouragement—to the music of Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, Whitney Houston, Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand.
At the age of seven Aaliyah started trying out for school plays and singing whenever she could. “I’ve been singing all my life,” she told Vibe in 1994. “I sang in my church and school and my parents gave me vocal lessons.” She credits her parents for supporting her interest in music and appreciates the fact that they did not shunt her from one audition to another against her will. “I pushed them,” she recalled to Vibe’s Kris Ex. “I would talk to my mother every day. After school I’d go to her job and be, like, Ma, did anybody call me? Anybody call about signing me? I was into it.”
Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, began managing her when she was nine, and Aaliyah’s professional career was off and running. She auditioned for TV pilots without success, but continued her voice lessons. A turning point
Born Aaliyah Haughton in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Michael and Diane (nee Hankerson) Haughton.
Released Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, 1994; released One In A Million, 1996.
Addresses: Home —Detroit, MI. Record Company —Blackground Enterprises, 15250 Ventura Blvd., Suite 705, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403. Manager— Michael and Diane Haughton, Raliah Management, P.O. Box 21847, Detroit, MI 48221.
came when she appeared on the show Star Search. “It was really, really cute,” she told Details, “I sang ‘My Funny Valentine,’ and I had on a white dress my grandmother made with a little bolero jacket, and special curls in my hair.” Although she did not win first place, she soon received the break of a lifetime when she performed for a week in Las Vegas with Gladys Knight, who, incidentally, is Hankerson’s ex-wife. Aaliyah got to sing a song half-way through the set, and at the finale she and Knight sang a duet together—“Believe in Yourself.”
When Barry Hankerson founded his own record label, Blackground Enterprises, he signed Aaliyah when she was 14 years old as the label’s first act. It was around that time that Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, a hip-hop musician who was managed by Hankerson’s Midwest Entertainment Group. Kelly was to play an important role in Aaliyah’s life for the next year or two. “I met Robert before he came out with Born in the 90s, Aaliyah told Vibe. “He came to my house and I sang for him, and from there we went into the studio.” Aaliyah became Kelly’s protégé. He took over creative control of what would be her first album, provocatively titled, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.
The title was provocative because of the sensual knowing with which Aaliyah sang. She played down the age issue while promoting the record. “That’s not something I really want to discuss,” she told Vibe. Part of the reason for avoiding the subject were the rumors that were circulating at the time, rumors that Aaliyah and Kelly had eloped. The idea that 24 year old Kelly and Aaliyah—at 14 still very much a minor—were married titillated the industry for months. Rolling Stone even claimed that the Cook County Clerk’s Office had a marriage license which proved that Robert Kelly and Aaliyah Haughton, listed on the license to be 18, had been married in Rosemont, Illinois. “I’m not married,” she told Vibe, “that’s all I really want to say about it.”
The marriage rumors and the subsequent publicity did not hurt the sales of the album. Age went platinum within a year. Its first single, “Back&Forth,” spent three weeks at number one in the R&B charts—coincidentallly knocked out R. Kelly’s “Your Body’s Callin.” The record also broke the Top Five on the Billboard charts. Aaliyah’s second single, “At Your Best (You Are Love)” reached number two on the R&B charts. The singer later recalled being very nervous before the release of “Back and Forth,” wondering if people would accept it. Her answer came when the song went gold.
Aaliyah followed her debut album with nearly a year of touring that took her across the United States and around the world, from Europe to Japan via South Africa. While on the road, Aaliyah maintained a 3.8 grade point average at the Detroit High School for the Performing Arts where she was a dance major. A tutor, under the supervision of Aaliyah’s mother who is an educator, traveled with the singer at all times.
After a lengthy tour, Aaliyah was anxious to start work on her next record. It had been such a long time since the release of Age, even Aaliyah was wondering if she was only a one-hit wonder. Could the young artist match the success of her first release? “I was a little anxious,” she admitted in an Atlantic press release. “You could even say I was a little afraid. I spoke with my family and they helped me realize that it wasn’t something I should worry about, that I shouldn’t over think the process.” Aaliyah’s family has been an important factor in her success. She records for a label owned by her uncle and cousin; her father and mother co-manage her; her brother is her creative consultant; and her cousin Jomo was executive producer on her second album.
For her second album, One in a Million, the singer chose not to use a single producer, perhaps a way of renouncing R. Kelly who didn’t work on the album at all. Eight different producers worked on the album. She also switched distributors, from Jive Records to R&B powerhouse Atlantic. The album was released in fall 1996, and by year’s end it was obvious that Aaliyah had scored another big hit. The first single, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” zoomed to number one; a year later the record went double platinum and surpassed her first album in sales.
Despite the worldly image created by her records and publicity machine, Aaliyah remains at some level unaffected by her success. Even after Age hit the charts she continued to attend high school in Detroit, like any other student—except of course for the world tours and the occasional freshman dogging her for an autograph. The singer, who graduated in June of 1997 and plans to attend college, continues to live at home with her parents. Despite her world tours and the success of One in a Million, Aaliyah often wears sunglasses (which have become a kind of trademark) to help overcome her shyness. That carried over to her recording work. “When I’m in the studio, I have to have the lights off—you can’t see me ‘cause I’m very shy,” she told Vibe. “I don’t mind seeing you in the control room, but you can’t see me.”
Despite her shyness, Aaliyah remains a very determined artist. When it comes to her music, she knows what she wants and works hard to get it. R&B artist Ginuwine, who appeared in the “One in a Million” video, told Seventeen “She’s sweet, patient and she’ll do a take over and over again until she gets it right.” Even at age 14 she had a strong work ethic. “I work every day,” she told Vibe, “Ev-er-y day.” She doesn’t want to get caught standing still, or get lumped into one style of music. In late 1997, she recorded “Journey to the Past” for the Anastasia soundtrack, a song that is Disney pop rather than R&B. She is interested in getting more involved in acting and dancing, and introduced choreography into her 1997 tour. “These days people are likely to know your music from your videos,” she told Newsday, so it’s nice to be able to include some elements from those in your songs. People really enjoy seeing dance steps or a prop from the video in the stage show.”
The future seems limitless for Aaliyah, who has the determination to make any of her dreams come true. She has dreams one wouldn’t normally expect from a teenager who is a famous singer. When she was 14 and her records were zooming up the charts, Aaliyah wasn’t talking about craving stardom and riches—she wanted to go to college and get a doctorate in music history. Three years later she told Newsday she was interested in doing something in indie rock. “I’d love to work with the members from Oasis or Soundgarden. I love their music too.” Vibe surmised: “Somebody’s got to be the one to fulfill our fantasies as we go into the 21 st century. Aaliyah may be just the one.”
Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, Blackground/Jive, 1994. One in a Million, Blackground/Atlantic, 1996.
(Contributor) Anastasia (soundtrack), 1997.
Billboard, May 14, 1994.
Essence, January 1997.
Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1995.
Newsday, September 12, 1997.
Seventeen, January 1997.
Vibe, September 1994; December 1996, January 1997.
—Gerald E. Brennan
In Swahili, the language of East Africa, the name Aaliyah means "highest, most exalted one." Most parents might shy away from burdening their newborn with such a tough name to live up to, but it seems that Michael and Diane Haughton knew from the start that their baby daughter had the makings of a real star. While still a sophomore at Detroit's High School for Fine and Performing Arts, Aaliyah Haughton, known professionally by her first name alone, released her debut album, which created a minor sensation in the recording industry and in time went double-platinum. Her second album quickly went platinum as well, and she later broadened her horizons, adding acting to her resume. Aaliyah's star was burning bright when her life was unexpectedly cut short: Aaliyah and eight others died in a plane crash on August 25, 2001, while returning from a video shoot in the Bahamas.
Born on January 16, 1979, in Brooklyn, New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Aaliyah Dani Haughton seemed somehow preordained to get into music. She was practically weaned on rhythm and blues and soul, because the Haughton household was almost always filled with music from her mother's extensive collection of recordings. Aaliyah, showing early signs of a talent that would later blossom into a professional career, just couldn't resist singing along to the records of the Isley Brothers, Whitney Houston, and Marvin Gaye.
When Aaliyah was five years old, the Haughton family left Brooklyn behind and moved to a new home in Detroit. It was in the Motor City that Michael and Diane Haughton, impressed by their daughter's raw musical talent, decided to enroll her in vocal classes. When she wasn't learning singing in the classroom, Aaliyah was singing up a storm wherever possible, including school plays and the church choir. Around the age of nine, she began making the rounds, auditioning regularly for television productions and record companies. But the auditions were her idea, she told Vibe, not her parents's. "I pushed them. I would talk to my mother every day. After school I'd go to her job and be, like, 'Ma, did anybody call me? Anybody call about signing me?' I was into it." It was at about this time that her mother encouraged her to drop her surname and go with just Aaliyah as her stage name.
An Early Star
While still only nine years old, she appeared on the national television talent show, Star Search. Interviewed by Details magazine, Aaliyah recalled her TV debut: "It was really, really cute. I sang 'My Funny Valentine,' and I had on a white dress my grandmother made with a little bolero jacket, and special curls in my hair." Unfortunately, Aaliyah didn't win first place, but she gained much-needed experience working in front of a large audience. That experience came in handy a couple of years later when she was signed to perform for a week in Las Vegas with Gladys Knight. Although in the end it was Aaliyah's talent that won her the job with Knight, it didn't hurt that her uncle, Barry Hankerson, who was also her manager at that stage in her career, was Knight's ex-husband. During the week she performed with Knight, Aaliyah sang a solo midway through the show and closed the show in a duet with Knight on "Believe in Yourself."
At the age of 14, Aaliyah signed her first record contract when Hankerson founded his own recording company, Blackground Enterprises. She was the first act to sign with the Blackground label. At about the same time, her uncle introduced Aaliyah to R&B singer/songwriter R. Kelly, who was also managed by Hankerson's Midwest Entertainment Group. Kelly, impressed with Aaliyah's vocal ability, signed on to produce her debut album. Of her first meeting with Kelly, Aaliyah told Vibe : "He came to my house, and I sang for him, and from there we went into the studio." Her debut album, entitled Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, was released in 1994 and eventually went double platinum. Aaliyah was overjoyed at the success of her first recording venture but less pleased at widespread rumors that she and Kelly were secretly married. She consistently denied that she was married to Kelly, but the rumors persisted. Documents were revealed years later that confirmed the couple married when Aaliyah was 15 and had the marriage annulled shortly thereafter. Not surprisingly, the gossip helped to call attention to Aaliyah's debut recording and in the end gave sales an extra lift. "Back and Forth," the first single released from the album, spent three weeks at number one on the R&B charts, while her second single, "At Your Best (You Are Love)," managed to climb its way to number two.
In support of her first album, Aaliyah spent nearly a year touring in the United States as well as several foreign countries, including Japan, South Africa, and most of Western Europe. In the wake of her debut album's success, she received a number of movie soundtrack and video contracts, including Low Down Dirty Shame in 1995 and All That and Sunset Park in 1996. What was perhaps most amazing was teenaged Aaliyah's ability to juggle her new-found success, concert appearances all over the globe, and interviews while still maintaining a 3.8 grade point average at Detroit's High School for Fine and Performing Arts. Her mother, a school teacher herself, insisted that a tutor accompany Aaliyah whenever she traveled away from Detroit or was otherwise unable to attend school.
For the Record . . .
Born Aaliyah Dani Haughton on January 16, 1979, in Brooklyn, NY; died on August 25, 2001, in the Bahamas; daughter of Michael and Diane (Hankerson) Haughton.
Began actively auditioning as a singer at age nine, appearing on television talent show Star Search ; shortly thereafter she won her first big professional job, appearing for a week in the Las Vegas show of Gladys Knight;first artist signed by Blackground Enterprises at age 14, 1994; released Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, 1994; toured the United States and a number of foreign countries in support of her first album; released One in a Million, 1996; performed songs for the soundtracks of several motion pictures, including Anastasia and Dr. Dolittle, and guested on tracks for albums of fellow performers Nas, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, and Ginuwine; took her first major acting job in film Romeo Must Die, 2000; released Aaliyah, 2001; posthumous release I Care 4 U, 2002.
Awards: MTV Video Music Award, Best Female Video, for "Try Again," 2000; MTV Video Music Award, Best Video from a Film, for "Try Again" from Romeo Must Die, 2000; American Music Awards, Favorite Soul/R& B Female Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Album for Aaliyah, 2001, Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist, 2003; Source Award, Female R&B Artist of the Year, 2003.
Addresses: Office— Michael and Diane Haughton, Raliah Management, P.O. Box 21847, Detroit, MI 48221.
One in a Million
Back from nearly a year of touring, Aaliyah began to make plans for her second album. Like a lot of recording artists, she worried that unless she produced a strong follow-up, the public and—even more importantly—movers and shakers in the industry might write her off as nothing but a one-hit wonder. Perhaps still smarting from the media blitz over her relationship with Kelly, Aaliyah decided to work with a team of producers—eight in all—in putting together her second album. She switched distributors, dropping Jive Records to go with Atlantic, a distributor with proven strength in R&B circles. Of the nerve-wracking period leading up to the release of her second album, she later confided in an Atlantic press release: "I was a little anxious. You could even say I was a little afraid. I spoke with my family, and they helped me realize that it wasn't something I should worry about, that I shouldn't overthink the process." In the end, she took her family's advice and followed her instincts, which had proven more than reliable in the past. Although she worked with multiple producers and songwriters in putting together One in a Million, her second album, her principal collaborator on the project was Tim "Timbaland" Mosely, one of the hottest producers in hip-hop music.
Any fears that she might be labeled a "one-hit wonder" quickly disappeared after the 1996 release of One in a Million, which, like her first album, eventually went double platinum. A number of hip-hop's hottest artists were featured on the album, including Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Slick Rick, and Naughty by Nature's Treach. The first single off the album, "If Your Girl Only Knew," rocketed to number one on the R&B charts. Other successful songs from the album included "Four-Page Letter," a cover of the Marvin Gaye classic "Got to Give It Up," and the title ballad. Her successful collaboration with Timbaland continued in 1997, when the two worked on the track "Are You That Somebody?" for the soundtrack of Eddie Murphy's remake of Dr. Dolittle.
Even after the success of her second album and nearly a decade of public appearances, frequently before audiences of thousands, Aaliyah continued to struggle against her basic shyness. So uncomfortable was she around others that she was rarely seen in public without her trademark sunglasses. Even in the recording studio, she felt uneasy being in the spotlight. Talking to an interviewer for Vibe, she said, "When I'm in the studio, I have to have the light off—you can't see me 'cause I'm very shy. I don't mind seeing you in the control room, but you can't see me."
In 1997 Aaliyah graduated from Detroit High School for Fine and Performing Arts but postponed plans for college because her career was occupying almost all of her time. For fellow artists Elliott, Ginuwine, and Nas, she contributed tracks on albums they recorded. She continued to work hard on her music but held off on a third album until she found the right combination of elements to make it a sure-fire winner. It was to be a five-year wait until her third album, Aaliyah, was released. The album, another collaboration with Timbaland, was scheduled to hit music stores in the summer of 2001.
Impressive Acting Debut
At the end of the 1990s, Aaliyah's career broadened to include acting. She was signed for a starring role in the martial arts thriller Romeo Must Die, which was released in the spring of 2000. Costarring with Chinese action film star Jet Li, she made what one film critic termed "a creditable film debut." A single she recorded with producer Timbaland for Romeo Must Die, "Try Again," was a smash success, landing Aaliyah her first number one song on the pop charts. Her acting skills obviously made a positive impression on Hollywood's filmmakers, because in short order she was signed to appear in sequels to the wildly popular action film Matrix and to play Queen Akasha, "the original vampire," in the film version of Anne Rice's novel The Queen of the Damned.
For Aaliyah, her career, particularly the musical side of it, was very much a family affair. Although she was first managed by her uncle, that responsibility was later passed to her parents, who formed Detroit-based Raliah Management for just that purpose. However, Aaliyah still recorded for Blackground Enterprises. Her cousin, Jomo, played the role of executive producer on her second album, while her brother, Rashaad, was her creative consultant.
In an interview with Billboard early in 2001, Aaliyah talked a bit about the difficulties of juggling her work in both acting and singing: "I'd literally go from the movie studio to the recording studio. I'm like two different people. Once they say, 'Cut—it's a wrap for the day,' I leave the costumes on the set. I have two different facets to my career. I have to know how to turn it on and off."
With her third album's release, she seemed pleased with the ground she'd covered in just 22 years. She told Harper's Bazaar that she is "more controlling now. I have come into my own in the past year, and I really felt it making the new album. I would tell my producers, 'No, no, no. I don't want to do this' or 'Let's take this hook out.' It felt good to be so vocal." She described the third album as "a party album, with a few big, beautiful ballads," and assured the interviewer that her latest effort was definitely not "R&B lite." Timbaland likened their professional relationship to a "musical marriage," saying, "When you feel like someone is part of your family, the work comes naturally."
A Life Cut Short
Aaliyah's promising life came to a halt when she was killed along with seven others on August 25, 2001, when the private plane in which they were traveling crashed after takeoff. She had been shooting a video for the song "Rock the Boat" in the Bahamas and was preparing to return to the United States. The cause of the crash was investigated by Bahamian aviation officials, who later reported that the pilot of the small Cessna plane had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his system at the time of the crash, and that the crash was most likely caused by a pilot error. The plane was also overloaded by at least 700 pounds, most of it sound and video equipment used in the video shoot.
Posthumously, Aaliyah went on to even greater success than she had found in earlier years. In the month following her death, her most recent release, Aaliyah, went multiplatinum. Critics unanimously agreed it was her most accomplished work. All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine declared, "Aaliyah isn't just a statement of maturity and a stunning artistic leap forward, it is one of the strongest urban soul records of its time." Blackground Enterprises released ICare4U in 2002. The release contained most of Aaliyah's greatest hits as well as six new, previously unreleased tracks, including the poignant first single, "Miss You."
Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, Blackground/Jive, 1994.
(Contributor) Low Down Dirty Shame (soundtrack), Hollywood, 1995.
One in a Million, Blackground/Atlantic, 1996.
(Contributor) Anastasia (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1997.
(Contributor) Dr. Dolittle (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1998.
(Contributor) Music of the Heart (soundtrack), Sony/Epic, 1999.
(Contributor) Next Friday (soundtrack), Priority, 1999.
(Contributor) The Nutty Professor II (soundtrack), Uni/Def Jam, 2000.
(Contributor) Romeo Must Die (soundtrack), Blackground/Virgin, 2000.
Aaliyah, Virgin, 2001.
ICare4U, Universal/Blackground, 2002.
America's Intelligence Wire, November 19, 2003.
Billboard, July 20, 1996, p. 15.
Harper's Bazaar, April 1, 2001, p. 153.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 16, 2002.
People, June 23, 1997, p. 130.
Time, April 3, 2000, p. 80
"Aaliyah," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 19, 2004).
"Aaliyah Killed in Plane Crash," Eonline, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,8731,00.html (August 27, 2001).
born: aaliyah haughton; brooklyn, new york, 16 january 1979; died abaco, bahamas, 25 august 2001
best-selling album since 1990: aaliyah (2001)
hit songs since 1990: "try again," "more than a woman"
Ateenage star who never reached her adult potential, Aaliyah Haughton blazed a bright trail through the world of contemporary rhythm and blues during the middle to late 1990s, until her untimely death at the age of twenty-two in a plane crash in the Bahamas.
Haughton was born in New York and raised in Detroit. (Her name, pronounced Ah-LEE-yah, a transliteration from Swahili, means "exalted one"). She was inspired by her mother, Diane, a singer, and her uncle, a lawyer briefly married to Gladys Knight, the R&B legend best known for the 1970s ballad "Midnight Train to Georgia." Haughton got her first break performing with Knight at the age of eleven and released her debut album, Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, in 1994, at the age of fifteen. The preternaturally mature singer scored several Top 10 hits from the album with the sing-songy, hip-hop-flavored "Back & Forth" and the Isley Brothers's "At Your Best (You Are Love)."
But her marriage to her producer, the Chicago singer R. Kelly, threatened to overshadow her debut. Kelly wrote most of the songs on the album, which mixed street-savvy R&B with rapping and a few unexceptional ballads. The songs, such as "Throw Your Hands Up," feature lyrics that match Aaliyah's early image, which blended street-tough baggy pants and bandannas with a sly, girl-next-door smile ("Straight from the streets / Is where I'm coming from / Straight out the streets / With a touch of jazz in me").
Because Haughton was underage at the time of the marriage, the union generated controversy and was quickly annulled; it did nothing, however, to slow the singer's meteoric rise. Her second album featured even stronger compositions and touches that prefigured her later signature style, thanks to a close collaboration with the producer, Timbaland, and the rising star rapper/producer, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott. Their combination of skit-tering, minimalist space-age beats and Haughton's rich yet ethereal vocals set the stage for their most distinguished future collaborations. The 1996 album One in a Million produced another pair of hits, including the languid title track and the seductive "If Your Girl Only Knew." "One in a Million" finds Haughton evolving from the inexperienced, shy teen of her debut into a more mature, enigmatic seductress.
Haughton continued to grow artistically with every single she released, most notably in her 1998 single, "Are You That Somebody," from the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack. Again buoyed by Timbaland's crisp, futuristic beats, the song is built around an infectious sample of a baby's cry. "Journey to the Past," a track from the animated Disney film Anastasia, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song that same year, and Haughton performed it on the Academy Awards.
Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Haughton kept her private life off-limits, furthering her slightly mysterious image. Known for her close familial relationships, a tireless work ethic, and a pleasant disposition, the singer gained fans among profanity-spewing rap artists and suburban teens alike with an image that was both streetwise and classy. With a preference for black leather, dark sunglasses, and a tuft of hair covering her left eye, the singer exuded an air of effortless cool that extended to her fluid, languid dance moves. It was that enigmatic style that earned Haughton her first movie role, co-starring with the Asian martial arts star Jet Li in Romeo Must Die (2000).
The single "Try Again," from the film's soundtrack, further cemented the creative and commercial symbiosis between Haughton and Timbaland; this stutter-stepping, up-tempo R&B affirmation helped push the album, which Haughton executive-produced, to more than 2 million in sales. With positive reviews for her work in Romeo Must Die Haughton signed on to appear in a co-starring role in the two sequels to the science fiction film The Matrix and a lead part in the vampire drama Queen of the Damned.
Superstardom Cut Short by a Tragic Accident
While filming her gothic role in the Anne Rice–inspired Queen of the Damned, Haughton recorded her self-titled third album, which further expanded her sound, adding touches of blues, jazz, and salsa to a group of songs exploring themes of abusive relationships, sex, and betrayal. Tracks such as the propulsively funky "More Than a Woman" and the Caribbean-flavored "Rock the Boat" are infused with Haughton's increased confidence and control.
Just one month after the album's release, Haughton was returning from the Bahamas after filming a video for Rock the Boat when her promising career was cut short. The charter airplane she and eight of her entourage were on crashed after takeoff. Haughton's elaborate funeral in downtown New York City, which featured a horse-drawn carriage pulling her casket, was fit for royalty. A ceremony for friends and family following the funeral featured a photo of Haughton with the inscription "We were given a Queen, We were given an Angel." The singer was buried in Westchester County, New York.
An album of outtakes, remixes, and previously unre-leased songs with contributions from many of the singer's contemporaries and fans, I Care 4 U, was released in late 2002.
Age Ain't Nothing but a Number (Blackground, 1994); One in a Million (Blackground, 1996); Aaliyah (Blackground, 2001); I Care 4 U (Blackground, 2002).
Queen of the Damned (2002); Romeo Must Die (2000).