On January 16th, Aaliyah would have celebrated her 42nd birthday, had she lived. As I do remember, 2001 was the annus horribilis for many. Aaliyah had not only died tragically but the horrific terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center still haunt many of us until this day. To be honest, 2001 marked the last great year of the 1990s in terms of politics. Culturally, it was not. Indeed, when it comes to music, fashion and our social lives in general, a decade can not be taken into account from the point 0 to 10 but rather from the point 3 to 13. There is no difference in terms of music between 1988 and 1991. Yet a point of rupture happens around 1993. The very early 2000s were the late 90s and at that specific period, most of us had hope to face the great advancement of technology. Yet, though the Internet was present, it only became a part of our lives – and so for everybody- in the mid-to late 2000s, not before.
Everytime I think about Aaliyah, a great feeling of frustration comes to my mind. Though I have always been an admirer of grunge and house music being from Belgium, I had always considered her to be weird, stranger and apart from the rest of her peers. Her sudden death really hurt me back then. After she passed away, the industry, still obsessed with the Latin and Asian crazes, were looking for the next light skin girl and replacement of Aaliyah. The Destiny’s Child were never a band I liked at all, and I could not care less for the 2003 solo success of Beyoncé. None of these new women had the grace, elegance and confidence of Aaliyah.
Actually, Aaliyah was not that special in terms of art. She was not the best singer and could not be compared to the likes of Brandy Norwood who, in my opinion, is the last great innovator in terms of R’n’B. Aaliyah’s dance moves were smooth but she was no Janet neither. Yet, she embodied the mystery of the undecipherable future we had ahead of us back in the late 90s to early 2000s. She understood the importance of the image, technology and put an emphasis on experimentation. It is true that Beyoncé is a better vocalist than Aaliyah when not yelling or grunting however, the latter will forever be superior to her. Indeed, Haughton did not have to rely on the power of her voice or dance skills for she had, in the studio, along with Missy Elliott and Timbaland, created the foundations of a highly innovative sound which was about to take over the world before she lost her life in the plane accident. Aaliyah, Missy and Timbaland did not only make music. They created an atmosphere. If the singer herself said that she was never interested in writing songs at all, as her only desire was to become an entertainer, she distinguished herself from that point. And this impact, though not understood today by the new generation which does not even know her work anymore, is more important than anything else.
Her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, produced by Robert Kelly in 1993-1994 mostly had a R’N’B and Hip-Hop sound like many other records at the time. It was just another good album on the market. However, after the marriage scandal, Haughton decided to put an end to their collaboration and went on to work with Timbaland and Missy Elliott. There, the chemistry would change the future of music for ever. Aaliyah, it is true, has always mentioned her real love for Prince and this proved through her ability to favor the emergence of a new sound and atmosphere. Though not a musician, like Prince she knew how to interpret and decode the essence of music. In this sense, as soon as she began to collaborate with the two, Aaliyah left R’N’B to craft the basis of what should have been the soundtrack of the 2000s. The trio was clearly avant-gardiste. The One In A Million album from 1996 is one I call their masterpiece. None of the songs recorded were heard at the time and the magic produced by Missy and Timbo were never reproduced elsewhere. Though still in the 90s, their minds had truly left the era. It is safe to even say that they brought the 2000s in 1996 before we hit the mark of the new millennium. One song particularly reflects such avant-garde.
I Care For You, was initially released in 1996 and was supposed to be featured in One In A Million, yet the production team decided to take it away as they deemed it to be too dark and sad. Yet, the soul song, though slow, clearly highlights a new direction which truly came from the future first.
If Your Girl Only Knew was not a song for its time. The sound could not be compared to any other at the time. Timbaland would also be guilty, along with Missy of bringing in new arrangements and improbable noises which added to the mystery. It was a mixture of female empowerment, cyborg culture, garage, innovation, darkness and mystique. The ambiance for the project was the beginning of a darker exploration in Aaliyah’s life. A mystique she would be accentuating by the end of her career with the release of her latest album Aaliyah in 2001. The first single released, We Need a Resolution, was not a success upon its launching. The video and sound were, in my opinion at the time, too creepy and dark. Yet, with this first song alone, Aaliyah and Timbo had created and captured a new sound never heard in the past. It was not R’N’B, rap, dance, pop or anything else. Once again, Aaliyah held the listener suspended in a space with no limit or indication. Just like When Doves Cry by Prince, the song seemed to have been conceived in other spaces which surpass the material world. The collaboration with Static Major, another legendary producer in songs such as Loose Rap would add to such mystery.
Aaliyah, it is true had spoken openly about her attraction for the occult, the dark side and rock bands. She mentioned her interest in Nine Inch Nails several times and even recorded a more rock-oriented song with What If in her final album. Actually, the singer was always praised and well liked by heavy metal fans and rockers at the time. As I remember, back in the early 2000s music genres would still be separated from one another. Such trend would only change with the worldwide success of untalented and commercial acts such as the Black Eyed Peas or Katy Perry who favored the emergence of a blended techno sound. Though a good singer and vocalist, Lady Gaga would be responsible for the same issue in the late 2000s. Aaliyah, I believe, did not only want to be marketed as R’N’B and hoped to go to another direction along with her producers. Her look pleased the heavy metal lovers. The mystery behind her sunglasses, her hairstyle. But above all, these heavy metal lovers and rockers had captured the essence of the singer and her inner darkness and mystique. They were touched by the atmosphere of her music. The album had the grunge aesthetics spirit of novelty, marking a rupture with a time which preceeded the singer. Yet the brutality would be silent. There was no guitar, no riffs, no noise. There was only space for the new. Indeed, this was what the the year 2000 represented. The production was brutal in its innovation, marked by the monotone vocals of Aaliyah which accentuated the darkness of the atmosphere as a whole. If other black singers at the time had been guilty of making music with heavy computer-like sounds and shoot videos making references to space and flying cars, Aaliyah did not fall into such basic trap at all and knew the new world would be darker and more occult. Indeed, the emergence of technology would sign the death of the minds.
With One In A Million, her producers had laid the foundations and basis of what music was supposed to sound like in the 21st century. It marked novelty and the apex of technology all the while focusing on the sound of the bass and or beat. With Aaliyah in 2001 a complete new direction was about to be taken. Later on, her music could have probably incorporated rock, heavy metal, R’N’B and hip-hop without any real intrusion of such specific marking sounds of these genres as she and her producers have always favored the bass, technology, aesthetics, refinery and suspension. Their production, it is true, was never intrusive but dark enough to impact the minds.
The death of Aaliyah is not only a shock, twenty years later, but it is also unfair for many people. Though she did not write or compose like Mariah Carey did, she greatly contributed to the advancement of music as she truly wanted to propose something new. When other R’N’B acts were still following the same musical pattern in terms of sounds and singing at the time, Aaliyah had already included and developed, with the help of her team, all the codes that one sees and knows now. The Instagram aesthetics, the importance of the image and a music which would not be marked by any specific era. Such direction was probably inspired by Sade, another one of her great idols. Yet, she was still misunderstood. She had anticipated the arrival of a new global world and was not afraid to push the envelope. Actually, judging by the direction she took as early as 2000, she did not want to be a prisoner of the R’N’B movement just because of her blackness and wished to go higher. Aaliyah was about to not only create her own sound but show the world that one day, these different genres would disappear too for music is, the reflection of politics. Indeed, as we entered the 21st century, politicians would also abandon the politics of the nation-state to embrace the world as a global entity. However, their music remains a testimony of a crucial time in history embodied by the change between the culture promoted by the traditions left by the nation-state and the emergence of a new global world. In the latter, frontiers are abolished and so are the older codes. Timbo, Elliott and Aaliyah did create the sound of the 00s, but unfortunately, we never had the chance to be exposed to it. Here lies my frustration. Our frustration.
VKY, All Rights Reserved