In 1991, at the age of 12, a girl named Aaliyah signed a record deal with Jive Records. When I was 12 I was drooling over all my Harry Potter volumes and complaining about food getting stuck in my orthodontia, but I digress. The point is that this girl was clearly unusually talented with her gentle, ethereal vocals – this was made all the more clear when, in 1994, her debut album ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number’ was released.
There was some weird controversy about what exactly was going down with Aaliyah and the producer for the album, R Kelly, who she purportedly illegally married…Potential weirdness of her personal affairs aside, the album was a clear indicator that a star was born. While it is, in my opinion, far from Aaliyah’s best work, it very much marks the beginning of that new sound which would typify ’90s R&B.; those swinging beats and smooth, gentle-as-a-caress keyboards, all topped off with those beautiful, harmonious vocals. There’s whispering and romance and it’s all a little bit cheesy and coolly theatrical with just the right amount of fierce attitude – such was the R&B of the ’90s, and it was great.
And I think if there’s an artist whose oeuvre really encapsulates what R&B in the ’90s and early ’00s was as a whole, it has to be Aaliyah. We go from that gentle but not necessarily that innovative-sounding soulful pop at the beginning of her career to her moving record labels and getting a new producer who would essentially define what good, interesting R&B was. I’m talking, of course, of the wonderful Timbaland with his Midas touch. Aaliyah’s second album, ‘One in a Million’ was produced by the incredible combination of him and Missy Elliott and suddenly the music got a bit strange; weird, sparse, staccato instrumentation; jaunty, otherworldly vocals. And man, it was amazing.
Timbaland’s fantastic production went one further on Aaliyah’s eponymous third album – the final one released in her sadly short lifetime. ‘Aaliyah’ is a genuinely incredible album. Middle-eastern flavours, rich and weird instrumentation and Aaliyah’s ridiculously pretty vocals floating above it all. This was new, it was exciting and experimental; it was a direction that I think is only really being rekindled now in the genre, over ten years later. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is among my favourite albums and this remains one of my all-time favourite songs:
That strange eastern vibe, those sublime vocals; this song never stops striking me afresh with how excellent Aaliyah was. The lyrics got more interesting as she got older too – more clandestine, more sensual.
I could go on for a good while singing the girl’s praises but, in short: if you want to know about solo female R&B artists of the ’90s and early ’00s, Aaliyah had the whole package.