On the heels of her best-selling debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, fifteen-year-old Aaliyah was rocked by a sex scandal that would have crushed a lesser talent. But breaking ties with her label and former producer and lover R. Kelly afforded the teenage singer to create a new musical life for herself. She joined forces with production/songwriting duo Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who crafted a set of funky and futuristic soul tracks that took audiences and stale R&B radio by storm. Aaliyah showed strength and resilience—and effortless cool—and went on to garner multiplatinum sales, becoming a huge star. But her comeback was short-lived. At twenty-two, just as she released her third album and started an acting career, Aaliyah lost her life in a plane crash. However, icons never die, and her musical legacy endures.
It was the last weekend before Labor Day 2001, and the sidewalks of New York City were brimming with Saturday-night folks looking for fun. While a decade before the Meatpacking District was literally just that—with refrigerated trucks parked in front of dingy warehouses and the cobblestone streets sticky with animal blood—by the new millennium, those same blocks had transformed into a chic section of town overflowing with boutiques, restaurants, and clubs blasting the songs of summer that included P. Diddy’s Black-rock single “Bad Boy for Life” and Destiny’s Child’s pop-tart anthem “Bootylicious.”
As I was passing one trendy spot, pop sensation Aaliyah’s latest single, “We Need a Resolution,” blared from the speakers. With a voice that was shy and sexy, the mesmerizing track was the first from her self-titled third album, released a month before. Produced by frequent collaborator Timbaland—whose signature cyberfunk explorations into sound put an electrifying mojo on Black radio in the mid-’90s beginning with Aaliyah’s sophomore album, 1996’s One in a Million—her cool, broken-hearted soprano blended perfectly with the heat generated from his funky, futurist machine dreams.
Like Rachael, the emotional android in Blade Runner, Aaliyah became a cyborg chanteuse, a digital diva for a new generation of soul children. With the music being stuck in a rut of stylistic nostalgia and neo-soul mania, One in a Million made R&B’s potential feel limitless again, as it pulled listeners into the future.